Ancient Christians in the modern world

by Sam Candler

On Tuesday morning (12 March, the Feast of Gregory the Great, in the Episcopal Church), I listened to news reports, analyses, hopes, fears, and projections about the Roman Church; the world is fascinated with the old and reverent process by which a new pope is elected.

Even Christians of other denominations are paying attention. Of course, I am quite glad to be an Episcopalian, in the Anglican Communion of Churches, where most of our bishop election processes are far more “democratically representative” than the Roman process of selecting bishops. (Furthermore, our Episcopal hierarchical structure stops locally; we are not an empire. Our bishops have no real jurisdictional authority outside their own dioceses; and even within those dioceses, our best bishops work collegially with layperson and deacons and priests.)

But we other Christians respect our dear Roman Catholic brothers and sisters; theirs is an old and revered tradition, and we really want the best for their leadership. For better and for worse, all Christians are affected by the Roman Catholic choice of pope; since non-Christians often tend to perceive all Christians in the same manner, the way any Church acts does affect all other denominations, to some degree.

However, I am particularly intrigued with the fascination of non-Christians with this Roman election system. They are legitimately curious about an event that clashes with our modern Western insistence upon open process and full transparency. The cardinals are kept to themselves, with no access to outside communication at all. Conversations occur which will probably never be written down. Ancient prayers and ceremonies and customs are repeated solemnly, customs which few non-Christians even understand.

Yes, the entire world is fascinated with that ancient system; parts of the system are quite attractive. Its solemnity is attractive, as is its sheer beauty. Surely, one would be inspired to vote honorably while inside a piece of art painted by Michelangelo! The system’s obedience to tradition is also attractive, as is its insistence on not being carried away by every wind of modernity that blows into the world.

Well, I observe that many faithful American Roman Catholics do wish for change in the Roman Catholic Church. One poll (see The New York Times, March 6, 2013, “U.S. Catholics in Poll See A Church Out of Touch”) claims that a majority of American Roman Catholics longs for policy changes on such critical matters as married priests, the possibility of women priests, and especially certain birth control methods. Personally, I doubt that the Roman Catholic Church will be changing those policies soon, no matter who the next pope is; but I do pray it does!

But there is also a dangerous reason for our fascination. Every human being, whether Christian or not, carries inside us a temptation for absolutism. We are tempted to think that our world would be so much easier if everything were settled, once and for all, with decisions that made everything perfect, forever. Absolutism is even more enticing when it is wrapped in secrecy.

Unfortunately, absolutism leads to empire, and I am wary of empire wherever it is. I am wary of imperialism, and it is an attitude that seems to come from so many quarters these days. It often comes from the places we love: from political parties who want one hundred per cent agreement with their platforms, from absolutism in general conventions, from our naive desires to make bishops emperors, from “political correctness” that can look like nonsense (read George Will’s “The Pop-Tart Terrorist” in The Washington Post, 8 March 2013), from any government who thinks that perfect law will create a perfect society.

The challenge of every Church is to bring the wisdom of our ancient prayer to the challenges of our modern world. But both ancient Christianity and the modern world agree that “empire” rarely succeeds in honoring the common good. So, I pray the same for the Roman Catholic Church as I do for the Episcopal Church as I do for all Christian churches: that our leadership can follow the Holy Spirit even into modernity, and that our leadership can bless the fullness of God in the world.


The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. His sermons and reflections can be found at his blog, “Good Faith and the Common Good”.

John Henry Newman: a Study in Conflicts and Contrasts

Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week. This is the first of two articles on John Henry Newman.

By Frederick Quinn

When Pope Benedict XVI pays a state visit to the United Kingdom this September 16 -19 an important event will be his September 19 stop in Birmingham, where, 120 years after his death, John Henry Newman will be beatified. This represents a major step toward becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. The story line for much of the church and popular press is that Newman was a brilliant, saintly figure who left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church through a carefully reasoned process. That is the Newman of most media presentations.

But the real Newman was far more complex. He once wrote, “O how forlorn and dreary has been my course since I have become a Catholic! Here has been the contrast—as Protestant I felt my religion dreary, but not my life—but, as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion.” Born in 1801 into a wrenchingly unstable London family, he converted to Evangelical Anglicanism in his youth, and while at Oxford became increasingly a part of the Church of England’s High Church movement in the 1830s. But this gets tricky. Newman, in Tracts for Our Times, made a lengthy case that the Church of England was an ancient, valid Catholic Church and Rome was corrupt, deficient, and schismatic in part because of its magnetic attraction to papal power. But much later in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua and other writings, Newman deftly avoided most of the sharp criticisms of Rome he had made earlier in the Tracts. And clearly, Tract 90, that argued the Thirty-Nine Articles could actually be considered documents favorable to Roman Catholicism, was a stretch even in its time (1841). Newman, one of the greatest ever writers of English prose, after his 1845 conversion, followed the Roman practice of not writing out sermons, and much of his literary production from them until his death in 1890 was a highly selective, immensely skilled rewriting of earlier material causing it come out favorable to his new allegiance.

Then there was Newman’s personality. Frustrated and often angry at Oxford, he had difficulty making common cause with colleagues like Keble and Pusey. Uncomfortable with women, he sought to lead a community of celibate young males in Oxford and at Littlemore, near Oxford, but their numbers and allegiances kept shifting. Frank Turner, in a magisterial work, John Henry Newman, The Challenge to Evangelical Religion (Yale University Press, 2002) concludes that Newman’s crossing the Tiber was never certain, and came only after many of the men he thought he was leading left him for Rome. Turner, with the patience of a skilled detective on a complex case, has carefully traced through Newman’s various reworkings of his earlier writings. The Yale historian argues, “Quite simply put, Newman became a Roman Catholic so that he could continue to remain a monk, and if possible, a monk surrounded by his Littlemore male friends. It was more nearly Newman’s personal social salvation than his eternal salvation that lay in the Roman Catholic Church in October 1845.” Newman’s written attempts to present his conversion as a supremely reasoned act constitute a “Whoa! Wait a minute!” moment in historical interpretation. The early 1840s were a conflicted and confused time when Newman’s leadership was severely challenged on all sides, from those closest to him at Oxford, and from influential high churchmen and evangelicals, plus his two outspoken brothers.

None of this detracts from Newman’s lasting place in nineteenth century English history. He shook the moribund English Church’s complacency, unleashed a current of theological and biblical argument that remains unsettled today, and, in Turner’s words, “as the first great, and perhaps most enduring Victorian skeptic” helped establish the robust foundations of late Victorian culture.

Newman needs to be considered across his lifetime of almost ninety years, as an often contradictory and difficult personality and a religious writer of genius, if one sharply selective in his manner of presentation. He was made a cardinal at age 78, largely for his unstinted loyalty to Rome. Today’s Newman, the elderly, irenic Roman Catholic cardinal of the Birmingham Oratory, would not have been recognizable to the abrasive, and polemical younger Newman of Oxford and the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, where during the 1830s and early 1840s he helped shape the character of modern Anglicanism. Hopefully the Newman that emerges in the wake of the papal visit will be the real Newman, in all his complexity and resilient humanity.

Frederick Quinn is a historian and contributor to Episcopal Café.

Lord Halifax: an Anglo-Catholic from another time

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Frederick Quinn

Lord Halifax (Edward Wood), 1881-1959, is sometimes cited as an exemplary representative of early twentieth century British Anglo-Catholic piety, but his record is a complex one.

Halifax grew up in rural Yorkshire amid vast lands and wealth, and after time at Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford, eventually became Viceroy of India, Foreign Secretary, and British Ambassador in Washington during World War II. He was the one Conservative Party political leader of his era who could have challenged Winston Churchill for the Prime Minister’s post.

Halifax was a devout High Church member, much influenced by his father, who spent 51 years as head of the English Church Union, the principal Anglo-Catholic organization of its era. For father and son the church was not the Church of England but the Church in England. Sacramental life was central to their faith as was the hope for some sort of union with Rome, but only with the Pope as first among the equal bishops of Christendom.

In Washington, Halifax regularly attended the Mission Church of St. Agnes, twenty minutes down Massachusetts Avenue from the British Embassy. He was a regular at the 9:30 Sunday mass. “It was just what we both liked,” his private secretary wrote, ”with incense and little boys in scarlet cassocks and nice children with hymns.” Later, in retirement in his Yorkshire estates, Halifax began each day kneeling in the manor house chapel for personal devotions, after which he read the previous day’s London papers, and set out furnishings for the daily mass, for which he was acolyte. “This is my chapel,” he told the vicar, “and if you don’t mind this is what I should like to do,” drawing on a missal he had cobbled together from several liturgies over the years.

His public record was truly mixed. As Viceroy to India (1926 to 1931) he hoped for a united India within the British Empire. (He called Gandhi a “half-naked fakir.”) As Foreign Secretary (1938 to 1940) he erroneously believed his personal contact with Hitler and Mussolini could introduce an element of reasonableness into German and Italian policies. It didn’t.

Churchill called Halifax the “Holy Fox” and sent him off as British Ambassador to Washington in 1941, but kept most of his important wartime conversations with Franklin Roosevelt to himself. Halifax neither understood nor liked most Americans. When offered a hot dog at a Chicago White Sox’s game, he declined. His preferred sport on a rare day off was fox hunting and Halifax sometimes spent weekends in Mirador, an early nineteenth century Virginia hunt country estate. Probably he was thinking of his own setting as a squire in rural England when he mused after one visit, “I regret there are no slaves. This would be my hour for visiting my slaves. I should talk affably with them. I should visit the sick and aged and read the Bible to them, and when gross impropriety or misconduct demanded it, I should correct them, and every now and again I should pat a little head. Finally, I should make them all sing spirituals to me.” But in contrast he also visited Tuskegee Institute in 1943 and afterwards wrote of its students, “They are asking for bread and getting a stone.” He saw segregation as “a great human problem building up, not being tackled by very wide-seeing people, and a good many things that are being followed are pretty hollow.”

