Dear Isaac: on the day of your baptism

by Lisa Fischbeck

Dear Isaac,

Today you are being baptized!
Your parents have brought you here,
willingly and happily,
desiring that you be given this sacrament in all its many dimensions.

We will pour water on your head.
Water that has been blessed
and that, by our prayers,
has become water that washes you like no bath you’ve ever had.

We will also pour oil on your head.
Oil that has been blessed by the bishop,
and that,
by our prayers,
will be the sign that you belong to God in Jesus forever.

And we will pray that God will give you
an inquiring and discerning heart.
Which means we pray that you will never stop asking questions,
ever.
We pray that you will listen for answers and consider them.
And we hope you will ask God to guide you in that consideration.

In the baptismal rite we will also pray that God will give you
the courage to will and to persevere.
Which means we pray that you will have the courage to do what you know is good and right and true.
Hopefully after you have asked for God’s guidance.

And we will pray that God will give you
a sense of joy and wonder in all God’s works.
This includes that natural world, for sure.
Fortunately,
where you are going and with the parents you have been given,
we rest assured that you will have ample opportunities to be given a sense of joy and wonder in the natural world.

But God’s works include,
significantly,
all us human beings too.
And sometimes it can be a whole lot harder to maintain a sense of joy and wonder about us.
We hope you will remember to ask God for that kind of maintenance!

Isaac,
your parents have brought you here,
willingly and happily,
desiring that you be given this sacrament of baptism in all its many dimensions.
One of those dimensions is that by your baptism
you become a member of Christ’s Body,
the Church.
In fact, after you have been baptized we will “receive you into the household of God”.

We feel this part of your baptism palpably.
Because we baptize you here at the Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill,
knowing that in the days ahead you will be far from us,
and in the years ahead you will be given to the care and environment of another community of the Church.
Yet we have promised that we will do all in our power to support you.
So we will pray for you.
We will pray for you in the weeks ahead.
We will pray for your parents that they will find a church home for you over there in Colorado.
We will pray for your godparents that they will care for you and be present to you as best they can.
We will pray that you grow up knowing that it was important to your parents that you be baptized here
even though you are about to move there.
This means you have been given a special experience of being baptized into the whole church, not just one particular community.
I hope you can know that as you grow to adulthood
and begin to experience the love and the grace,
even the joy;
the vagaries and imperfections,
even the hypocrisy;
of the whole Church and of particular church communities.

This Jesus, whom we follow,
has set a very high standard for us.
It is plain in the lessons we read on this day of your Baptism.
We heard from Leviticus, the ancient book of laws in which Jesus himself was fully immersed.
(the only reading of this ancient book of laws, by the way,
that we Episcopalians are given on a Sunday.)

Check it out: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
If describes what life is like for those who know God as their God.
If you know God as your God, then you shall see all human beings as beloved of God,
and you will ever be mindful of others.
and will give of what you have been given.
It says two times that you shall not steal.
So that must be an important result of knowing God.

We also heard from the Gospel of Matthew,
5th chapter, verses 38-48,
in which Jesus takes the Levitical laws and notches them up a bit,
notches them up to what seems to be either impossible or intolerable.
But again,
he is describing what will happen if you know and love God:
You will have that courage to will and to persevere.
You will stand for what you know is right.
And you will see all human beings as beloved of God.

(If you ever want a further explanation of some of these difficult teachings about turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile, though,
when you are old enough,
take in the movie Ghandi, or read some of his writings.
Learn about civil disobedience in our own country’s Civil Rights movement.
It seems the human conscience was created to withstand only so much oppression and injustice.
When that oppression and injustice is brought to light,
that is when things begin to change,
eventually.
We hope you will work to bring oppression and injustice to light.)

Isaac,
your parents have brought you here,
willingly and happily,
desiring that you be given this sacrament of baptism in all its many dimensions.
And importantly,
one of those dimensions is that in baptism
not only do you become a member of the Church, the Body of Christ,
but in baptism you also become one with Jesus himself.

It is a mystery of faith,
It is cosmic and illogical and hard to explain.
But it is also wonderful and life-changing
and it gives us hope.

It gives us hope for the long run,
allowing us to live with a sense that all will long be well.
And it also gives us hope for the short run,
for the day to day and the season to season.

Because otherwise,
this life would be mighty hard to live.
And these laws in Leviticus
and these teachings of Jesus
Would be nigh on impossible to follow.

Did you catch the last line of the Gospel reading?
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This perfection is not something we can put on ourselves.
It is not something we can will ourselves to have
or discipline ourselves to accomplish.
Rather it is something borne of our oneness with God.
It’s true.

The closer we are to God,
the more we truly knit our wills to God’s will
our spirits to God’s spirit,
the more all the “shalls” of the Leviticus reading
and all the directives of Jesus in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew,
gradually become a way of being.
They become a matter of “we can do no other.”
It. just. happens.
And it is good.
Holy even!

We don’t stay there of course.
Irritatingly enough.
We slip slide all over the place.
All of us do.
Which is why we need to accept each other,
forgive each other,
love each other.
You may slip today, and require the forgiveness of the one who will slide tomorrow.

That is why,
as we return to the Eucharistic prayer out of New Zealand later in this liturgy,
we will pray that we who receive Christ’s Body
may indeed be the Body of Christ.

Isaac,
your parents have brought you here,
willingly and happily,
desiring that you be given this sacrament of baptism in all its many dimensions.
And we are mighty glad you will be with us and we with you all along the way.
Maybe not in the same congregation or the same state,
but united in the Spirit,
united in Baptism,
united in love.

Let all God’s people say,
Amen.


A sermon preached for the Baptism of Isaac (Year A: Epiphany VII. February 23, 2014) The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a 21st century mission in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Christmas is Easter

by Sara Miles

I used to really love Christmas as a kid, and couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly be surly about it: sparkly stuff everywhere, shiny presents, fabulous blinking lights, way too much sugar, that bright turpentine smell of pine trees, even—at least where I grew up–– real snow. In my twenties, I realized, OK, there might be a few issues with, you know, capitalism. And families. People complained about depression, dysfunction, debt, the whole tacky Christmas-industrial complex…still, I thought the day was kind of fun. Lighten up! What’s wrong with a little tackiness? Have some eggnog!

But then, in middle age, I started going to church, and I got it: Christmas is just really disappointing, compared to, say, Easter. Holy Week, that’s the real thing. Christmas? It’s almost not a Christian holiday.

Or so I thought. But it turns out Christmas is like Easter. As my friend Gabe, who’s eight years old, explained to me a few days ago when we were discussing the similarities, “Both days are when Jesus comes alive.” Christmas is totally about resurrection.

Which means, of course, that Christmas is also about death.

The week before Christmas is the darkest of the year. Last Sunday, there was a lot of crying at church. People sobbed with the weight of their losses: a father in intensive care, a sister dead after terrible illness, a son in jail, beloved friends in hospice and hospital, a long-gone mother whose absence felt painfully vivid. I held one mourner in the kitchen, weeping with her, then walked home as the afternoon light was fading.

On Monday, I ran into one of the teachers from the elementary school across from my house, who was standing on the sidewalk watching parents pick up their kids. “I just miss my mom so much,” he told me, and pulled out a crumpled snapshot showing him, a 62-year old gay man with long black hair, stroking the face of a tiny little 90-year old Chinese lady in a bed jacket lying under a pile of quilts. “I took care of her as long as I could, dressing her, feeding her when she couldn’t feed herself,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I called her my baby at the end. Oh,” he said, “oh, I just don’t want to do Christmas this year without her.” The sun set by five that night.

On Tuesday evening, we sang evening prayer in the chapel, beginning with the O antiphon: O Dayspring, brightness of life everlasting, and sun of righteousness, come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. A bank of candles flickered in front of the icon of Mary, and we sat in darkness praying for a woman who had just died, leaving behind her wife and a six-year old boy.

On Wednesday, it was colder, and the sun set before five. At night, unexpectedly, the doorbell rang: it was a friend of ours who’d been at the bedside of a friend dying of brain cancer. He got weepy as he told us how she gathered the people she loved to say goodbye. “I’ve been so happy,” she told them, “to be alive. And now I’m just falling, falling into death.”

On Thursday, I woke up in the dark, hauled myself out of bed and went to work. A man came by the church who said he’d lost interest in living after his sister died four months earlier: he wanted to play me a message of her voice saying “Te quiero, I love you”, and then he leaned forward to whisper, “I know everyone dies, but my sister? This destroys me. I have some bad words for God: why would he take her?” Then in the evening another man came and told me about making Christmas bread from a recipe passed down from his grandmother to his mother, who’d died earlier this year, and how he started crying when he realized there was nobody alive left to call for help with the recipe. “Maybe I need fewer memories,” he said. By the time I got home, it had been dark for more than four hours.