Life was never easy for Halifax, who was born with no left hand. One of his sons was killed during World War II and another lost two legs in an explosion. After receiving news of his first son’s death Halifax wrote, “I went to St. Agnes at seven. I am always asking myself just what is the basis of one’s prayer for those one is fond of and who are in danger. Clearly it can’t be ‘Protect my son.’ In the end of it all you come back to ‘Thy will be done,’ but it is difficult for human nature.” Human sorrow, he reflected, too often dissolves into self-pity and “One cannot be presumptuous enough to pity the person who dies if one has a belief in the future life. I always think it strange the emphasis the church has placed on praying for the dead. Humility would suggest that it was much more important that they should pray for us.”

“He belonged to a different century,” Isaiah Berlin, then an Information Officer at the British Embassy, said of Halifax, who moved easily about the corridors of power and represented a brand of Oxford Movement Anglo-Catholicism that has largely disappeared from British life. Oblivious to the wider political and social movements about him in India, Germany, and America, he also missed out on the larger meaning of Asian nationalism, German fascism, and racism in America.

Frederick Quinn is a contributor to Episcopal Cafe.

Best theological writing of our time?

By Todd Donatelli

The occasion was the ordination of four Episcopal transitional deacons. I had been asked to preach. What to say that could describe the times, the terrain of their ministry over the next 30 years? To whom might I steer them? Who understands and has something pragmatic to say about what they will encounter?

Should I direct them to William Countryman or Eugene Peterson? Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren and Diana Butler-Bass? Perhaps Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day? Julian of Norwich? Paul Tillich? If I were to offer one book (other than their Bibles), what would it be?
I settled on a book none of them had read at Seminary. You will likely not find it in any seminary bookstores, and that is a shame. Its content is not overtly theological, yet it may have the best theology of any book they will read.

The book is Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. It is the story of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, “Lewis and Clark.” If there is any one book that describes our time and how we are called to live, this may be it. Room must certainly be made for the context of their times. When reading about past generations, I allow generosity, for I often wonder how we will be judged by those living 200 years from now. What they faced at their particular time in history, and what it required them to learn continue to be exactly right for us in 2010.

Some context: The year is 1803. President Thomas Jefferson had just transacted the Louisiana Purchase and no one knew the exact boundaries of the area or what all it contained. Lewis was commissioned by Jefferson to find out. He was to report on the topography, the animal and horticultural life, as well as who all resided there.

Lewis was not formally trained in any disciplines that would help him know what they would be encountering. He was not a botanist, geologist, veterinarian, sociologist, anthropologist, or scientist of any kind. You could say he lacked all the qualities needed save one: he had an undauntedly adventurous spirit.

He did receive training in several of the above disciplines that were taught in order to recognize intricacies of leaf patterns, animal structure, rock appearance, and the like. While not possessing these gifts himself, he was supported by those who did. His job was to allow them to impart their gifts, then to observe and report what he saw.

Of the twelve soldiers made available for their journey, only two met their desired qualifications. They knew their supplies would run out before the halfway point of the journey. They understood their well-being was dependent upon the land and the people encountered along the way.

They spent much time and many resources constructing a boat deemed substantial enough for the journey. In time it proved an encumbrance, something they had to carry over dry land as much as it carried them over water. It finally was abandoned.

They were consistently threatened: by the elements, by wildlife, and by those who did not wish them well.

Lewis and Clark lacked critical qualifications and resources, yet were surrounded by those who possessed them. They learned to trust that what was needed to make this pilgrimage awaited them “out there.” They learned to trust that within themselves was the capacity to recognize what was needed and what was not. At times they would have to let go of the very things that had served them well in the past. The journey held periods of intense heat and intense cold. There were moments of rich banquet and days upon days of deep hunger. At times they were forced to split up in the service of seeking the best passage for them all. It was their engagement and participation with those they encountered that saved them.

Theirs is a story of risk-taking, many mistakes and missteps, and hard-won learned self-regulation. It is about relationships gained and lost. They made incredible discoveries about the land, the people, and about themselves. It is the rich story of what they discovered along the way that I believe makes it a vital read not only for deacons, but for us all. They sought to see, understand, and report what they were observing as faithfully as they knew how.

Today many are trying to describe what is before us as a community of faith. Yet, who can say they know fully this terrain?

We do know that of the 20,000-plus Christian denominations in American, only a handful have grown over the past decade. It may be possible to say that in terms of “sales,” General Motors has had a better decade than the Episcopal Church.

We do know many of the issues the church is “struggling with” are not major issues for persons 20-30 years of age. We do know that—on one hand—the Anglican Communion is formally embroiled in determining what makes one a faithful member, while—on the other hand—dioceses around the globe are engaged in creating vibrant relationships of mutual mission that defy that embroilment.

We are in a time Paul Tillich would call, “The Shaking of the Foundations.” There is free-flowing anxiety in the culture and in our denomination. Some wonder if and how the church will survive. I hear younger clergy wondering if they will have jobs in the not-too-distant future. There is much anxiety around funding for the church.

Yet, there is something else we also know. Historically, every period of great human imagination was birthed out of tumult, disorder, and chaos. The roots of The Renaissance plow deep into centuries of wars and plague. Catherine of Siena emerged from a city that had lost over half its population to plague. Julian of Norwich emerged from the same context.

We should not be surprised by the times. We start every liturgical year with the same message: “There will be signs in the sun and moon, days when no stone will be left upon another, distress among nations; people melting from fear, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken … Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

It is time to stand up and raise our heads. This is a great time to be a part of the church. For we are having to ask what really feeds. We are having to ask what stands when all around us is being shaken. This is a time of tectonic plate shifts and, as the church, we either can do the work of plate-shifting, or we can simply grab some caulk, paste over the gaping cracks, and pretend they have been fixed. Like Lewis and Clark we can let go of encumbrances and discover what we need is all around us, what will feed will emerge as we go forth. There will be significant loss and immense discovery.

This is a great time to be the church. Lewis and Clark would tell us so. Catherine and Julian would tell us so. For this is a time of adventure; it is a time of discovery. Bring on the tumults.

The Very Rev. Todd Donatelli is dean of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, N. C.

The Word became flesh, right here

By Martin L. Smith

I've just recycled my Christmas cards and a last glance brought smiles of gratitude for old friendships. One card always makes me laugh, even though it's not intentionally humorous. It's just that a card from the rector whose curate I was almost 40 years ago reminds me of the pleasure we had working together, how hardly a day went by without laughter. Tension is often the order of the day between rectors and young assistants, but we enjoyed our friendship, respected each other's gifts, teased each other about our shortcomings and found endless merriment in our parish life. Humor was such a bond we even liked to preach together sometimes; I at the lectern and Robin in the pulpit, presenting the sermon as a dialogue. Occasionally we would improvise two-man plays which we would present in place of a sermon.

One thing that deepened our pleasure in preaching arose from a distinctive feature of the parish tradition. For a generation the parish had organized a pilgrimage to the Holy Land every three years. No one had much money, but the pilgrimage was cherished as a once-in-a-lifetime experience worth saving for. These pilgrimages had woven an extraordinary degree of intimacy with the stories of scripture in the congregation. At any service, more than half the worshippers had personal memories of the places mentioned and every reading triggered a ripple of response. All sorts of expressions would play across their faces, elbows would nudge to signal unspoken reminiscence, little sighs or murmurs could be heard.

"There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee…"; Even before we started our sermon, you could tell people were there, remembering how really nasty the local wine is, since we had tasted it (think rusty nails!) Or, typically English, we couldn't help looking down and noticing that the Orthodox priest showing us what purported to be one of the actual jars was wearing pajamas under his cassock. Mention the Sea of Galilee, and people were back on a beach there on the northern shore, or on a little hill watching the stars fade and the sun rise as the fishing boats set out from Capernaum. Memories wove a shared language: "Do you remember when we went to pray in the chapel on the site of Calvary, and the lady came in with her shopping basket full of cabbages and set it down by the altar so she could crawl on her hands and knees to the place where you could put your hand down a hole in the marble and touch the rock? How we gave that look to each other that said without words, "Well, if she can do it, so can we!" So that when we preached on Good Friday we knew that eyes were shining in the congregation from the felt memory of touching that bedrock of this strange faith of ours.

I've never been convinced by people who claim to be indifferent about visiting the places of where Jesus lived and walked. Surely, even if it were to mean scrimping and saving for a few years—or am I being hopelessly old-fashioned?—this is an experience worth having once in a lifetime, something that will change the way we experience the scriptures and worship and prayer. But of course fear – of what that vivid personal contact might entail – might be the real reason concealed behind the arguments used in dismissing the idea as ‘not for me.'

In a diocese like ours where we are aware of the struggles of the Palestinian people and we know what terrible contradictions roil under the old pious title ‘the Holy Land,' there are extra motives for making the pilgrimage, with opportunities for expressing solidarity with the wronged and for gaining first hand knowledge as a basis for political action and witness. But the core reason that has always moved people of faith to go on pilgrimage remains the same as it has been for millennia. The Word was made flesh, and the life of faith is an embodied experience. The spiritual journey is one we sometimes make with actual footsteps, the climbing that makes us out of breath, the immersion that gets us soaking wet.

I have a hunch that as more people restrict themselves to virtual experiences online, regaling themselves with the infinite array of images a key-stroke can summon to their screens, a counter-cultural revolt will not be long in coming. Communal flesh and blood encounters, incarnational practices, all that is face to face and physical and tangible will begin to be revalued. The Word was made flesh, and Christianity won't stand for that sacred flesh being volatilized into the virtual and evanescent. Real pilgrimages will be a part of that counter-cultural reclaiming of the embodied, sacramental flesh and blood experience in real time.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba's, D.C.

The Church in Haiti: a reminiscence

By Frederick Quinn

<1> The Episcopal Church in Haiti (1959-1961)

The Haiti of François Duvalier was a brutal dictatorship that lasted from his election as president in 1957 until his death in 1971. No voices of political opposition could be raised, the legislature was dissolved, and the cabinet changed every few months. Duvalier (1907-1971), a former country doctor who attracted legitimate attention for his work in successfully eradicating yaws, declared himself president for life and the reincarnation of the Emperor Jean-Jacques Desallines, the black ex-slave who founded the Haitian republic following the defeat of the French in Saint-Domingue in 1802. People with leadership skills during his era fled into exile in various embassies or joined the Haitian diaspora in New York, Miami, or Caracas. Schools closed, teachers and writers sought jobs in Paris with UNESCO or in universities abroad. Haiti was a country with a troubled past, unstable present, and problematic future.

The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in downtown Port-au-Prince with its locally-painted murals of Gospel scenes in Haitian settings is what most Americans recognize first as the presence of the Episcopal Church in Haiti. During my two years in Port-au-Prince I was active at the Cathedral as a lay reader and lived just down the street from the Rt. Rev. C. Alfred Vogeli, Missionary Bishop of Haiti, who had a strong interest in promoting the visual arts, especially painting, and building the church’s local leadership to eventually replace a white bishop with an indigenous one. The Episcopal Church was a minority church in Haiti, even among Protestant groups. The state’s official religion was Roman Catholicism, regulated by a concordat, a diplomatic agreement with the Vatican; among Protestants the Methodist church was preferred by the mulatto elite for its good schools. Voodoo beliefs permiated the society; once, as a way of humiliating the President-for-Life, François Duvalier, his opponents slaughtered an ox on his father’s grave, a particulatrly heinous rite in the vodoo lexicon.

The center of diocesan life in Haiti was the Cathedral. Its main Sunday service was at 6 a.m., filling the large church with several hundred people, even during a tropical downpour. I once asked Bishop Vogeli, a collector of Haiti art, how the murals came about. He said the artists were refused permission to paint in the larger Roman Catholic cathedral, but that he had no hesitation in making the Episcopal Cathedral's walls available to them. Then he left for a long fund raising trip and vacation in America, and did not see the results until returning several months later.

The Cathedral murals depict biblical scenes in a rural Haitian setting. Surrounding the altar and looking down like characters in a cosmic drama. They were painted between 1949 and 1951 by artists from the Centre d’Art, founded by DeWitt Peters, an American painter and teacher who was quick to see the talent in the Haitian artists and encourage it. Peters was a Graham Greene-like character who had come to Haiti as an English teacher during World War II and stayed until his death in the late 1960s. He had impeccable taste and organizational skills, but also a thoroughly autocratic personality. Artists who wanted to evolve beyond the “primitive” accused him of holding them back. His response was that almost all who switched styles failed to evolve and ended up producing second rate French Impressionist-type works.

The Haitian church was experiencing a period of change in the 1960s. Bishop Vogeli was looking for a Haitian successor, and posts previously held by white American clergy gave way to Haitians. An unwritten rule, established in an earlier time, was abandoned, that no Haitian approached the communion rail until the last American left.

<2> Good Friday in Croix des Boisquettes

On Good Friday in Port-au-Prince in 1960 we held a service for the English language congregation in the Chapel of St. Vincent’s School for the Handicapped, run by the Boston-based Sisters of Saint Margaret. The small chapel held about twenty persons, and two of the nun’s dogs paraded about like vergers, and then slept under the altar. After the service, some of us visited Croix des Boisquettes, a hill outside town where Roman Catholic Good Friday processionals were held. On the way our car was stopped by a man in a red shirt blowing a police whistle, while dancers and musicians surrounded us. The strong smell of clairan, cheap local rum sold in old canning jars, perfumed the gathering. The leader did a quick step, then plopped his hat on the car for money, as his companions rocked the car, reminding us of what a lack of generosity might bring. I gave him a dollar, and the group danced off. The following week there were reports of a car being overturned by dancers at the same spot, unhappy that their overtures for payment were refused.

We left the car at Gantier, and walked along a dusty road. A large cross stood at the hill’s crest, and streams of people moved up and down the winding gullies to it. Fourteen wooden crosses as used by the Roman Catholic Church had been erected along the way. Soft drink vendors outnumbered the faithful in places. On the hilltop were three large wooden crosses, one with a large metal Christus figure. Faded paper and wax roses hung from its feet. To cover their bets voodoo followers had placed a pile of rocks and bits of cloth at the foot of the cross. A large woman stopped praying, drank from a jug of rum, and sprayed crosses, statues, and nearby stones like a fire hose.

Standing on top of the dusty hill as the wind whipped through the nearby scrub growth, I listened to the murmuring incantations and, in the fading light, watched a growing crowd carrying candles, descending like flowing lava into villages on each side of the hill. As we left, evening fires were lit across the horizon, glowing coals warmed heavy iron pots; a husky-voiced vendor yelled “paté chaud” and the evening’s voodoo ritual began in earnest.

<3> Visiting Rural Parishes in Haiti’s South

In early September of that year the Dean of the Cathedral, Roger Desir, and I went by mule and horseback through mountain gullies to some of the rural missions near Leogane in Haiti’s south. Lay readers ran most of the small white stone and cement churches in the absence of a priest. At one church, village women took turns using a sewing machine, donated by a church in upstate New York, to make clothes for their children. In another, the priest had just returned from a rural mission and a heated discussion ensued with a lay reader. The priest had refused to baptize a couples’ child unless they married. This was their second child out of wedlock. The lay reader took the couple to another priest, and after misrepresenting the case, presented the child for baptism. The original priest and Dean rebuked the lay reader, who was content to sit on the church step with a sheepish grin. They would soon leave, he would remain. I asked the Dean why such a person’s credentials would not be revoked, but the Dean said the lay reader had been a figure in the community for many years and the priest had only been there four months.

One mountain later we met Nepthalie St. Marc, a lay reader for forty years. He, and his father before him, had been active in St. John the Evangelist Church, Petit Harpon, where Nepthalie read services each Sunday, buried the dead, ran a school, and sponsored a medical clinic. In addition, he was a prosperous coffee farmer, as were several lay readers in the south.

His hill top house had three rooms, one a bedroom with a small, lumpy bed, which I was offered, and an armoire holding three neat but well worn locally tailored suits. Nearby was his office with a hand-made table and several account books; in the dining room a glass-front cupboard held pictures of family, friends, newly-wed couples, and one of Christ standing behind President Duvalier, his hand on Duvalier’s shoulder, saying, “People, believe in him; I have chosen him…Peace to Haiti for men of goodwill.”

Our evening meal was stewed chicken. Our host insisted on keeping the windows shuttered to “keep the bad night air out.” Meanwhile, a mud-caked longhaired dog smelling like an open garbage pit huddled under the dining room table. I tried to gently edge him out and was greeted each time with a primordial grow; this had been his place for years. Twice I tried to open the window, saying I wanted to admire the evening sunset; twice Nepthalie, fast on his feet and quick to shut the window, met me. "The night air is bad for you," he said, puzzled that anyone would think otherwise.

The next morning we rang the old train bell an American parish had sent to Petit Harpon, and within half an hour, more than fifty persons walked slowly up from the fields for the communion service. The landscape resembled the setting of an Italian Renaissance painting set in the tropics. The Dean celebrated, using still warm freshly baked bread, and one of the lay readers read the lessons in the darkened chapel, wearing his wrap-around sunglasses with the price tag and brand name still attached, a sign of affluence.

<4> The Mountain Clinic of Bel Ange Désir

Later that morning we continued by donkey to another lay reader’s house. My donkey had been trying to dump me for three days and finally succeeded. As we crossed a ridge, I leaned forward, providing the moment he had dreamt of, and slowly lowering his front legs to the ground, he deposited knapsack, canteen, and me into a gully while the village laughed uproariously. In the late afternoon we arrived at the home of an herbalist and lay reader, Bel Ange Désir, who supervised an attractive chapel and small hospital where he gave his herbal remedies to ten patients. As we left Beautiful Angel of Desire’s place of healing, a man called the Devil’s Cowboy followed us. Sweating, and with glazed eyes and a loud voice, he mocked us. We passed a house where two men played checkers on the front porch, but both turned their backs to him. Across the path was the small chapel. Its interior decorated with voodoo emblems, and obviously used for a recent ceremony. The Dean angrily tore down the paper voodoo flags and told the Devil’s Cowboy to stay out of the church. Bel Ange Désir then chased the Devil’s Cowboy down a hill, threateningly waving his machete, and ending the confrontation.

<5> Bishop Vogeli is Expelled

Under Duvalier’s divisive leadership, bands of state-sponsored thugs, the ton-ton macoutte, roamed about freely as vigilante bands, loyal only to their sponsors, like the condottiere of Italian city-states. An Episcopal priest with political aspirations was among their victims. The principal of the Episcopal High School was jailed for several days without explanation. Pierre, a Haitian lawyer, whose life revolved around memories of a year spent in London as a law student, and whose treasure of treasures was a small British car he had purchased from his small stipend, disappeared during one of the times of martial law. Pierre had helped found the Haitian-American English Teachers’ Association, and his killing was my second, but not my last, encounter with a political death. Newspapers were closed, radio stations silenced. Bishop Vogeli was a strong leader in a difficult setting. Once, when the high school’s principal was seized by the police and disappeared without warning the bishop in full purple and white cassock, showed up at the school and sat in the principal’s chair for two days until the school director was released. A realist, he set out to maintain the church’s presence in a difficult political climate, seeking neither confrontation nor capitulation.