On Friday the day was even colder and the dark more complete, and then it was Saturday, the solstice, the longest night of the year. I couldn’t sleep. I prayed: O Dayspring, brightness of light everlasting, and sun of righteousness, Come and enlighten us who sit in darkness, and the shadow of death.

Christmas is Easter. We wait for Jesus in Advent the way we wait for Jesus in Lent. And in both seasons, we have to pass through death in order to find him, blazingly alive, the sun of righteousness.

Death is a fact of life that happens all year long, in every time and place and circumstance. But the reason why Christmas and Easter are actually Christian holidays is because they tell us the truth beyond that fact, and reveal the wild, real promise at the heart of our faith. The promise that, as Gabe says, Jesus comes alive. That Jesus is born to us, dies for us, and rises from the dead, trampling down death by death, to pull us up from our graves, to bestow life.

At Christmas and Easter we get to see more clearly how God is always making light and life out of darkness and death. How life can spring from the womb of a humiliated girl on a winter night, how life can rise before dawn from the tomb of a crucified man. How death has no final power. Because at Christmas and Easter Immanuel appears to those who wait in darkness and the shadow of death: to share our suffering, and to share the love of God.

Last week, before the winter solstice, I had a hard time sleeping. I’d go to bed early and be woken with a start in the middle of the night by the brilliance of the nearly-full moon, its cool light pouring through my window and illuminating the whole room. I remembered how, when my daughter was young and I was working as a journalist far away from home, I’d call and tell her to look outside for the moon. “It’s the same moon,” I’d say, missing her terribly, “that I see where I am. Even when we’re not together, remember we’re both looking at the same moon.”

The moon that kept me close to my child is the same moon Mary saw as she waited, pregnant, in the dark; the same moon that Joseph saw when an angel awoke him from sleep. It’s the same moon that Jesus saw in his longest night on earth. For all humanity, the same moon can be a sign of Immanuel, meaning God is with us: we’re not alone.

Because the moon reflects the sun. Even when we can’t see the sun, we know by the light of the moon that it’s there. And even when I’m sleepless or troubled or grieving, I know that God–-the true sun of the world, ever more risen and never going down––is with us: and I can see God’s love reflected by other people, who shine with it and help illuminate the dark. Who hold me and pray with me and give me a Kleenex when I cry, whose bodies help comfort me through the night.

Today, even by a few minutes, the day will be longer. The sun will give a little more light, and the same moon will shine on all of us, reflecting the glory. Another child will be born today, and tomorrow, and on Christmas Eve, and on Good Friday, bringing resurrection, God’s new life to the world.

Arise, shine, for your light has come.

Sara Miles is the author of Take This Bread and Jesus Freak. Her new book is City of God (Jericho Books, February 2014.) Originally preached for Advent IV.

The angry priest or the boorish photographer?

by Andrew Gerns

Nearly everyone has experienced the insensitive photographer. Especially if you’ve ever presided at a wedding or a baptism.

My favorite moment came when I was doing a baptism and as the infant-candidate, the parents and sponsors gathered with me around the font, and after I invited all the children in the room to come forward and join us there, I looked up to see nearly every single adult friend and family member holding up a camera, video camera or phone.

My first thought was “I wish I had a picture of this…!”

Here was an image of how we have come to mediate our experience of the world: through a screen. We see only what we record.

But there have been times when things were more annoying. When a photographer
searches for the perfect shot but is completely unconscious of his or her context, they end up just getting in the way.

I once did a wedding where, just as the wedding party was gathered around the couple, a guy with a video camera was prowling around the group like a tiger getting reaction shots of not only the bride and groom but each member of the wedding party. I could see faces of each member of the wedding party as they reacted to the lens. The act of recording the moment had become the moment.

I was lucky. The mother of the bride, using nothing more than “The Look,” firmly directed the guy to “Sit! Stay!”

So when a video went viral showing an Episcopal priest telling a videographer, who had been shooting over his shoulder, to leave, I was sympathetic. First of all, it is clear from the video that the wedding was not in a church but at a park or catering facility, so he was doing a sacred rite at a secular location. This can be awkward because the priest tends to be seen as nothing more than 'hired help.'

When he said that the ceremony was not about the pictures but “about God,” I knew what he was saying: that this is a sacred moment, and the videographers were stealing from that by their intrusion. So part of me cheered a bit because the videographer earned the admonition.

On the other hand, the only image we have is of “The Angry Priest,” and the meme is the ruined wedding. That has become “The Story.”

The on-line comments appear to split 50-50. I have seen blog posts taking both sides. Interestingly, while there are lot of people mad at the priest for tossing out the cameraman and ruining the couple's wedding, no one appears to be mad at the cameraman for posting the altercation on YouTube and defining forever how the wedding is remembered.

Mark Twain once said “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” These days, when electrons are cheap and when everyone can be both a producer and publisher of content, it will not do to make a frontal assault against a culture that mediates experience through the screen. All it does is makes us look angry.

Although this never occurs to us when we are tripping over an over-zealous shutterbug, the truth is that we can’t be angry at the photographer one day and then the next bemoan that our message is not getting out. We can’t have it both ways.

Christians are in the story-telling business. And our story is Good News! We want to use these tools to communicate. As a parish priest, I love having pics and videos of worship because, well done, they tell people what we do and who we are. That means we can't snarl at photographers while expecting to use their product.

So I try to negotiate and educate. Sometimes it even works.

During the process of wedding and baptismal preparation, I direct the couple or family to tell their guests to limit their photography so that everyone can give their full attention to the moment. They should tell their friends that there will be one or two official photographers and that there will be pictures of the liturgy available later from them via e-mail, Facebook, Pinterest or some other form.

For weddings, I also have the couple give me the names of the photographers and I call them and invite them to the rehearsal as well as the wedding. This helps the photographer understand the blocking and timing, it also helps me clarify expectations and solve any unique problems. And it gives the photographer a wealth of candids.

Additionally, I have developed a list of photographers that we recommend, just as we do florists. They know our space and how we work and will make life easier for the couple.

And lastly, I ask both official and unofficial photographers to send me the pictures and grant the church the right to use them for our own communications.

All of this still doesn't prevent an intrusive photographer from happening. Just two weeks ago I did a wedding where the bride’s son, all 6'4" of him, was trying to catch the action on a pocket video camera. It was a small church and his large frame was going to block everyone's view. Of course, everyone was looking at him and not what was happening. Also, the official photographer--who was doing as I asked-- did not appreciate that she was being limited while this unpaid visitor was doing as he pleased. I did not stop the liturgy, but I did walk over to him (and, yes, still in full view of the group) at the first “break” in the action and quietly asked him to step aside and park himself in a spot where he could still take the pictures of his mother and not distract people from witnessing and blessing her marriage.

In a world where we more and more mediate experience through screens, one of the things we can do as a church is remind people that the best photographs, films and videos describe, highlight and interpret a much bigger world. The idea is to both communicate and take us back to a moment in time that is bigger than our perceptions and means more to us than we even realized in the moment. In other words, what photography does is very much like what liturgy does.

Both can connect us, aid in interpreting our experience, and help us makes memory.

Both liturgy and media help us know, tell and live our story.

But bad photography (and unconscious photographers) can like bad liturgy (and unconscious celebrants) get in the way. This is what happened in the video when it went viral: the conversation became about “The Angry Priest vs. The Boorish Photographers” when we should have been celebrating the couple’s marriage.

Photographic technology is so accessible that we forget all the work that goes into a good production. Similarly, a good liturgy should look easy because all the practice has paid off. One of the pastoral challenges of our day is to bring the two together in ways that allow us to see more deeply into the world God has placed us in and contribute to the ongoing story of God’s unfolding, creative love.


The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania, President of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Bethlehem, and a member of the newsteam of the Episcopal Café.

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Funerals at home

by Heidi Haverkamp

Recently, I presided at a tiny home funeral. Twenty people gathered in the living room of a mother and son, approximately aged 90 and 60, who had died on the same day. I’ll call them Leona and Joe. They had lived together for many years, and Joe had become his mother’s caretaker as she slipped into dementia. After a series of medical emergencies, they died on the same day. A small group of family members had gathered from all over North America and we had a funeral in their living room with a small group of neighbors and friends. It was more intimate and powerful than any funeral I have been part of – in churches or funeral homes or even at graveside.

This particular home funeral happened by accident. A parishioner of mine, who I’ll call Mary, had been one of Joe and Leona’s neighbors. She loved them dearly. It seems they had no regular church home and so Mary asked if I would come visit with their grieving family. A week later, the family called me and told me they were having a sort of “memorial party” the next day and asked if I could come and offer a simple service. With so little time we couldn’t plan a traditional Episcopal funeral, with full sermon and Eucharist, but I said I would come and offer something.

The next afternoon, I went to Joe and Leona’s home and joined their friends and family. We sat around their living room, on their couches, chairs, bar stools, and even the stairwell. Their music was playing on their stereo system. There was a laptop on a side table, with a slideshow of photos of Leona, Joe, and their family over the years. Two little wood boxes with their ashes had been set in handmade wreaths of silk flowers (made by a neighbor) on the dining room table, with framed photographs assembled around.