The Bishop was expelled from Haiti on short notice. The reason was he failed to appear on New Year’s Day 1966 with the civic leaders who each year were expected to come in person to publicly offer their greetings to the President. The presence or absence of individuals from the New Year’s ceremony at the Palace was an indication of whether or not they supported the President. In this case, Duvalier believed the Church was snubbing him. In reality, the invitation arrived at the Bishop’s office the day after the ceremony was over, as the Haitian mails were non-existent and messengers delivered all such invitations. When he left, the Bishop had every opportunity to castigate Duvalier, but he made no public statements, working instead for the church from exile in Brooklyn. He came to West Redding, Connecticut., for the baptism of our son, Christopher. Appearing in a red cope and miter decorated with embroidery of the plants and flowers of Haiti, he filled the small white clapboard New England church with color.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Quinn served as an American diplomat in Haiti, 1959-1961. His reminiscences are taken from a forthcoming spiritual autobiography, Merrily I Made My Way. The author of fourteen books on law, history, and religion, he is a former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral.

A comprehensive solution

By Sam Candler

In times of controversy in the Episcopal Church, and even in times of relative calm, someone inevitably makes the accusation or the slight joke that Henry VIII (and his search for a suitable wife) started the Episcopal Church. Thus, I require all my confirmation classes and any audience who hears my presentations on the history and theology of Anglican Christianity to repeat the same line: Henry VIII did not start the Anglican Church (or the Episcopal Church.)

You pass the class if you can say that simple sentence. You pass with honors if you can state who actually did found the Episcopal Church: Jesus Christ founded the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church, developed from the Church of England, and an integral member of the Anglican Communion of Churches, is part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

That church, started by Jesus Christ, has included inevitable conflict. Even the beautiful first century Christian community involved conflict, which we can read about clearly in The Book of Acts (see Acts 15:2). One of the great apostles, St. Peter, was opposed to his face by the other great missionary apostle, St. Paul (see Galatians 2:11). From then on, every Christian community has lived through conflict. Sometimes that conflict was minor, and sometimes it has been major (see The Great Schism of 1054).

The Anglican tradition of Christianity, evolving as it did far from Rome and the more established centers of western civilization, has always seen its share of conflict and debate. Usually, that conflict has emerged from competing sources of authority. Who, or what, is the final authority in the Anglican Church? From the fifth century onwards, ecclesiastical authority rotated from the Archbishop of Canterbury, to whomever the reigning monarch might be, to the Roman Pope; after the Reformation, that revolving locus of authority included the common people themselves.

Consider the first Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Augustine (of Canterbury, not of Hippo), who landed at Canterbury in 597 AD. He was the first official Roman missionary bishop in what we now call England; but a Celtic form of Christianity, centered around local abbots and monasteries, was already present. St. Patrick had already returned to Ireland; St. David had evangelized Wales; and the great St. Columba had already founded Iona in the north country. One of the early English synods, held at Whitby in 664, was convened over a concern for authority; would the established Church follow Roman or Celtic Christian customs? They chose Rome at that time.

Thus, the question of authority was settled for a season, but not for all time. Jump forward to the great William the Conqueror in 1066. Long before Henry VIII, William the Conqueror also considered himself the head of the Church of England. He convened church councils (not the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury), he nominated bishops and abbots and invested them with ring and staff; and he refused to allow the Pope to interfere in what he considered the king’s business.

Later, Thomas a Beckett would lose his life by crossing King Henry II. In those days (11th and 12th Centuries), the King of England would often refuse to allow the Archbishop of Canterbury inside the country (Archbishops Lanfranc, Anselm, and Thomas a Beckett were all exiled at one time or another).

The Anglican Church was living through authority issues long before Henry VIII arrived on the scene. And, of course, the Anglican Church continues to live through authority issues. At our best, the Anglican Church and the Episcopal Church have learned to live through authority issues with grace.

In the great Protestant Reformation issues of the sixteenth century, Henry VIII actually never abandoned the theology of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, we wrote a treatise against Martin Luther in 1521 which earned the title “Defender of the Faith” for Henry – and thus for all the rest of his succesors to this day! When he appealed to the pope for annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry was concerned far more for a suitable male heir for the kingdom than for the new Protestant theology (yes, he was also concerned for Anne Boleyn!). In another era, the Pope might have granted his request easily; but at this time, the weak pope was under the sway of the holy Roman emperor, Charles V – who was the nephew of Catharine of Aragon. There was no way the pope was going to offend Charles V by annulling the marriage of his aunt!

If there is any one person (other than Jesus) who did start –or who best represents—the Anglican tradition of Christianity, it is Elizabeth I. Reigning from 1559-1603, just after England had been swung violently back and forth between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, it was she who found a way for the Anglican Church to be both Catholic and Protestant. She represented a way to resolve conflict gracefully in the church.

At its best, the Anglican tradition of Christianity resolves conflict gracefully. And it does so, rarely by taking “the middle way,” which has long been another name for the Episcopal Church (the “middle way” between Catholicism and Protestantism). I believe the Anglican tradition of Christianity often finds truth on both sides of theological and cultural disputes. The Anglican Communion of Churches finds “the comprehensive way,” affirming truth on both the traditional and the progressive wings of Christian community. The Anglican Communion of Churches might better be called the “via comprehensiva,” the comprehensive way.

I believe this “comprehensive way” was responsible for resolving other conflicts in Episcopal Church history, too. It explains how the early Protestant Church in the United States of America could be related to the Church of England but also separate from it. It was the comprehensive way that held the Episcopal Church together during the tragedy of the American Civil War. The comprehensive character of Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church also enabled us to meet the rise of science and higher literary criticism in the nineteenth century with grace and faith. We found a way to read the Bible with both faith and reason.

The Christian Church inevitably involves conflict. Usually, there are persons of good Christian faith on both sides of the conflict. The particular Anglican tradition of Christianity is a way of dealing with conflict gracefully. Obviously, our history has not always been clearly graceful. Nor is it always graceful right now. But the tradition which guides us is truly a graceful one.

From generation to generation, the Episcopal Church seeks to honor the universal claim of the Christian gospel while also honoring local authority and indigenous faith. That is another inherent challenge – and conflict—in all churches. How can we be obedient to both global and local authority? How can we honor both the gospel and our local culture? It is a journey and task entrusted to us by our Lord Jesus Christ himself.

When we remember Jesus, the founder of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion of Churches, let us also remember that our faith declares a comprehensive truth about him, too. Jesus Christ, we say, was both fully divine and fully human. Orthodox Christianity refuses to choose one nature over the other; Jesus is fully both. Jesus Christ is not some middle ground between divinity and humanity; Jesus Christ is comprehensive of all divinity and all humanity. That incarnational faith is the graceful style of Anglican Christianity, too.

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

Iconoclasm today

By Luiz Coelho

When Hans Holbein decided to go back to Continental Europe after a successful period in England painting royal family portraits, his close friend Erasmus of Rotherdam warned him about the mass-destruction of paintings (especially religious ones), seen by most Protestant groups as idolatry. Nonetheless, Holbein decided to go back to Basel, anyway, only to realize that in Central Europe there was no real space for him as an artist, at that moment, and that the best thing to do would be to go back to England and build a career there (little he knew that soon England would be following the same path).

Iconoclasm is not a privilege of Protestantism. Most of Christendom had it in many varying degrees. Of course, there are notable examples such as the 8th century controversy in the Byzantine Empire, under the leadership of Emperor Leo, the Isaurian, and the subsequent restoration of icons under the auspices of the Second Council of Nicaea (a moment remembered by the Eastern Church as the "Triumph of Orthodoxy"). However, there is a kind of iconoclasm that is not always noticed by us, which usually happens for the sake of "art", grandeur, or style. This kind is not rarely connected more to individual egos than to theological viewpoints, and can be seen as a way of imposing someone's personal views on a Church.

Take for example St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. This magnificent building - a triumph of Roman Catholic artistic patronage and a testimony to the world of the Pope's power even in the midst of religious controversies - took more than one century to be finished, and had several designs and chief architects , among whom notables like Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini, who finally finished it already in the period known in Art History as Baroque. Sadly, this magnificent church was built on top of what once was the original St. Peter's Basilica, also known as "Old Saint Peter's", erected during Constantine's times and, if still "alive", would be one of the few examples of buildings (such as the Pantheon, Santa Maria Maggiore, or the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna) that date from Roman times and are still up and preserved.

St. Peter's was not an isolated case in time. Actually, since time immemorial, it has been the major practice in art and architecture to replace the "old" (usually seen as primitive and outdated) by the "new", without any consideration for the History and traditions embedded in what previously existed. In the particular case of Christian art, this meant that in many circumstances, Romanesque churches were destroyed to make room for Gothic inovations. Gothic churches, in turn, were later destroyed to make room for Classically-inspired buildings. Romanesque iconography, Gothic paintings and altarpieces and even imported Byzantine icons were all seen as primitive and rudimentary during the Renaissance, and many of them were lost forever due to lack of preservation or even deliberate destruction in order to make room for newer pieces that conformed to the vernacular of that time.

And during the following centuries, what pretty much happened was a pendulum shift from one style to another. Critics would praise some elements of an older trend and mock the one that came immediately before it. (One should note that both "Gothic" and "Baroque" are words initially created with derogatory meanings by adepts of classicizing styles). Churches, as everything else, had to conform to the new vernacular, and although since the 15th century, a greater respect for the masters and their work helped maintain their pieces intact, many minor works have disappeared, not seldom replaced by ones that would conform to a newer artistic trend.

In our times, although many art historians argue that what we see now is called "Post-Modern art", it can be said that Modern Art and architecture is still the main vernacular in Western Churches. This would mean that a typical new church building would have plenty of space, clean walls, simple geometric shapes and usually a minimalistic approach to furnishings. The altar would be free-standing, with a choir behind it, and reasonably close to the pulpit. Art could be very eclectic, but one could expect abstraction especially in stained-glass windows, vestments and linens, and a less realistic approach to the human figure in iconography (from Sadao Watanabe prints to Byzantine icons, encompassing a variety of other styles).