I invited each person to share their name and how they knew Joe and Leona. I offered three burial collects from The Book of Common Prayer, then we read two psalms from Leona’s family Bible, said the Lord’s Prayer, and finally, closed with words from the Committal service. We sat close together, crammed in a room designed for half as many people, facing one another in what had been Joe and Leona’s home. As the service came to a close, meaty smells from the grill wafted in.

I’ve done many funerals, and there have been things dear to me about each one. But there was something about this funeral that I can’t get out of my mind. Perhaps it was the novelty of it, but I think it was the intimacy, familiarity, and sense of community we shared in that living room: hearing each person speak, seeing each other’s faces, sitting on the very furniture that had belonged to these two people who were now gone to be with God.

On the other hand, this small funeral, which as far as I can tell wasn’t advertised in a public obituary, likely deprived some friends and acquaintances the opportunity to grieve Leona and Joe. This is a loss, certainly. (When my step grandmother died, her children decided not to have a public funeral, a decision I respect, but it was painful for some of my cousins and me to lose the chance to grieve her publicly.) There are some funerals where capacity for large numbers of people is necessary: for large families, to be hospitable to all those who may have known and loved someone, to make room for the shock of a community at a particularly tragic death. Large funerals can be powerful, moving, and healing.

But some families in my parish have struggled with making funeral or burial plans for loved ones, or have interred ashes without a service of any kind. A small, home funeral can offer closure, hope, and celebration without the large-scale planning required for a formal, public funeral and burial. Admittedly, it’s easier to do a home funeral if the deceased has been cremated, since transporting a coffin is difficult and costly. (Although, as my Filipino parishioners have pointed out to me, hosting a wake with an embalmed body in the home is common in the Philippines, for as much as a week!) There are many reasons why a home funeral might not be feasible for some families; but on the other hand, I wonder if this sort of intimate, simple funeral would be a spiritual relief and an emotional comfort to many others.

In a society where it seems every day less and less of our lives are private, and large gatherings of people are as ordinary as the nearest mall or megachurch, smaller, pastoral liturgies that emphasize relationships and intimacy may offer a deeper experience of God’s love and promise of resurrection than funeral home services or large church funerals. Where each person can introduce themselves, where a sense of spiritual communion, even without Eucharist, can be shared, where people are rubbing elbows and hearing each other breathe, witnessing to the reality of the communion of saints and powerfully recalling the Resurrection appearance of Jesus among his grieving friends, cowering in a locked, upper room. Home funerals will not replace church funerals or funeral home services, but a small, home funeral liturgy can witness to the Resurrection in a powerful, theologically vibrant way.

The Book of Common Prayer states, “Baptized Christians are properly buried from the church. The service should be held at a time when the congregation has opportunity to be present.” As an Episcopal priest, I pay attention to the Prayer Book’s rubrics and theology of liturgy. But as weddings are held more and more often outside of churches –in homes, backyards, and other places meaningful to the bride and groom – and as churches seek to take liturgy out of the four walls of their buildings and into public spaces, funerals held in homes or other special places strike me as liturgically appropriate and powerful. In Judaism, families “sit shiva” in the person’s home, in the South, funeral receptions are often held at home, and in many cultures and in our own country’s past, the visitation of a person’s body and family has been in the home.

I invite clergy, Christians, and families everywhere to consider the small, home funeral liturgy as a theological and powerful way to remember the dead, and Christ’s promise of Resurrection.

The Rev. Heidi Haverkamp is priest and the vicar of The Episcopal Church of St. Benedict, a congregation with a diverse and Spirit-filled average Sunday attendance of about 75 in Bolingbrook, Illinois. She blogs at Vicar of BolingBrook about home, church, suburbia, and spirituality.

Why do they come for communion when not baptized?

by Jennifer Phillips

Why do they come and not receive? Why do they come and receive when not baptized?

Today a visitor appeared at the rail with hands out and I fed her not knowing who she might be- after the service she came and told me she was Jewish, a friend of someone who had recommended she visit, and hoped she hadn't offended by coming forward but she had a sense of the presence of God in the service and sermon, (which was on the Good Samaritan and the blessing brought by the hated outdsider/'unbeliever') and thought it would be right to do what others were doing around her. So I reassured her that God might draw people to the altar in many ways and she shouldn't worry, and that I'd love to sit down with her and tell her more about church and our customs and beliefs if she'd like. Who knows what grace passed to her this morning? I trust the power of Christ in the Sacrament in any case.


I have a Presbyterian wife of a member who is on chemotherapy and who comes forward for a blessing- not ready to join the church just yet, but a believer, a bit fearful of eating or drinking anything other people have handled.


I have, on the other hand, a school child whose parents are of two different faiths, in the midst of a contested divorce, and one parent has refused to let the child be baptized though she desires it (about 9) and her other parent brings her to church regularly. I giver her Communion before her baptism, knowing her great desire to be baptized, to be close to God through Jesus, and to belong fully to our church community awaiting the resolution of the parental conflict before baptizing her, since to do so may endanger custody for the member parent - and she doesn't understand all these legal parental issues.


I have a member going through a crisis of faith who comes to the rail to be blessed but in good conscience does not think himself in a state to receive the Sacrament. We are having ongoing conversations. In the meantime I am happy to touch and bless this pained person who still desires the connection of the community on a visceral level.


I have some Spanish members who come from a Catholic tradition of first Communion at 7 and bring their children to the rail with them, but haven't yet come to understand our belief and polity and practice - it will take them a little time to absorb, and in the meantime, I will bless their children.


I have a Roman Catholic spouse of a member who in her good conscience doesn't feel she can receive, yet wants to accompany her ancient spouse to the rail and kneel beside him - I bless her there; I think it would feel unkind to present the elements with the word of administration knowing she believed yet didn't feel permitted to take them.


All sorts and conditions of people are drawn to the rail for all sorts of reasons conscious and unconscious, in a great variety of states of preparedness and unpreparedness. There's always lots of teaching going on to help form people in our sacramental life, but the plain truth is that the power of God in the liturgy touches, moves, transforms, and attracts people right then, and at the rail doesn't seem a good place to question beyond "do you desire to receive the Body of Christ?"
 At the heavenly throne I'd much rather be explaining why I fed some people inappropriately than why I failed to feed some who hungered and thirsted for God and put their hands out; and I'd rather give an extra blessing with a touch to someone who is drawn forward than explain they should be satisfied with a general blessing at the end. Like grain, in full measure, poured out, spilling over into one's lap, this love and graciousness of God in the sacrament of the altar. 


The Rev. Jennifer Phillips has been the rector of St. Francis Church, Rio Rancho, NM for two years, and served a 12 year term on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. She is a past APLM Board member, and an Associate of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and a poet. She has helped author many contemporary liturgical texts now in use in the Episcopal Church.

Communion before baptism at General Convention

by James Papile
(corrected)

After a few days of perspective I have been collecting my reflections on the 77th General Convention. Without a doubt the most exciting and hopeful thing about convention was the presence of young people. Finally, after several conventions the assembly was able to hear the voices of young Episcopalians. Even with several positive actions, I left the event disheartened. This year one of the most controversial resolutions, beginning the process to change the canons to allow for the administration of communion to those not yet baptized was so altered in the House of Bishops as to be essentially changed. Although I voted for, and am a strong proponent of the canonical change, my discouragement comes from the fact that last minute changes to controversial issue come to the deputies with no time for conversation. When we think about changes to structure this issue needs to be addressed.

Providing communion before baptism, a new crisis in the church is our reworking of an ancient crisis experienced in the earliest days of the faith. For Paul and Peter the contention was over the necessity of a male convert to be circumcised. The Jerusalem contingent wanted all converts to be circumcised before they were to be allowed in the community.

Now there are the new traditionalists who want the “gentiles” to be baptized before they are allowed full inclusion in the Church (the right to receive communion). Although this modern day discussion isn't anywhere near as painful physically,it has the same, I believe, monumental implications for the future of the Church.

For those to whom Paul was evangelizing, non-Jews, Jewish ritual and Jewish law was meaningless. Never having been exposed to Torah-the way of Jewish life - going through the action of adult male circumcision would have been dangerous due to the possibility of infection, very painful, and without rationale. Paul argued, apparently convincingly, with Peter and others that requiring circumcision would have been a major impediment to those who might otherwise embrace the Jesus-following community.

I'm not suggesting that being baptized is anything like the trauma of adult circumcision, although I have baptized a few infants who couldn't have put up much more of a fight or seemingly been more traumatized! But what I am saying is that unchurched folks walking into a Jesus-following community of today will find the practice of baptizing equally lacking in meaning.