However, not all churches are new. In fact, many are centuries old. So, we are faced with the same problem that existed before: "what to do with the style perceived as old and at the same time conform ourselves to the new trend?" Since the 19th Century, eclecticism in art has helped us understand that "yes, it is OK to have different styles together," and for the last century and a half, churches have been built or refurbished following several different inspirations. At first, it has to be said, much was done in a very amateurish way. Even when the attempt was to restore a building to its original state (as was the case with many Neo-Gothic attempts at restoring Gothic churches), renovations were not historically accurate, and ended up erasing completely the few hints we had of what a church originally looked like.

It would be cruel for me to blame our predecessor for the losses , since they had no idea of historic preservation. However, in our times, a major emphasis has to be placed on the will and hardwork of our ancestors, and the preservation of their works for future generations. This stems from two basic reasons: first of all, no Church has the political or economic power to spend lavish amounts of money on art and architecture, so it is always more reasonable to try to keep in a nice state what we already have and add embellishing pieces to the existing artistic glory. Second, the Church has (one hopes) become much more aware of the inconsistency that lies beneath spending ridiculous amounts of money on aesthetic elements while its mission in the world is ignored. Therefore, the "rule of thumb" for artistic projects in Church should be: a just yet reasonable price, a clear missionary vision that would impact the world around it and a deep respect for the dedication of our predecessors and what they have achieved.

With this in mind, I believe it is past time to stop the destruction (usually disguised as renovation) of high altars, screens, boxed pews, tablets, kneelers, reredos and other architectonical features often found in historic churches. In most cases, there are cheaper and simpler solutions that can be adopted and still respect the integrity of the original architectural style in which they were built. Boxed pews can always be left open all the time. If an East-Facing mass is considered theologically undesirable by the congregation, a simple table can be placed anywhere in the nave or chancel. If original reredos with Ten Commandment tablets are seen as "too Protestant", they can be left visible during Lent and/or Advent and covered by banners during other seasons (still leaving room for artistic endeavors in the church). Yes, in some rare cases, there is no other choice but to completely redo some areas of the building, but even under those circumstances, arrangements can be made to allow the reuse undesirable artwork in other environments, such as chapels, parish halls or new church plants. In most cases, though, the money spent on such transformations could be used in much more urgent purposes, including building new facilities for the church, mission, evangelism and even new church planting (and consequently, new art and architectural challenges).

Simply put, destroying an altar, or screen, or kneelers, or anything else just to build another one in the same place is bad, bad stewardship. It shows no respect for the sacrifice of the ones who came before us, it spends money that could be used with much more urgent causes and it diverts the mission of the Church, and of sacred art, from its main focus. It is, as the Brazilian proverb says, "to change six for half a dozen", and I wonder if some centuries from now, we will be seen by our descendants as the iconoclasts of our times.

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

Thoughts on Christian marriage, II

This is the second part of a two-part essay on Christian understandings of marriage.

By George Clifford

The next step in that unfolding narrative of grace is to expand the concept of marriage to include a gay man marrying a gay man or a lesbian marrying a lesbian. This timely, grace filled step rightly extends the Christian concept of marriage to people whom the Church for too long has marginalized or demonized, the very categories of people with whom Jesus spent his ministry. The Church wrongly has attempted to foist a life and love denying form of sexuality – heterosexuality – upon people whom God created with a different gender orientation. Consequently, their gender preference has too often caused gays and lesbians to deny their very identity or to express their sexuality in promiscuous, exploitative, or other destructive ways. Same-sex monogamous marriage inherently promotes healthy lifestyles, models the union of Christ and the Church, and can powerfully mediate grace to all whom they encounter.

Conversely, contending that such marriages pose a threat to heterosexual marriage is as silly an evangelical shibboleth as pretending that Christian teachings about marriage have remained constant. Any married heterosexual who fancies him or herself threatened by gay or lesbian marriages has a delusional concept of her or his own attractiveness as a partner, perceives his or her marriage is in trouble, or fears his or her own severely repressed homosexuality.

The time for silence ended years ago; now is the time for action. At General Convention this summer, the Episcopal Church should initiate appropriate legislation to:


(1) Disentangle the Episcopal Church from the state with respect to marriage by canonically prohibiting Episcopal clergy from acting on behalf of the state in performing marriages (regardless of what civil law may allow), deleting all canonical provisions governing such acts, and deleting the existing rite for the “Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” from the Book of Common Prayer;
(2) Create one rite for blessing all monogamous relationships, regardless of the gender of the two parties (a revised, gender neutral, and enriched version of the current Book of Common Prayer rite for “The Blessing of a Civil Marriage” could serve as the basis for this new rite for blessing marriages);
(3) Prophetically encourage all government entities (states, territories, etc.) with jurisdiction to define marriage as the legal union of two consenting adults regardless of gender.

The legal benefits of marriage are real and substantial. Two people who choose to live as one understandably want to share fully obligations to care for one another, responsibility for any children, property ownership, etc. Laws governing health care, child guardianship, inheritance, and a host of other issues stipulate preferential treatment of and protections for a spouse. Item #3 above is critical because those laws should apply to all marriages, regardless of the gender of the persons involved. By prophetically advocating equal rights for all, regardless of gender orientation, the Church walks faithfully in the footsteps of the Biblical prophets, echoing their call for justice.

The lingering entanglement of religion and state with respect to marriage is an unfortunate legacy of various United States denominations having emerged from (or continuing to be part of) established European Churches. God's grace cannot and does not wait for governments to act. By ending the misguided entanglement of the Episcopal Church and state in which clergy act as agents of the state when officiating at marriages (Item #1 above), the Church moves in time with God's grace, treating all monogamous relationships equally, using the same liturgical rite to pronounce God's blessing (Item #2).

For political rather than theological reasons, reasons that I, an ardent supporter of democracy, nonetheless find compelling, France over a century ago took away the authority of religious leaders to officiate at the legal ceremony in which the government approves of a marriage contract. After that civil ceremony, those for whom the religious ceremony holds meaning seek God's blessing in a manner appropriate to their faith tradition.

Separation of the civil from the legal is also good theology. Most clergy have officiated at marriages in which tradition, architectural beauty, location, humoring parents, or other extraneous factors motivated the couple to have a “Church wedding.” Any belief or even hope by bride or groom that God could or would bless their union was absent. Some beguilingly naïve couples, at least in unguarded moments, unsuspectingly divulge their real motives even while trying to pay lip service to their non-existent faith. Performing a wedding of this genre is rarely effective outreach. Instead, such weddings commercialize the Church (i.e., provide helpful income to some parishes), demean Christian believers, cause non-believers verbally to prostitute themselves, and distract from the real work of ministry. Those who too easily dismiss these objections would do well to reflect on the uniquely American phenomena of “mail order” clergy performing weddings, Vegas wedding chapels, contemporary wedding trends, and wedding extravaganzas that display conspicuous consumption. People will hear the Church’s proclamation of the gospel against that cacophonous background only if the proclamation is clear and unambiguous.

Admittedly, General Convention implementing the three recommendations above will have some unintended ramifications. Dissidents who have exited the Episcopal Church will feel their departures justified. On a positive note, given the experience of other American ecclesial bodies in taking similar steps, notably the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church can expect that few additional dissidents will depart.

Other provinces will bewail the Episcopal Church acting unilaterally, without first developing a consensus among members of the Anglican Communion. Completing the liturgical changes will require at least one additional triennial meeting of General Convention. Thus, any action General Convention takes implicitly, and even better explicitly, invites the rest of the Anglican Communion to enter into dialogue on subject of marriage. This topic, for very diverse reasons raises important questions not only in the United States, but also in Canada (same sex relationships), the United Kingdom (remarriage after divorce and same sex relationships), and Africa (polygamy). Provinces that have already separated themselves, de facto, from the Communion will predictably refuse to participate; recent moves by and messages from those provinces express their opinion that the Episcopal Church has already abandoned the faith. Confirming those provinces in their negative opinion will not cause any additional harm. The rest of the Communion, holding firmly to Anglican inclusivity and diversity, can profit from timely conversations about marriage from cultural, legal, and theological perspectives.

General Convention’s approval of the three initiatives will set the Episcopal Church firmly on a course of incarnating God's love for all in a radically inclusive manner that emulates the one whom it calls Lord. These initiatives are the faithful and logical next step in the unfolding narrative of God's grace. No alternative course will achieve the same result. This is the intended outcome, the one to which God has called us: to stand with God, in God's name, for all of God's people.

The Rev. 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 blogs at Ethical Musings.

AD 1054 and why it matters

This is the sixth of a series, 7 Dates and Why They Matter for the Anglican Faith. Read previous installments.

By Derek Olsen

On Sunday mornings during the prayers I always feel a pang when we hit that section:

“Receive these our prayers which we offer unto thy divine Majesty, beseeching thee to inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord; and grant that all those who do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love.”

The truth, of course, is that this prayer has always been a fantasy; since its composition in 1552 it has expressed a hope, a wish, and never described reality. I feel it more keenly these days. A relationship between ecclesial groups—just as with families—tends not to breakdown in one decisive moment. (It’s a process, not an event.) And yet there are often watershed moments to which we can point and often a single event of great moment that shows the relationship utterly fractured. That is why one of the dates that every Anglican should know is AD 1054.

On July 16th, 1054, papal legates excommunicated Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople and the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches was formally begun. Factually speaking, this was neither the first nor the last schism between the two sides. The first major schism was proclaimed by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople two hundred years earlier when he condemned what he called the five major errors of the Latins:

1. fasting is allowed on Saturdays, 2. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday [rather than the preceding Sunday], 3. priests are not allowed to marry, 4. priests are not allowed to confirm, and 5. the phrase filioque […and from the Son…] was added to the Nicene Creed

By the time of Michael Cerularius, these had been joined by yet another:

6. The West used unleavened bread for the Eucharist.

Modern Anglicans looking at this list may well find these quite minor reasons for splitting Christendom. After all, only the fifth (perhaps the fourth as well) seem to touch on actual theological issues. We might well ask whether these are reasons or pretexts for a split. The answer, as is usually the case, is that the truth is far more complicated than what we see on the surface.