Inside the community, we grew up knowing the meaning and the importance of baptism. This amazingly transformative moment is difficult to describe to those who know nothing about the Church. For some newcomers, there will be an attraction to the life of the community which will give them time to absorb the meaning of this powerful sacrament. They will wait to receive after they are baptized. But what about those who need another way to feel included? Must we also ask those individuals to wait until they feel the power of the Holy Spirit and the welcoming of the community? How fair, or realistic is that? How effective can we expect this process to be in bringing folks from the contemporary culture to Christ?

A few weeks ago we read the story of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch, a story that has powerful implication on many levels for the Church today. By today's standards, Philip's action would have been questioned. Did he adequately inform the individual of the theological meaning of baptism; did he impress upon him the importance of a “home parish,” was he convinced of the eunuch's intention to remain a faithful church-going person? Early Church documents record a catechumenate period of up to two years. Today many parishes require an adult candidate for baptism to go through a series of classes, teachings about scripture, church history, and contemporary polity. By these standards Philip's baptismal preparation was deficient.

In these missionary times we have significant challenges, but also powerful opportunities. Some practices, some time-honored customs may need to be suspended, even altered. Did the community in Jerusalem keep circumcising? Probably, yet to what effect? Paul's way was different. Daring to break from tradition, his work spread the faith to the four corners of the known world. He will forever be the model for Christian evangelism. We should be as far seeing today, for a stronger, more vibrant Church.

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body...” ~Ephesians 2:13ff


The Rev. James Papile is the Rector of St. Anne's Episcopal Church, Reston VA and often writes about baseball, the church and faith.

Baptism and Communion: identity and inclusion

by Maria L. Evans

"Scripture itself provides no unambiguous or explicit guidelines on the question of communion of the unbaptized. It could be argued that the question never arose. However, baptism clearly plays an important and foundational role in the community that gathered around John the Baptist and later Jesus."
--Tobias Haller, BSG, from the book, Water, Bread and Wine: Should we offer communion to people before they are baptized?

Hopefully, the statute of limitations has run out on what I'm about to confess. Many of my best friends growing up were Roman Catholic, and when I would go to Mass with them, I went through a period where I became more and more curious about "just what was in that Sacrament from which I was excluded"--and more in more intent on getting it in my mouth to see just what the fuss was all about. So, I enlisted the help of one of my friends, whom I was pretty sure he would not worry much about being consigned to Hell for being the accomplice in my scheme. It was a subterfuge that only a pair of adolescents would think was plausible (or even desirable,) and we pulled it off with all the finesse of the theft of the Crown Jewels. He was to go up for Communion like always. When the bread was popped into his mouth, he was not to swallow it, but bring it back in his mouth and deposit it in my hand while he was kneeling in post-Communion prayer, and I could see for myself. (I always knelt with him during his post-Communion prayer, even though I wasn't post-anything.) The fact that it was slightly tinged with the sip of wine he consumed, and a little soggy from his slobber didn't seem to matter. I had eaten from the table from which I was excluded.

I doubt the church in Rome would have been too happy about me, but I'm pretty sure Jesus chuckled.

Now, my story isn't really an exact parallel to the question raised in the book from which I quoted above (I was baptized, but in another faith tradition,) but it does illustrate the level of desire the Sacraments induce in people, and the more I read the various opinions "for" and "against" Communion Before Baptism, the more I'm convinced this is not a question that needs to be answered this week. If I have one criticism of this book (and it's worth a read, if you haven't read it) it is that the premise of the title itself frames for debate rather than discussion. The title asks the reader to say "yes" or "no" to the question, but after reading this book, I think I can say "yes" to every single person's essay in this book, no matter which "side" they were asked to champion. There's another parallel in real life. Most of us would say baptism and catechesis is important--very important--in framing our understanding of our rich Anglican traditions. Yet most of us also know that this issue is the equivalent of "don't ask, don't tell" in the Episcopal Church. Everyone in the process for ordination knows what the "right answer" is in front of the diocesan Commission on Ministry, but we also know this canon is broken all the time, and for many plausible reasons. Sara Miles' book Take this Bread is a perfect example of how the Sacraments have power within themselves to change people in a way we can only hope formal catechesis changes them.

In short, it's a balancing act between identity and inclusion.

Perhaps the real task before us in the Episcopal Church is to meet the challenge of how to change the canon to hold it all--to make it clear that baptism is the fundamental statement of community in the Christian faith, yet at the same time leaving room to let priests be priests, rather than bouncers, and to free them from the fear of canonical and ecclesiastical persecution by a hypothetically capricious bishop. It should not--and does not--have to be a situation where priests are held in tension between two aspects of their vows--to "conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church" while they simultaneously endeavor to "minister the Word of God and the sacraments of the New Covenant," and to "be a faithful pastor to all whom they are called to serve." After all, being a faithful pastor has elements of all three.

Our canons are not set in stone--we have changed them many times in the life of this church. Nor is the path to the Eucharistic table. It was only until the 1979 Prayer book came along that we fully changed from being a confirmation-minded community to a baptismal-minded one in terms of how we saw access to the Eucharistic table. We've paid a lot of attention to the Eucharistic table in our Anglican tradition, and rightly so. In the secular world, whether it's on vacation, or during a hospital stay, or during our years in school, the one thing we react to most viscerally and sticks with us the longest are our feelings about the food. Our holy food and drink deserves no less attention.



Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Who's invited to the communion discussion?

by Andee Zetterbaum

Just in time for Pentecost, the new banner went up. Made by an extraordinarily talented fabric artist, it showed a streak of light swooping down to Earth: the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Or so we all thought.

It took a 10-year-old boy to correct us. "Isn't it great," he said, "that our God is powerful enough to swat away that comet that's about to destroy the Earth?"

It's been nearly 20 years since this incident, but I've been thinking about it - a lot - as I read the various postings about the pros and cons of welcoming the baptized and unbaptized alike to the communion table.

You see, I think we're discussing this with the wrong people.

In the times and places (even now) where Christian worship had to be held secretly, for safety ... in the times when newcomers weren't even allowed to witness the sacred mystery until they were baptized ... in the thousands and thousands of villages over the ages where the population was so homogeneous that non-Christians in church were almost as unlikely as unicorns ... in all those times and places, the Church had the luxury of being able to define the theology of baptism and communion. The Church - those inside the faith - could decide what baptism and communion are supposed to mean, confident that they would have the opportunity to instruct all into these meanings - before they ever witnessed the sacraments.

We no longer have that luxury.

We lost the ability to define the theology of communion the moment churches started publicly inviting people to come in. The Church didn't plan to lose the right to be the one to define this, but we did - by the very presence of our public buildings, our signs, ads, blogs, and campaigns urging members to bring a friend.

The overwhelming majority of our unbaptized church visitors will never cross the threshhold of this particular church ever again. They are the relatives and friends of the bride and groom, the mourners at a funeral, occasionally the friends and relatives of one who is about to be baptized. A few are the unchurched or anti-church or other-faithed relatives of our members, who may come a couple of times a year, at best.

You won't find most of them joining your next inquirers' class, or spending weeks learning about the Scripture, tradition and reason that led us to require (or not require) baptism as a prerequisite to communion. They won't care what General Convention decides the canons should be. They won't tell you how glad they were that they waited to receive communion until after baptism and how deeply meaningful that was to them; nor will they relate the story about how taking communion, even though unbaptized, gave them the joy and strength to embark on the voyage that led to their eventual baptism.

Instead, for them, the theology of communion will be decided, on the spot, by the gut-level reaction of each visitor who witnesses it. Their desire to know God-in-Christ in community may be stirred up - or utterly destroyed - by that moment.

And that takes this discussion to a whole different level. The question we need to be asking isn't what SHOULD the theology of baptism and communion be, it's what is the PERCEIVED theology by the outsider who is present at our worship. And the people who need to be involved in that discussion are:

The 8-year-old who comes to church with her best friend after a sleepover

The grandchildren who are only here twice a year when they are visiting their grandparents

The 11-year-old who often comes with his grandmother and has been leaving love notes to Jesus on the altar since he was first old enough to write, but whose parents won't allow him to be baptized until he turns 18

The teen who is clearly uncomfortable being here, but wants to be with her boyfriend

The anti-church spouse

The Muslim grandmother from another country who is here for her grandson's baptism

The Jewish son-in-law who comes with the family on Christmas

The 'spiritual but not religious' 20-something who has moved back in with his parents after college, and only comes to church on Easter to keep the family peace

The homeless person who wanders in off the street

Those who come to share with and honor their loved ones at weddings and funerals


What do our communion practices say to them about the nature of the God we worship? What does God say to them, through the way we share communion?

Does God say the same thing through the way we celebrate communion to the unbaptized who are present at a Eucharist in memory of those who died of AIDS, or violence, or the latest war or natural disaster? If the Eucharist is held in a federal prison, or nursing home, under the bridge at the homeless encampment, or among the migrant workers during the annual blessing of the fields and forthcoming harvest?

Because, you see, I think God has cherished and adored all these persons since before they were born. Has been in relationship with them, all along. And is longing to be closer to them, speaking to them through our worship, even if they only once step through our doors.

And before we make a decision about whether God wants us to change the relationship between baptism and communion, I think it's time for us to listen in - and honor - and then with deep awe, join in that conversation.

Andee Zetterbaum is a member of St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Lodi, CA, Diocese of San Joaquin, Founder of World In Prayer, a few years ago she taught an online course through CALL on "Meeting the God We Worship"-- how exploring perceived theology among members and visitors can help ease worship wars.

On making too much of vows II

This is the second of a two-part article. Daily Episcopalian will return on Monday.

By Donald Schell

My alarm goes off at 5 or 5:30 weekday mornings. I get up quickly to leave my wife sleeping and go downstairs to make us breakfast before our prayers together. Seeing her sleeping as I leave our room, my thoughts are not a rehearsal of promises made long ago. I offer the briefest prayer, “Thank you, Jesus,” and cherish a first moment of wonder at love.

The promises we make at a wedding mark a beginning for faithful love, but the path forward is something else. Walking forward from promise comes in finding the grateful freedom of a path chosen newly each day. That freedom feels truer and readier to suffer if need be than trying to hang tightly to, ‘I gave my word so it’s settled.’

Full disclosure – a long time ago, for a handful of years I tried walking that path the other way, dealing with a mutual failure, confusion, not knowing each other in a first marriage that became, for both of us in its way, a dogged attempt to hang on to the vows.

So when I said wedding vows to Ellen thirty-six years ago, it was my second time saying them. I leaned hard on my own spiritual director and a priest mentor for prayer and counsel to sort out how I could make the promises again. It was additionally heavy in 1975 because I was already ordained. I know only one priest who was divorced and remembered. Remember patterning our lives after Christ? Today the number clergy we know who are divorced and remarried or divorced and now in a same-sex partnership feels comparable to the once married or celibate. But in 1975, at least one good clergy friend and one very close lay friend told me they could not be present to witness my second speaking of those vows because my first marriage had ended in divorce. The friendships weathered that absence - both of them are glad that Ellen’s my wife.

Now I love hearing those vows again at a wedding. It gives me deep pleasure to wonder and hope and dare along with a couple speaking those words to each other and feeling that they mean everything they’re saying even though they know they can’t know what such unreserved commitment will mean for them. I love hearing them, love that moment of beginning, but feel no desire to speak those words to renew the moment.

When Ellen and I got to twenty-five years we threw a bit party and invited family and friends, but we didn’t renew our vows; we asked a good priest friend to pray the nuptial blessing over us again and welcomed the hearty toast of family and friends. To me vows feel like a workable, holy beginning, but we’d traveled on. In time the path becomes clearer and holier even than the wonder of its beginning. Living in faithfulness is all discernment and as those vows come close to saying, it’s full of unknowing.

In the film Of Gods and Men, we watch two terrified monks veer toward losing their faith as they’re itching to flee back to safety in France. Grace overtakes them as they find their old love.

I have a small taste of the clarity of such love emerging for the Trappists in the film when I open my eyes to the wonder of someone I know so well and am still getting to know a third of a century later. I thank God for morning light and another day we can share. So I’m remembering and hoping in the life together the vows launched, but not thinking of the vows.

No, I’m not saying the promises we made don’t matter. They’re pointing somewhere, or better, they’re pointing toward someone. At this Eastertide, I want to come stand by Peter and have Jesus challenge and question me too. Rumi supplies the music as Jesus asks me, you, and us again, ‘Do you love me?’

“Come, come whoever you are, worshiper, wanderer, lover of leaving, ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows as thousand times, come, come again, come.”

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

On making too much of vows I

This is the first of a two-part article.

By Donald Schell

It feels like a new Episcopal church norm or standard may be emerging, making an Easter Vigil part of our Holy Week. I like that. For more than twenty-five years I was pastor of a congregation where the Saturday night Vigil was our biggest liturgy of the whole year and our only Easter celebration. Easter Day we had a picnic.

But often the rediscovery of the vigil brings with it yet another “Renewal of our Baptismal Covenant.” I’m increasingly uneasy with our attachment to promise making and promise renewing – renewals of baptism covenant, renewals of ordination vows for clergy in Holy Week, anniversary renewals of wedding vows. The passion narratives in Holy Week and the Easter appearances of the Risen Jesus sharpen my worry. Each of the four Gospels tells catastrophic story of promise making and promise breaking - Peter’s vehement promise to stand by Jesus when everyone else abandons him.

The oldest version of Peter’s promise making in Mark’s Gospel has him insisting to Jesus, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Jesus replies with the haunting prophecy that before the cock begins its pre-dawn crowing Peter will have denied him three times that very night. Resurrection stories in all four gospels attend in some way to Jesus’ mending the fracture of betrayal, folding Peter back into the community. Often the New Testament lists Peter as the first witness to the resurrection, displacing the story of Mary Magdalene encounter with the risen Jesus, probably for the sake of telling the story to emphasize the restoration of Peter the to the place among the twelve that his betrayal might seem to have lost him.

To my mind John’s Gospel offers the loveliest of these reconciliation stories by the lakeside in Galilee, almost at the very end of the Gospel. Jesus has appeared, shared breakfast with the disciples, and then takes Peter aside and three times (to match the three denials) asks, “do you love me more than these?” and “Do you love me?” Peter, insistent as ever, keeps saying, “Lord, you know I love you.” And each time to this insistence, Jesus replies, “feed my sheep” or “feed my lambs.” Loving expressed in doing seems to trump promise making.

Promise making has an odd history in the church’s liturgical evolution. Apparently monastic vows were the first church-acknowledged promises. Wedding vows come some centuries later. The earliest Christian wedding practice followed Judaism, where the sacramental act wasn’t husband and wife making promises, but the priest (or rabbi) praying on behalf of the family and assembly to ask God’s blessing on the couple. Apparently the most ancient ordination rites also were blessings prayed by the bishop without the person who was being ordained offering vows. We certainly know of a number of sainted priests and bishops who tried to refuse ordination in this period and in the end were forcibly ordained against their will – doesn’t sound much like promises were made there. And the baptismal covenant that we’re often repeating now was an addition to baptism with the last round of Prayer Book revision. Whenever I hear someone talking about ‘my baptismal covenant’ or ‘our baptismal covenant,’ I remember Martin Luther’s refuge in times of darkest depression feeling himself besieged by Satan himself (like the line in “A Mighty Fortress,” “and though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us”). Luther’s steady response to facing his demons was to remind himself, “I have been baptized.” He didn’t find direction or comfort in his own promise but in the church’s faithful act and God’s faithfulness.

Actually, of course, most Episcopalians over the age of about thirty-five were baptized without any covenant being uttered, not even on their behalf as babies. It was the revisions leading to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that reframed the apparent working of the sacrament around an extended vowing.

So what did these sacraments look like before each, in succeeding centuries was reframed with vows?

Jewish style, they were blessings with a physical, enacted or embodied affirmation:

-a blessing over the water and a sacramental gesture of water and the sign of a cross,
- a blessing over the ordinand and a sacramental gesture of laying on of hands,
- a blessing over the couple and a sacramental gesture of a kiss and exchange of gifts or rings.

I’m not against vowing or promising. I’m often deeply moved to hear a couple make this symmetrical promise each to the other in turn:

“In the name of God, I, [name], take you, [name], to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”

In fact I suspect that in the fifteen hundred year history of vow-creep that’s reshaped our ancient sacraments that the marriage vow is the most profound and spacious – it’s simple as unreserved, faithful love until death no matter what.

Baptismal vows and ordination vows for the orders of bishop, deacon and priest all go beyond simplicity to offer a fuller picture of the commitment the candidate is making. It’s not a bad picture they make. All these other vows draw appropriately on the Bible, on tradition, and on experience to sketch that picture, but somehow in the end what more they offer seems less than the stark, lean vows of a wedding.

This time of year with Holy Week, musing about ordination vows and baptismal covenant, I was haunted by the French film, Of Gods and Men, the Trappist monks facing what would be their martyrdom in Algeria. The film retells a real event of 1996 from the accounts of the two surviving brothers of the community, the journals of the martyrs, and the stories of their friends and neighbors in the Muslim village alongside the monastery. Nowhere in the painful, confusing time of choosing to stay and face possible death do the brothers remind one another of their ordination vows.

“Peter, do you love me?” “Feed my sheep.”

It’s love that drives them, not keeping their word. Love for Christ, for the brothers in their community, for their Muslim friends in the village. And they don’t stay in order to be martyred, but simply because they come to see staying and facing danger with each other and their neighbors as the only reflection of their love that makes sense.

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

The vow

By Adam Thomas

A couple of months before our recent wedding, my wife and I sat down with the Book of Common Prayer and turned to page 423. We read the header and the italicized rubrics, and then our eyes fell on those famous words: Dearly Beloved. “We’re really doing it?” she asked. “We’re really planning our wedding ceremony?”