While we may point to dates like 1054 or 861, the reality is that the seeds of discord sprung from soil prepared and tended by history itself. Throughout most of its existence, the Roman Empire fell neatly into two halves—one spoke Latin, the other Greek. This natural division was formally recognized by Diocletian’s division of the empire into four administrative districts at the beginning of the 4th century which quickly became two under Constantine. Thus were functionally created a Latin section incorporating Western Europe and Northwestern Africa and a Greek section from Egypt and the Balkans to the western boundary of the resurgent Persian Empire under the Sassanids. Without a common language, the two halves of the Empire which faced different social, economic, and military challenges drifted apart and the pre-existing cultural differences were only exacerbated.

As a result, the beginning of the problem in the Church began in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when the churches in Rome and north Africa began doing theology and liturgy in Latin rather than Greek. By the 4th and 5th centuries, two separate paths diverged—one in Greek, the other in Latin. Nowhere is this more evident than in the linguistic capabilities of the great Doctors of the Church in the patristic age. St Augustine himself admits his inability to converse in Greek; St Gregory the Great spent six years in Constantinople yet never learned Greek. St Leo too could neither read nor write it. While Sts Ambrose and Jerome were quite fluent in Greek, Jerome’s program of translating great Christian works from Greek into Latin further reduced the need for western clergy to learn the language—and formulations—of the eastern theologians. Photius, one of the greatest scholars of his age, knew no Latin.

Furthermore, the works of St Augustine which would become the great foundation of western theology were translated only sporadically into Greek. In particular, his treatise on the Holy Trinity on which the West based most of its support for the filioque clause was not translated into Greek until the twelfth century.

Without shared theological reflection and liturgical practice, the later split seems not just unfortunate but—sadly—inevitable.

Of course, theology and liturgy wasn’t all there was too it—no reflection on the issue would be complete without recognizing a variety of political complications. The term “Byzantine Empire” used in European and American literature didn’t appear until the 19th century and is itself polemical in nature; the “Byzantine” empire had never regarded itself as anything other than the Roman Empire—which it was. Despite the sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric and a string of barbarian pretenders, the imperial succession remained unbroken in the East. Constantine’s establishment of Constantinople as the “New Rome” and the new center of the Eastern section of the Empire left a vacuum in the West, though.

As is well known, the bishop of Rome claimed primacy over the other patriarchate sees (Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople) who, not surprisingly, disagreed. Specifically, Antioch argued that it was also founded by St Peter thus undercutting the Roman claim to the “See of Peter”; Constantinople argued that as the seat of the Emperor, the “New Rome” should, if anything, hold primacy over “Old Rome.”

To make matters worse, with the rise of Frankish power in the West, Charlemagne’s coronation on Christmas Day of 800 as “Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire” was a direct slap in the face to the rulers in Constantinople. The theological attack on the 7th Ecumenical Council prompted by Charlemagne in the so-called Caroline Books was based on faulty and mistranslated accounts of the council and helped create the poisonous atmosphere that exploded with Photius a few decades later.

As we say today, “mistakes were made”… Neither side is blameless.

The rest, as they say, is history. From the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation down to events of recent days, the cause of Christian unity has proven ever elusive. Too, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is ever proven true: there is nothing new under the sun. Disagreements over practice that seem more pretext than substance, arguments over the respective powers and legitimacy of various bishops, the mating habits of clergy, and underlying factors driven by baser motives arise again and again.

What do we learn from this history? What’s the take-away from AD 1054? I won’t presume to make a grand statement to “answer” this conundrum. Rather I refer back to Paul in Second Corinthians. Truly we have this treasure—the Gospel—in clay jars. Fragile, fractious, fallible, flawed containers of earth. “Mistakes were made”…and have been, and will continue to be. We have due cause to consider our own cracks. And—too—to consider the treasure contained therein, a treasure that spurs us to not remain forever consumed with flaws—whether our own or others—but to join Archbishop Cranmer in the hope and prayer that we make our own: “grant that all those who do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love.”

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He 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.

AD 597 and why it matters

This is the fifth of a series, 7 Dates and Why They Matter for the Anglican Faith. Read previous installments.

By Derek Olsen

Pious legend tells of Pope Gregory the Great’s walk in the market one day. He encountered some blonde slaves being sold there. Upon inquiring who they were, he was told “Angles”, but replied, “Angels of God shall they be.” Asking of their king, the response was “Aelle”; he responded “Alleluia! for they shall learn to praise God.” Upon asking their tribe, the reply was “Deira”; he replied “they shall flee from the wrath (de ira) of God to faith!” Thus, we are told, Pope Gregory resolved to send missionaries north for the conversion of England. Hailed by some as the moment of the nation’s salvation, castigated by some as the beginning of Romish errors, St Gregory’s sending of Augustine to become the first archbishop of Canterbury in AD 597 surely ranks among the dates that all Anglicans should know.

The mission eventually sent by Gregory, headed by Augustine who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, was intended to be a mission of peace, spreading the Word of the Prince of Peace. Instead, it touched off a firestorm. The Church of England was born into a power struggle where bishops battled against one another, invaded one another’s territory, refused to acknowledge one another’s authority, and appealed to far-off pontiffs, all underlain by centuries of imperialism and ethnic strife. You see, the mission to the English began in AD 597; the British Church had already existed in the islands for some 350 years before.

While we’re used to thinking geographically, the early medieval world thought ethnically. And the ambiguities between geography and ethnicity were major sources of conflict. There are three major players in our story: the Celtic Britons who were the inhabitants of the islands when the Romans first came, the Scots who were another Celtic people who lived in Ireland and colonized parts of modern Scotland that they wrested from the Picts, and finally the “English” who were a loose confederations of families and clans made up of a number of Germanic tribes, preeminently the Angles (from whose name we get England and English), the Saxons, and the Jutes.

Christianity came to Britain at the end of the second century through the Romans and a church was established there with the development of a fused Romano-British culture. This society fell with the coming of the English in the fifth century. Fierce pagans who slaughtered, killed, and settled, they displaced many Briton nobles to Brittany (hence the name) and Wales (“Welsh” is actually the English word for their foes and was used to mean both “foreigner” and “slave”). The Britons who did not or could not flee lived as a conquered people and hated their English overlords. The bishops of the Britons, therefore, took a dim view of the missionaries sent from Rome who came to covert their foes and who claimed to hold spiritual authority over the islands—including authority over the British bishops.

The great historian of the evangelism of England—and our primary source for what we know of the era—was the eighth century saint, the Venerable Bede. While a careful compiler of sources and a skillful author, he can hardly be called objective; English by birth, a monastic biblical scholar by training, his history is consciously modeled on the Acts of the Apostles and the conversion of his people is, for his narrative, the key to the peace and prosperity of the islands.

Bede’s history is, in many ways, the story of three churches and their conflicts with one another as well as the pagans they were attempting to convert. Of these, the entrenched Romano-British church comes off the worst; Bede lays most of the fault for the ensuing conflicts at their doorstep for their refusal to evangelize their invaders. He paints the picture of an insular church, distrustful of the English and of Gregory’s missionaries, who abrogated their responsibilities to preach the Gospel to the outsiders and who insisted on holding beliefs contrary to the wider church, focusing specifically on Pelagianism and using the wrong date for celebrating Easter (a matter clarified at the Council of Nicaea).

The Scots’ Celtic church was viewed much more favorably by Bede. While they too held the wrong date for Easter and kept other suspect customs (their monks wore their hair like druids rather than keeping the Roman tonsure), they had a great evangelical zeal and produced great saints and ascetics who taught the Gospel to the people with humility and diligence, converting Scots, Picts, and English alike with no reference to nationality. Too, they ordered themselves around their monastic communities; Celtic bishops were monastic abbots first and foremost. While the Roman missionaries landed in the south of England, the Celtic church started in the north, evangelizing modern-day Scotland and working their way down through Northumbria. Bede’s appreciation for them is due at least in part to his identity as a Northumbrian.

Lastly, the English church converted by the Roman missionaries who claimed authority from and the support of the larger Western Church and its papal head are cast as the heroes by Bede. As in the Acts of the Apostles, signs and wonders abound at the hands of the holy men and virgins of Bede’s history. While they encounter setbacks and martyrdom, their possession of the truth assures their success and Bede is able to bring his history to a satisfactory conclusion, giving an idyllic (and not entirely accurate) view of an England at peace with itself and turned towards God.

Bede pays careful attention to the founding documents of the English church. His history preserves a number of letters sent from Pope Gregory to Augustine of Canterbury and others who participated in his mission. The hallmark of these letters is an evangelical pragmatism; certain passages in them have often been noted by students of Anglican history and rightly seen as keys to the church’s later character. In response to Augustine’s query on liturgical matters, Gregory responds:

“My brother, you are familiar with the usage of the Roman Church, in which you were brought up. But if you have found customs, whether in the Church of Rome or Gaul or any other that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the Faith, whatever you have been able to learn with profit from the various Churches. For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Therefore select from each of the Churches whatever things are devout, religious, and right; and when you have bound them, as it were, into a sheaf, let the minds of the English grow accustomed to it.”

Gregory’s instructions display an awareness of and a respect for the formative power of liturgy. He encourages not a liturgical free-for-all nor a permissive scheme of mix-‘n’-match, but an initial opportunity for the new archbishop to carefully select those practices that will be most fitting and most edifying to his mission, selected from the riches of Christian tradition, as a firm foundation for the new church. Liturgy matters; spiritual practices matter—for they form the faith in the body, lips, and heart as well as in the mind.

In a letter to the abbot Mellitus (who was to become the first Bishop of London) Gregory offers more pragmatic council with an eye to evangelism concerning pagan temples:

“…the temples of idols among that people should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that there temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God.”

The practice of creating churches on pagan holy places was not novel—most missionaries to Northern Europe did the same. The difference here is a moderation: the usual practice was the complete demolition of pagan structures, not their re-consecration. This also seems in line with another departure from standard missionary procedure. Bede relates that while Augustine’s first royal convert, King Ethelbert:

“was pleased at the faith and conversion [of great numbers of his people] it is said that he would not compel anyone to accept Christianity; for he had learned from his instructors and guides to salvation that the service of Christ must be accepted freely and not under compulsion.”

In a time when conversions by the sword were more common than not (and that is a dark part of our heritage that we must acknowledge), this passage offers a refreshing change. Despite a zeal for conversion brought by Augustine and his comrades, this zeal was tempered by the realization that methods matters. The ends—even holy ends—do not justify any means.

Thus, AD 597 is a date that every Anglican should know. Augustine’s great mission to Canterbury, the founding of our central see, and the conversion of the English is a key event in Anglican history. Augustine’s mission—and Pope Gregory’s authorization of it—extends an evangelical pragmatism throughout matters of liturgy and mission. At the same time, the English Church was born in the midst of ethnic and factional strife, strife that simply moved to a new key with successive waves of Scandinavian and Norman invasion and devastation. This beginning was no golden age of peace and tranquility, but rather mixed up in the confusion and complexities that characterize incarnate life.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His full-time calling of keeping up with two adorable girls and his wife, an Episcopal priest, is complicated by his day-job as an IT Consultant. 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.

AD 525 and Why It Matters

This is the fourth of a series, 7 Dates and Why They Matter for the Anglican Faith. Links to previous installments are here.)

By Derek Olsen

Towards the middle of the fourth century, the desert of southern Egypt bore strange fruit. Dwellings and communities flowered in the harsh wastes—peopling the wilderness as one contemporary writer said. But these planters of communities were no colonists or pioneers, striking out to expand the frontiers of the Empire; instead, they saw themselves as militants, soldiers, carrying the fight to the enemy’s heartland—for where better than the demon-haunted wastes to find and conquer demons? Some went singly into the deserts to wrestle with demons within and without while others went in pairs or aligned themselves in communities. Indeed, in the writings they left they conceived themselves as a spiritual twin of the armies of Rome: Christ, their commander; the abbas and ammas, field commanders; monastics, the shield-walled battle line with the hermits striding before as champions to taunt, confuse, and discourage the milling enemy lines of the demonic horde. It was here in the sands of Egypt that Christian monasticism was born. This tradition, especially as mediated through a single book, was to have an great impact of Christianity on a whole and the Anglican tradition in particular.

As the days of Roman persecution came to an end and as Christianity found official favor, thousands flocked to Christian fonts. Some came who had feared persecution and death before, others, came newly convicted by its message of salvation. And, of course, as the religion’s status rose, those who sought status realized that a profession of Christianity could be quite an asset to their political profession. Where before being a Christian could get you killed, now it could get you promoted; Constantine had, in effect, created the nominal Christian. Monasticism was, in part, a reaction against this laxity and to maintain the urgency and discipline required to hold the faith in the days of martyrdom. Rather than seeking the minimum required to acquire the title, the hermits and monastics sought to embody the maximum: to live the life enjoined in the Scriptures—to give their goods freely, to embrace the path of the cross, to pray without ceasing. For them this was no “above and beyond”; it was nothing less than the requirements for being a Christian.

The legends of Antony, the father of the eremtical life (hermits and other solitaries), and Pachomias, father of the coenobitic life (monastics—both monks and nuns who live in communities), spread quickly through the Greek-speaking East. Their wisdom was simple, unconcerned with the heights of theological speculation but focused on the pastoral and the pragmatic—recognizing the temptations of sin and avoiding them through the cultivation of virtue. Their lack of studied sophistication and ignorance of classical (pagan) learning was heralded by their biographers (who were often highly educated and sophisticated themselves…) Indeed, Athanasius wrote that Antony was illiterate; his massive biblical learning depended not upon what he had read, but what he had memorized from what he heard. As the legends spread, the way of life spread with it: monastic communities sprang up in Palestine, Syria, Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey); the wisdom of the desert which had been passed down in stories and maxims was collected and organized by teachers like Basil the Great and Evagrius of Pontus.

The Latinate literati of Jerusalem—Jerome, Rufinius, and others—translated many of the Greek texts into Latin for the benefit of the church in the West, but the character of western monasticism was indelibly marked by the efforts of John Cassian. As a young man John Cassian and his companion Germanicus dwelt briefly as monks in Palestine but, unsatisfied by what they found there, headed to the Egyptian deserts themselves. Circling through Northern Egypt, they saw Egyptian rigor with their own eyes and sat at the feet of celebrated abbas—questioning, probing, and learning. Cassian returned to the West, rubbing shoulders with the great and powerful as he went (he was ordained to the diaconate by St John Chrysostom himself) and founded two monasteries in Marseille. In this setting, he penned his magnum opus in two works, the Institutes and Conferences. Taken together, these works represent a watershed moment in the history of the Western Church. Most of the writings from this period are occasional, topical, or homiletical; Cassian’s was the first work in the Christian West that strove to be complete. When we moderns think of Christian works that strive to be complete, we think of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica or Karl Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik but Cassian’s was not a systematic theology. True to the monastic ways, it was intended as a comprehensive Christian spirituality.

Monasticism took root in the West in a variety of forms. Fertilized by the rich traditions of Egypt, Syria, and the Western stands of Cassian, Caesarius of Arles, and Augustine of Hippo, it ranged from the exuberant asceticism of the Irish to the intellectualism of Cassiodorus’s Vivarium. As it matured over centuries, two rules—or sets of instructions for living the monastic life—came to the fore and of these one was eventually recognized as the finest expression of the monastic spirit in the West: the Rule of Saint Benedict. (The runner-up was the Irish Rule of Columbanus.) True to the monastic spirit of humility, obedience, and of patient transmission of received tradition over innovative originality, not much is known of Benedict, the circumstances of the Rule’s writing or even when exactly it was written. The Dialogues of Pope Gregory written some half a century after Benedict’s death is the only record of his life and, like the other lives of the monastic masters, is a theological and spiritual treatise in biographical form rather than a modern historical account of dates and deeds. Nevertheless, the Rule itself exudes a character and spirit of a piece with the individual descried by Gregory, one at home alongside Antony, Pachomius, and Cassian.

Sometime around the year 525 Benedict, working with and adapting earlier monastic material, created a deft epitome of Cassian’s work—capturing in a fraction of the space the heart of Cassian’s vision. At the same time, the Rule itself becomes a lens to read Cassian and the rest of the monastic tradition highlighting by its emphases themes and motifs explicit or latent in the earlier works. In this Rule, Benedict bequeaths four great gifts to the Western Church all of which—to one degree or another—have become embodied in the Anglican tradition.

The first is moderation. The child of a tradition that could be extreme and imprudent, Benedict counseled moderation in the pursuit of asceticism. You will find here no tales of hours-long prayer-sessions, standing with arms outstretching, while frigid sea water lapped around necks (as in Irish monastic traditions). Rather Benedict understood excess as, more often than not, a sign of initial exuberance likely to flare fast and hot—then burn out—not a temperament conducive to an entire way of life. Within communal life too, Benedict cautioned against one set of strictures for all in favor of a toleration that would accommodate the very old, the very young, the sick, and the weak. The strong should rejoice in their strength and ability to endure rigors, but not at the expense of the rest. Asceticism is intended to train the body and soul—not destroy them. The via media, the path of moderation, is upheld as the superior path.

The second great gift is Benedict’s ordering of prayer. “Pray without ceasing”, Paul commands, and the early monastics took him quite seriously. Their prayers of choice were the Psalms and various traditions utilized them in various ways. Benedict, again following the path of moderation reminds his readers that if the great monks of old could recite all 150 psalms each day, the least his readers could do would be to pray through them each week. Establishing an order by means of the seven day prayer offices and the night office through which the whole Psalter could be prayed each week, Benedict helped solidify the liturgical tradition of the West that ordered its day around these eight hours of prayer. Although reduced in number to two services of prayer (four in our current prayer book) the Anglican tradition inherited its liturgical rhythm from Benedict and also its love for the Psalms which still today form the heart of the Anglican services of morning and evening prayer.

The third great gift is Benedict’s pragmatism. The monastic tradition generally rejected obscure theological speculation in favor of serious introspection. The profound unflinching gaze into the eyes of the soul is much more uncomfortable than theological speculation; cataloging personal failings with an eye to their amendment and correction is more humiliating than solving great scholastic dilemmas. What mattered to the monks from Egypt and beyond is that they gathered in common for prayer, and eagerly sought a common salvation. While they neither (knowingly) sheltered nor excused heresy, their focus was elsewhere. The bulk of Benedict’s rule is taken up with mundane directions—who helps cook the food; how servers are selected and when they get to eat if their serving during mealtime; who keeps he door; how is discipline administered. And, in the midst of it all, these orderings and arrangements are seen as no less holy than the Work of God (the hours of prayer) in the chapel. Yes, the Work of God is to take precedence above all else, but in and through the Work of God one learns that all labor is somehow the work of God when undertaken with care, concern, and compassion. When the one performing the lowly tasks of serving table or washing feet comes to understand the labor as serving Christ in the other, work and prayer intertwine and inform one another. This pragmatism, this focus on common prayer, common action as the root of unity rather than ascription to theological formulas is dear to the Anglican way.

The fourth great gift of Benedict is his understanding of community. The early monastics understood that contending with demons was safer in numbers; demonic deceit plays on our weaknesses easier when we are alone. Benedict highlighted three particular vows that, taken together, foster and facilitate Christian community: obedience, stability, and conversion of life. As he makes painfully clear in his first chapter, the third—what seems to be the real goal of the monastic life—is, in fact, impossible without the first two. Only by remaining in the community, in the conversation can conversion of life be properly achieved; only under obedience to the authority placed over you, and understanding God to be both symbolized in and directing that relationship, can conversion occur.