“We really are,” I confirmed. We each held one side of the book as we leafed through the service, discussing music and readings and the people we might ask to participate. When we reached the end of the printed liturgy, she looked at me, confusion written on her face. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“When do I get say ‘I do?’ ”

I stifled a chuckle, remembering that each of the brides I had counseled before their weddings had asked me the same question. From the days when brides, my wife included, draped white pillowcases from their hair and walked down imaginary aisles lined with dolls and stuffed animals, they had each dreamed of saying those two small words. When they discovered that “I do” doesn’t appear in the beautiful Episcopal liturgy, I had ten-minute mutinies on my hands. “What do you mean I don’t get to say ‘I do?’ I’m out of here. We’ll get married at the VFW hall and my cousin will get a temporary license to officiate and he’ll let me say, ‘I do.’ Come on, dear, we’re leaving.”

After of few minutes, though, they calmed down enough to listen to reason. Now, I don’t relish the thought of destroying the dreams of brides everywhere, so I try to be as sensitive as possible. But when my own bride-to-be wondered aloud about the lack of those two little words, I didn’t really know what to say. My standard pastoral line wouldn’t work on her because I’m not her priest. So instead, I patted her on the back and resisted the urge to say, “There, there.”

A few weeks later, we had our first premarital counseling session, and the priest suggested that we memorize our vows rather than have the officiant feed them to us line by line. We decided to take on the challenge. Each day from then on, we practiced the vows. We spoke them aloud, prompting each other when we hesitated and gently correcting each other when we mixed up the phrases. Over the course of a few weeks, we learned the words by heart.

In the name of God, I, Adam, take you, Leah, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

These deep, rich words sunk into us as we learned them. They are now the bedrock of our marriage, and (I hope my wife agrees with me!) they are so much better than “I do.” These words make me wonder: how often in our lives do we vow something? We might give assurances that we’ll get the paperwork done or promise to pick someone up after school, but when don’t “vow” to do these things.

Vows don’t happen too often. Witnesses swear to tell the whole truth in court; government officials, new citizens, and military folks pledge to uphold the Constitution or obey officers. These are as close to “vows” as people make outside of the covenant of marriage. But the “solemn vow” of marriage is unique in society, and that makes it all the more special.

A vow is neither time nor place specific. It covers more than the limited scenario during which one might make a promise. Indeed, a vow is not promise, but the framework on which promises are hung. This is made explicit by the pairs of opposites that the couple speaks during the vows – better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health. The vow is the acknowledgment that life will never quite be the same as it was before that moment, no matter how long a couple might have been living together before marriage. When I vowed to take Leah to be my wife, I entered into a new type of existence, one in which I now (at long last) own the fact that I am not the most important person in my own life. I vowed to cherish her and to love her – come what may. I can think of no greater duty and no greater joy than to explore with her this new existence that our vow has opened to us.

This new existence begins with the vow – not two measly words – but a few sentences that changes lives. And the vow begins with a few more words that are more important the all the rest: “In the name of God…” The vow would mean nothing if God were not part of it. Just as the vow is the framework for all promises, God is the framework for the vow. The new existence into which we entered a few weeks ago at our wedding happens with God’s name at the top of the page. It couldn’t be otherwise.

I know that it has only been a few weeks, and we aren’t planning on having children for a while; but I wonder if our future daughter will put a pillowcase on her head and walk down an imaginary aisle? She probably will. But hopefully, we will teach her not to look forward to saying, “I do.” Rather, we will teach her to dream about the deep, rich words: “This is my solemn vow.”

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com. He is the author of the forthcoming book Digital Disciple, out this May from Abingdon Press.

Communion without Baptism III

This is the third of a three-part article.

By Derek Olsen

Perhaps the greatest issue that I have with Communion Without Baptism is that too often it is framed on an individual and individualistic level. The focus is on an individual who happens to enter a church building and who comes up to the altar to receive. But the catholic construction of the sacramental life is fundamentally bound up with the connections between the mystical, social, eschatological, Eucharistic, and pneumatic bodies of Christ. The sacramental life is a community activity with a communal purpose.

When we begin thinking and talking about Christian community, my knee-jerk reaction is to go back to St Benedict. Benedict’s rule for monks has served as an enduring reflection on the construction and maintenance of Christian community, one that has been grounding and inspiring Christian communal life for over fifteen hundred years. Benedict’s communities are formed around three fundamental principles which, late in the Rule, appear as the monastic vows: they are stability, obedience, and conversion of life or habits. Although these concepts aren’t laid out explicitly until late in the text, the whole Rule is shot through with them. In the very first chapter of the Rule, Benedict lays out the four kinds of monks. The first are the anchorites, the hermits; this is the kind that most of his readers think they want to be. Benedict raises them only to dismiss them, however! He says, these are the monks who have been cenobites (monks who live in a community) for a long time so we won’t talk about them… Then he goes to two other kinds of monks, the gyrovagues and the sarabites. Gyrovagues are monks who are constantly wandering from place to place and who don’t owe obedience to a either a rule or an abbot. The sarabites are a little better—they stay in one place but they do not have a consistent obedience. Without either a rule or an abbot, they change their practices on a whim. The result, Benedict says, is that “they have a character as soft as lead.” The fourth type of monk, the cenobite, is defined in contrast to the others. They stay in one place and owe obedience to both a rule and an abbot. The result is that they are the strongest kind of monk.

What Benedict had done in this initial discussion was to frame a discussion of identity focused on the concept of purpose. With his characterization of the types of monks, he establishes that his three principles fit within a particular hierarchy. Stability is the base; without stability, nothing is possible. But stability by itself is not enough. For the sarabites who have stability, any virtue that they acquire is accidental because they lack obedience which is spiritual stability. Only when a community is grounded in physical stability and spiritual stability are the prerequisites in place that enable conversion of life in Benedict’s program.

See, Benedict starts by identify the key principles, the virtues, that will produce a certain product. He builds them in at the very beginning at the Rule are built in at the very beginning. Without establishing at the beginning the foundations, we’ll end up like the gryovage or the sarabites—any virtue that gets acquired is merely accidental. If we want to produce a result, we have to plan for it, and set up the conditions that will allow it to flourish. We have to envision the product that we’re going to produce. So what is it that the church is trying to produce?

Again, the answer is laid out in Scripture. In Ephesians 4 we find the Pauline vision of the fundamental purpose of the social Body of Christ:

“The gifts [Jesus] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. . . . But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Eph 4:11-13, 15-16)

Our fundamental goal is that the Body of Christ should come to participate in the Mind of Christ working corporately in the love of Christ.

Now, what does this have to do with Communion Without Baptism? It comes down to commitment; it comes down to stability, both physical and spiritual. The Eucharistic transformation into the Mind of Christ happens within the context of a community—the Baptismal community which is the Body of Christ. If we don’t emphasize the community and our need for it, and its place in forming Christian character then we are simply inviting to be gyrovagues and sarabites without inviting them to a more excellent way.

We understand the sacraments as means of grace. These are the ordinary channels laid down in Scripture and tradition through which God showers transforming grace into our common life. When we embrace the sacraments in their proper relations as the foundational prerequisites for the life of grace we are setting up the conditions to move the Body of Christ towards the Mind of Christ.

Now, what I don’t want to do is to deny the existence of extraordinary grace. That is to say, we believe that God has laid down ordinary means through which we can be certain that grace functions. However, these ordinary means are not limits on God. God can function outside of these and we must be attentive to where and how God is acting. Proponents of Communion Without Baptism suggest that our emphasis on the ordinary means of grace is an attempt to nullify or quench the Spirit’s action through extraordinary means. And they can produce anecdotal examples of those whose lives have been transformed outside of these channels by means of Communion Without Baptism. My concern is that Communion Without Baptism, on the basis of anecdotal examples, seeks to overhaul the ordinary economy of grace and replace it with extraordinary. But whittling away the virtues, the habits, the guides that shape our behavior—the fundamental need for commitment—they place the unsuspecting into the role of the sarabite and the gyrovague.

Where, then, does that leave us? If we ignore the extraordinary means of grace, we may be ignoring how God is working in our midst. If we ignore the ordinary means of grace, we turn our backs on ways that God has indisputably been working in our midst. At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding. The church, the institutional body shaped by sacraments, expressing physically our common life in Christ has a purpose. The purpose is transforming the Body of Christ according to the Mind of Christ. It is conversion of life. It is embodying the incarnate call to love of God and neighbor. At the end of the day we must watch and ask—what patterns are most conducive to discipleship, to formation, to the construction and increase of embodied love?

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

This is a portion of a presentation to the Annual Convention of the Society of Catholic Priests. The purpose of the presentation was to foster discussion within the Society concerning the present controversy around Episcopal Eucharistic practice. Members of the Society tend toward the current canonical stance but are committed to a genuine and respectful dialogue, and the presentation led to an open and interesting conversation marked by charity and civility even with some disagreement. We hope that these remarks may foster a similar charitable dialogue within our church.