The first three gifts of Benedict are the easier—the safer. The fourth is the resilient secret that has enabled Benedictine monasticism to remain as a viable force for almost fifteen hundred years. (By way of contrast—how many communes founded in the Sixties, a spare forty years ago, now remain…?) It is the fourth that challenges us now, that challenges our Anglican Communion now. In our current struggles, what does it mean to embody the vows that Benedict demanded? What does it look like to envision them within our current context? Benedict calls us to struggle for a stability that is neither sloth nor stagnation, an obedience that is neither feigned nor forced, holding forth as the prize the ongoing conversion of life as we grow towards the mind of Christ.

Sometime around 525 Benedict penned his rule—and now we need his wisdom more than ever: wisdom on prayer, wisdom on moderation, wisdom on the holiness of the pragmatic, and wisdom on the formation of effective Christian community that leads us ever deeper into love.

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

AD 325 and why it matters

This is the third in the series, 7 Dates and Why They Matter for the Anglican Faith. Read parts 1 and 2.

By Derek Olsen

The Roman establishment of the Early Empire regarded Christianity with a mix of perplexity and suspicion. On one hand, the Christians seemed largely virtuous and mostly harmless. On the other, they threatened the foundations of the social order in two main ways. First, they were atheists—that is, they denied the reality and power of the Roman state pantheon and refused to acknowledge that the emperor was imbued with divine guidance. Second, Christianity attacked the shape of the Roman family, reconceptualizing it and allowing—even encouraging—women to remain in an unmarried state outside of male control. While Jewish believers were also suspect as atheists, their religion was rooted in their identity as a people; Christians, on the other hand, proselytized and spread quickly unrestrained by bounds of national identity. At times and places the perplexity and suspicion was expressed in a predictable human manner: violence and persecution. Despite our popular conception of Christians keeping Roman lions well-fed from the time of Nero on, persecution tended to be sporadic and local rather than widespread and systematic.

As the third century drew to a close and the fourth century opened, the spread of Christianity became an issue that demanded a formal response. The emperor Decius instituted a systematic empire-wide persecution in 250 escalated by Valerian in 258 to forbid all Christian worship and targeting all bishops and senior clergy for execution. Ended by Valerian’s successor Gallienus in 260, violence flared again in 303 when Diocletian ordered all churches destroyed, all Scriptures burnt, and all clergy imprisoned. The following year, all citizens were required to make sacrifices to the emperor on pain of death—but the western provinces of the empire conveniently ignored the later command. Despite these attempts, their purpose failed and rather proved again the truth of Tertullian’s maxim: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

The other plausible option was taken by a Roman general whose troops in Britain proclaimed him emperor and marched on Rome. This general and later emperor—Constantine—did not persecute Christianity but rather embraced it and gave it official support. (He did not, however, proclaim it the state religion—that wouldn’t happen until Theodosius at the end of the fourth century.)

The reign of Constantine and his blessing on the flourishing faith raised a host of issues—some neither easily nor quickly solved. One—the tension between the Roman social structure and the counter-cultural character of Christianity—has remained a live issue to the present day (and will be addressed in a later article). Of the rest, two urgent problems pressed to the fore. The first was political and administrative: how would structures that emerged locally fit themselves into a coherent empire-wide system and where would authority reside? The second was theological and doctrinal: what was the proper way to understand the relationship between Jesus and God? The vacuum of authority created by the first problem exacerbated the second. Constantine saw trouble brewing. The faith that he hoped would help cement the embattled empire was threatening to cause further rifts. Taking matters into his own hands, he called a meeting of bishops to the city of Nicaea in the year 325.

At this point it’s worth clearing up a little bit of confusion about Constantine, his motives, and his personal beliefs. Constantine was probably introduced to Christianity at a young age; his mother was a Christian (her search for the relics of the Holy Cross read like a fourth-century Indiana Jones tale but several versions have deplorable anti-Semitic bits) and some sources relate he had a sister named Anastasia which means “Resurrection”. Despite this, he was not baptized until he was on his deathbed. This was not unusual in the fourth century, though, especially for those who held political office. Theologically the Church of the day had a strong sense of Baptism and the remission of sins connected with that act; they were a little fuzzy on forgiveness of major sins committed after baptism. The realities of political office (presiding over torture and executions and participating in public religious ceremonies to the state gods or the official supreme god, the Unconquered Sun) made committing sins inevitable. Thus, Constantine and others put off their baptism until they had retired from public life and no longer had to participate in these activities. As far as Constantine’s personal beliefs go he served as a proper emperor, honoring the state gods and the Unconquered Sun in his public capacity, but no less authority than the late great Henry Chadwick states that “his letters from 313 onwards leave no doubt that he regarded himself as a Christian whose imperial duty it was to keep a united Church” (The Early Church, p. 127).

Constantine’s council at Nicaea was not novel in its procedure—Christian bishops had been gathering in councils for quite a long time. Where it was different was in its scope. The controversy was (at that point) an Egyptian one and afflicted the Greek-speaking areas of the empire. Thus, Constantine sought to gather as many bishops of the Greek-speaking Church as possible and others beyond it to resolve the problem. Senior bishops and archbishops or their representatives came from all over the known world to participate. The chronicler Eusebius highlights its breadth by comparing the guest list to the account in Acts of the international gathering at the first Pentecost.

The Da Vinci Code crowd and conspiracy theorists of various stripes suggest that at this council Constantine perverted everything by declaring Jesus divine—either implying or stating explicitly that the Church had not held this opinion before him. It’s an interesting theory, it’s just completely contradicted by the evidence. The writings of the first three Christian centuries make it abundantly clear that Christians considered Jesus divine; the question tackled by the council was not if but how Jesus was divine. The problem was that a teacher from Alexandria—Arius—was teaching that Jesus, like some of the heroes and demi-gods who had made it into the Roman pantheon, had been granted divinity and was not eternally divine. The council focused primarily on two assertions of Arius: first, that Jesus was a created being; second that “there was [a time] when he was not”. Now, I could walk you through the arguments and the technical philosophical vocabulary used, but in going through the details we’d miss the real point. So let’s zoom out for a second and talk about how and why this matters.

Trinitarian theology tends to be very complicated because it did not begin as an intellectual exercise: if people had sat down and thought it up, it would make a lot more sense! Instead, this theology proceeds from the realm of Christian experience. Christians knew from their Scriptures and from their Jewish roots that God was unmistakably and unquestionably One. In their religious experience, though, they perceived the working of God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit. The problem of Trinitarian theology was how to wrap limited and limiting human language and concepts around the power of God that they had experienced in their lives.

The reason why this became necessary and pressing was because the theological formulations had very practical, pastoral consequences. Understanding the divinity of God the Son was not simply an arcane puzzle for specialists but rather was intimately connected to who God was and how God interacted with creation. In a sense, Arius thought that he had discovered a formulation that would preserve the dignity of God the Father. After all, the great scandal of Christianity to the philosophical minds of the time is why a god who existed as spirit would have anything to do with flesh and matter which was inherently imperfect and corruptible. According to Arius’s formula, God the Father kept himself pure and unsullied but elevated Jesus as the first and greatest of his creatures to divine status. The orthodox party insisted that, no, God’s love was that great and that scandalous that God was willing to become flesh, to live, to love, to suffer and die. Affirming that, they could then affirm that the transformative power of the resurrection and the ascension can happen and has happened to actual human flesh in the person of Jesus! That is, the orthodox could affirm that any pain we feel, any joy we feel, any fear, or longing, or hope of ours, God understands it—because God has felt it in his own flesh. Arius couldn’t say the same of his God. By the end of the council, the gathered bishops agreed that this was the Good News spoken of in the Scriptures and handed down by the apostles, not an untouchable spirit God who had elevated a piece of creation but of a God who loved us enough to become one of us.

Now, this certainly wasn’t the first controversy about the Trinity or about the person of Jesus. Since the days of Irenaeus (in the mid-second century) Christians had defined the church and its teaching around three things: a set canon of Scripture, apostolic succession—a confirmation that the teaching a bishop received was what was handed on by the apostles, and the core teachings—the regula fidei (rule or measure of faith). These core teachings, the regula fidei, were transmitted in the form of baptismal creeds. That is, at baptisms new Christians assented that they knew and understood the heart of the Christian teachings that were to serve as a guide in reading the Scriptures. Our Apostles’ Creed, for instance, is an early (mid-second century or so) Roman baptismal creed that has remained the dominant statement in the West. What the Council of Nicaea did was to take the ancient baptismal creed of Caesarea (which fundamentally agreed with others like the Apostles’ Creed) and to tweak a few phrases—dropping some that could be misinterpreted, adding some that clarified its meaning. In a letter to the clergy of his region (which included Arians), Eusebius of Caesarea described how the gathered bishops took the creed and added a few words and what they intended by it. This creed became known as the Nicene Creed and defined the faith of the gathered bishops who agreed that it encapsulated the teachings that they had received from the apostles the best they knew how. This creed would be tweaked again at the Council of Constantinople (381) to exclude an error that arose later in the fourth century, was confirmed again by the Council of Chalcedon (451) and there achieved the form that we receive in our prayer book.

Thus, AD 325 is a date that every Anglican should know. The Council of Nicaea was the Church’s formal debut party thrown for it by the Roman Empire. Constantine convened it, but the bishops assembled solved the theological dilemma with an appeal to the apostles’ teaching, formalizing in a creedal statement the fact that God loves us enough to literally, physically, become one of us. This was not some new faith invented by Constantine, but a verbal clarification of what had been handed on by Irenaeus, affirmed by countless Christians at their baptisms, recorded by Luke the Evangelist, of the astounding, staggering love that the apostles witnessed in the words and works of Christ himself.

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

AD 70 and why it matters

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

By Derek Olsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

587 BC, and why it matters

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

By Derek Olsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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