Communion without Baptism II

This is the second of a three-part article.

By Derek Olsen

So—why would people within our church argue for a change in our practice and therefore in our theology? What makes this worth doing? My sense is that many of the people who are for Communion Without Baptism, especially those who are not career theologians and who haven’t thought about it long and hard, many of them aren’t trying to change our sacramental theology. Instead what they’re trying to do is to establish Episcopal identity and any negative effect on the sacraments just happens to be collateral damage.

I don’t believe I have to tell anyone here that we are existing within a polarized church. Strident voices from both extremes are trying their hardest to define and redefine what it means to be the Episcopal Church. And locating that definition is a challenge because of some sociological and demographic realities about our make-up. Religion in America in the twenty-first century is a marketplace environment. According to the Pew Research Center almost half of all American adults have changed their religious affiliation sometime in their life. Perception, marketing, and identity all shift together as denominations wrestle with who they are, how they present themselves, and how they’d like to be perceived. I don’t have any scientific numbers on this, but—anecdotally—many of the current Episcopalians I know were raised something more rigid. Either they were Roman Catholic or were a more extreme form of Protestant. As a result, one of the reasons that they have come to the Episcopal Church is because it is perceived to be a more inclusive and less exclusive church than the one they left. This is certainly a perception that our national church leadership seems to be encouraging: the Episcopal Church is the Inclusive Church. As a result, practices that seem to be at odds with this new self-identity can be seen as suspect. Limiting communion to the baptized is exclusive, they will argue.

We have to walk a careful line here. On one hand we do want to affirm the openness that has historically been one of our strengths as Anglicans. We seek to make no windows into men’s souls. We do want to affirm a generous inclusion. On the other hand, a policy of openness that refuses the legitimacy of any boundaries, of any limits is not freedom and inclusiveness but ultimately self-destructive license. How do we affirm a welcoming openness and yet insist on properly maintained relationships?

Perhaps one way is through the recognition of the clergy as the stewards of the mysteries of God. At your ordination, you are called to be the stewards of the mysteries of God. Now, this role has several different aspects to it. The first is that the steward is not the porter. As you may know, back in the days when we had nine ecclesiastical grades and clerks in minor orders, one of the earliest grades was the porter. This person’s job was to keep the door and make sure that only the right people got in. Needless to say, we don’t have this function anymore and it’s not one that we intend to take over either. No one is proposing that we have an altar lock-down where each person who comes up has to scan their baptism pass before they’re allowed to commune. Certain proponents of the practice conjure up a caricature of a religious police state where people like us carefully scan the crowd lest one person slip through and get some Jesus when they’re not suppose to. And that’s really not the point. I don’t have an issue with the accidental and occasional communing of the unbaptized—what I take issue with is a standing policy.

Ok, so, if the steward is not the porter than who exactly are they? There are those who will argue that Jesus is the Host of the table and, since it is his table and not ours, Jesus is the only one qualified to call or turning away the guests at his Paschal feast. They are right on the first point: Jesus is the Host. However, since the time of Paul and likely before, the clergy have been appointed as stewards. A steward is a member of the household who stands in when the host cannot be present with his guests. The steward both ensures that there are sufficient supplies on hand, but also makes sure that everything proceeds according to the host’s will. These days, one of the most important roles of the steward is to explain basic etiquette.

Etiquette and the habits of hospitality are a two way street. In most classical cultures there are well-defined rules that lay out the obligations between the guest and the host. There were certain things that the host had to do and, in turn, there were certain things that the guest was required to do. For instance in Norse cultures the guest was expected to bring a gift to honor his host. The host would also give a gift .However, if the guest’s gift was more lavish than what his host provided, it was regarded as an insult. Breaches of the rules of hospitality could be a cause for a feud or even war. Indeed, according to Homer’s account of the Trojan War, Paris’s crime of kidnapping Helen was multiplied many times by his betrayal of the sacred rules of hospitality.

These days Americans tend have an atrophied sense of etiquette. When visitors enter an Episcopal Church for the first time they may have no idea what they are about to experience. They will be understandably ignorant of our code of conduct. Thus, the attentive steward has a responsibility to lay out the ground rules for proper behavior: “All baptized Christians are welcome to receive the Eucharist in this church. If you do not wish to receive or are not baptized please come forward and cross your arms over your chest to receive a blessing. If you’re interested in being baptized please find one of the clergy afterward and we’d be happy to discuss it with you.” With as few words as these, you will have discharged your basic duty as a steward. At this point your role as steward has been fulfilled. Now the obligations of hospitality have been transferred to the guests. If they choose to abuse your hospitality then it will be by conscious choice and not through ignorance. In this way we maintain a stance that is open and welcoming, yet clear. Not only have we followed the rules of hospitality, we have empowered the stranger to do the same.

Now, before the offertory at the parish where I attend, every Sunday, the priest stands before the congregation. And he invites people no matter where they are on their spiritual journey, no matter whether they are baptized or unbaptized, confirmed or unconfirmed—to join us in the parish hall after Mass for coffee. Yes, it’s true; at my parish we observe open coffee. There is no rail around our coffee table and that’s the way it ought to be. The purpose of the coffee hour is to have joyful fellowship in one another’s presence and to have a more or less symbolic sip and a snack. There is no commitment either stated or implied in this little ritual unless it’s the responsibility to throw away your plate and your cup once you’re done. And, fundamentally, this is the difference between the parish hall and the sanctuary: the coffee doesn’t cost you anything. But when we are called to the supper of the Lamb a little more is expected; “When Christ calls a man,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “he bids him come and die.” And Bonhoeffer, of course, wrote the truth of those words in his own blood.

This is the shadow side of the steward. This is the flip-side of the obligation. If the sacrament is only a bit of symbolic nourishment like a cookie and a cup of coffee then we would be silly for keeping anyone from the table. But the sacrament is a deeper walk upon the way of the cross. Once again taking into yourself the call to take up the cross and to follow Christ to his bitter destination. Yes, a resurrection lies beyond but there is no route to an empty tomb that does not lead through the Good Friday. If the Eucharist means more, is more, than coffee and a cookie—and we believe it is—than as steward of the mysteries you have woefully abdicated your responsibilities if you have not warned each one who approaches what awaits them at the table. It would be one thing if the churches where Communion without Baptism is practiced regularly used the exhortation in the prayer book to alert their visitors as to the nature of the meal before them—but I’ve never heard it in such a context. (Of course, speaking of the exhortation, it might not be a bad idea if the baptized were to be reminded of it from time to time as well; you’ll find it on page 316 of your prayer book with the Rite I Penitential Order in case you’ve misplaced it…)

Truth be told, Bonhoeffer is one of our allies as we try and maintain our balance. The theological principle that lies at the heart of inclusion is grace. God’s grace is generous and free, the unmerited love of a good God. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and yet the God of grace calls tenderly to each of us in the midst of our unworthiness. And yet, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, the proclamation of grace is an incomplete proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. Unalloyed and unbalanced, the proclamation of grace can become the cheap grace of which Bonhoeffer warns: “the preaching of forgiveness not requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Indeed, Bonoeffer writing in the late Thirties laid the pitiful resistance of the German church against the Nazi regime to a proclamation of grace without cost. He writes, “We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving. We poured forth unending streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus in the Narrow way was hardly ever heard.” Inclusion—yes. The love and acceptance of God—yes. But cheap grace, grace without cost, grace without response—no. This we cannot abide.
Grace must be balanced with discipleship and this is the harm of Communion without Baptism. It represents the offer of intimacy without commitment, love without cost and that, right there, is the crime—for the cost is Christ.

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

This is a portion of a presentation to the Annual Convention of the Society of Catholic Priests. The purpose of the presentation was to foster discussion within the Society concerning the present controversy around Episcopal Eucharistic practice. Members of the Society tend toward the current canonical stance but are committed to a genuine and respectful dialogue, and the presentation led to an open and interesting conversation marked by charity and civility even with some disagreement. We hope that these remarks may foster a similar charitable dialogue within our church.

Communion without Baptism I

By Derek Olsen

The practice of Communion without Baptism has been making its way into discussions in and around the Episcopal Church over the last few years. Put at its most basic, this is the practice of offering the Eucharist to anyone without distinction whether they have been baptized or not. I prefer this term over “open communion” because of the potential confusion about what it means. When I was growing up Lutheran one of the main differences between my LCA Church and the Missouri Synod is that we had “open communion” and they didn’t. In this context it meant that you didn’t have to be confirmed in that church and notify the pastor the week before that you would be receiving. So, in the interest of clarity, I prefer “Communion without Baptism.”

In our polarized church it should come as no surprise that there is a vocal minority who’s for it and advocates it fairly strongly; and there’s an equally vocal minority that is against it. And so the minorities argue a lot with each other. Due to this argument, though, the issue as a whole is coming to the awareness of the broad majority who had never really thought about it. They’re not really sure why it matters or if it matters. In my experience, many of the folks in the broad majority are willing to give you a hearing as they haven’t quite made up their minds. They’re open to gentle persuasion as long as you make a case that makes sense.

The place where we have to begin, of course, is with the very basics—why does this matter at all? As far as most Episcopalians are concerned this isn’t about changing our official teachings, it’s just about a liturgical detail. And if it’s just about a liturgical detail, what’s the big deal?

The big deal is this: liturgical changes shouldn’t be brushed off so easily. Too many in our church—too many clergy as well as lay leaders—treat liturgy and theology as two different things. And the truth is that they’re not. Liturgy and theology are two sides of the same coin. And for this discussion to make sense, for people to know why it matters, this is where you’ve got to start.

One fundamental truth that we know is that actions speak louder than words. If you want to know what people believe, you have to look at what they do. We just finished an election cycle, right? And each election is a new reminder: if you want to know what a politician believes you have to ignore their pronouncements, pomposity, and pandering and look at their legislation. Just so with the church: if you want to know what a congregation believes, look at their liturgy. Liturgy is not some kind of neutral, non-theological entity. Instead the two are bound so tightly that they cannot be separated. They are two sides of the same coin. In fact, the best definition for liturgy that I’ve been able to come up with is this: Liturgy is the kinetic expression of the gathered community’s theology. What we do, shows what we believe. As I’m so fond of saying, we don’t do a solemn high mass because we like it, we do it because it’s what we believe. We don’t wear chasubles and dalmatics and tunicles and swing around incense because it’s fun (although it is…), we do it because each of these elements contributes to a greater understand of what our worship is, the one to whom it is directed, and the part we play in that relationship. We do it because it means something.

I’ve got a mother-in-law who’s a former Roman Catholic and now a very protestant Presbyterian. She doesn’t understand why my wife and I are in to all of this stuff—the vestments, the bells, Mary—in her mind it’s all the “trappings of religion.” And it can be. That’s the danger. If we do it because we think that it’s cool or exotic then—she’s right: it is just trappings. If we do it because we believe that it is the visible, sensible, kinetic expression of what we believe about ourselves, our community, and our God, then she’s wrong—it is part and parcel of how we incarnate the faith.

So—liturgy is the kinetic expression of the gathered community’s theology. The corollary to this, is that liturgical changes signal theological changes. When we alter something in the liturgy, when we change something about our sacramental practice, we have made a theological change. It isn’t necessarily a very big change, but a change has been made, and our beliefs are represented differently now 1) whether we know it or not—and 2) whether we intend it or not.

And that’s actually the problem here. When clergy and vestries fail to grasp the connection between liturgy and theology, what we do and what we believe, then we as a church can be led into all sorts of mischief that no one necessarily intended. I think that some people who practice Communion Without Baptism don’t realize the effect that their actions are having on their theology.

This problem is compounded by the fact that one liturgical change doesn’t necessarily equate to one theological change. It’s not as tidy as that. Instead, Christian theology, especially catholic theology, is a web of doctrine. It is a carefully knit system of interrelated beliefs. As a result. if you change something over here, then it changes something else over here. Just like a spider web—if you move one part of it, the rest of it shifts too, however subtly. And this is precisely the situation that we find ourselves in today. One change in our sacramental practice—that is, how we choose to announce how we distribute communion—doesn’t just have an impact on our Eucharistic theology, it impacts our sacramental theology as a whole, our ecclesiology, and ultimately our Christology. That’s a lot of changes—especially if we don’t realize that we’re doing them!

Ok—if I’m going to insist that we shouldn’t make this change, that we should maintain the way that we have things now, I need to explain why we have things the way we do now and why it matters. A little bit of what I’m going to say is specifically small c-catholic but most of it isn’t—most of it is just basic Christian theology derived from the Bible that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and most mainline Protestant folks hold too. Specifically, we’re talking the Pauline parts of the New Testament and we’ll be leaning on Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians for it.

At the center of this discussion stands one phrase—three little words in English, two in Greek: soma Christou, the Body of Christ. This is one of Paul’s most important phrases and, although non-Pauline texts don’t use it nearly as much as Paul does, the principles that he lines out can easily be found scattered throughout the New Testament with special concentrations in the Gospel and Letters of John and 1 Peter. Now—the Pauline texts use the phrase “Body of Christ” in several different ways and that’s deliberate. It is a deliberately multivalent concept and it’s specifically these multiple meanings that serve to connect our Eucharistic theology, our baptismal theology, our ecclesiology and our Christology,

Here’s how this works. We begin with salvation. Salvation, for Paul, is not about going somewhere when you die. That’s not the point. Instead, it’s about identity, who and what you’re a part of. That’s what Galatians is all about. To enter the community of promise, must you become Jewish first? No, says Paul; Baptism is the key. On one hand baptism is a public ritual that brings us into a certain community which is the social Body of Christ. This is the Church. On the other hand, by participating in this ritual we are brought into the mystical Body of Christ and, as Colossians puts it, we are buried with him in baptism and hid with Christ in God. And it’s that connection with the mystical Body which seems to be salvation for Paul. We are saved from death and sin by putting off our old life along with its old death and are plugged into a whole new life, a whole new energy source, which is the inexhaustible life of God. Those who are in Christ participate in both social and mystical dimensions with one another as well which is the Communion of Saints unbound by time and place. So Baptism is the rite that draws us into the mystical Body of Christ which is expressed visibly within the social Body of Christ which is the Church. This connection is then renewed and nourished by the Eucharistic Body of Christ which, within the Eucharistic tradition handed on in 1 Cor 11, functions to affirm the fundamental continuity between, the physical Body of Christ which suffered and died upon Calvary, the eschatological Body of Christ when he comes in glory to consummate all in all, and the pneumatic Body of Christ which is the current experience of his presence within the assembled fellowship. But—none of that renewal and nourishing makes sense without Baptism as the fundamental first step. So—Baptism connects us to the social Body of Christ which is the Church and the mystical Body of Christ which is the life of God, then Eucharist nourishes that relationship that already exists. Baptism is our sacrament of inclusion, the one that joins us to the Body; Eucharist is our sacrament of intimacy which nourishes and deepens the relationship.

Intimacy and growth are about commitment. Our embrace into the church gives us a social location where this commitment is strengthened and nurtured. Without the commitment, this promised growth simply cannot and does not happen.

This is the catholic position. This is where we stand. To alter this set of relationships is to disrupt the logic between them and among them. To drop Baptism out of the picture is to create a whole new picture altogether.

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

This is a portion of a presentation to the Annual Convention of the Society of Catholic Priests. The purpose of the presentation was to foster discussion within the Society concerning the present controversy around Episcopal Eucharistic practice. Members of the Society tend toward the current canonical stance but are committed to a genuine and respectful dialogue, and the presentation led to an open and interesting conversation marked by charity and civility even with some disagreement. We hope that these remarks may foster a similar charitable dialogue within our church.

All can be saved

This is the third of a three-part article.

By Donald Schell

girl.at.the.font_7.jpgStuart Schwarz’s book, All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World, digs deep into the archival records of the Spanish Inquisition to offer a what I can only read as the Holy Spirit’s relentless subversion of church efforts to guard power and insider status (whether by making state sanctioned baptism a ticket to belonging as in England or by shunning those who converted as in Spain).

As a secular historian Schwartz is tracking how Western society came to regard tolerance as a moral value (and the path he follows begins quoting church leaders declaring tolerance a serious sin). All through the records of Inquisitors’ questions and the transcribed witness of the accused on both sides of the Atlantic (major colonial centers in the Spanish colonies had their own local Inquisition), Schwarz finds the voices of ordinary faithful people who, in the name of God, of Christ, and of their understanding of Christian theology continued to protest scapegoating, condemnation, and marginalization of family members, neighbors, and friends, and strangers.

In the massive court records of the Spanish, Portuguese, and New World Inquisitions, Schwartz finds theologians, parish clergy, monks, nuns and ordinary lay people who, on trial and under oath, sometimes facing execution for heresy persisted in declaring
that God could save whom God pleased,
that Jews and Muslims could be saved according to the law they had received,
and that Christ wanted none killed in his name
(propositions most contemporary Episcopalians would readily accept).


Schwartz emphasizes that he found this witness of compassionate protest (and skeptical resistance) not just in the trial records of devout, theological trained teachers and clergy, but in literate but otherwise untrained laypeople and even in illiterate tradesmen whose experience of other people moved them to question official church teaching.

For believing scholars, new vision (and renewal of a more ancient vision) came from study of Bible and theology.

Sometimes the most ordinary Spaniard who had lived among Moors (or sailed with Anglicans or lived in the English West Indies) found God at work in the kindness and goodwill and prayers of Muslims or Protestants.

Scripture, tradition, and human experience gave people back to one another, made all sorts and conditions ask where God dwelt or simply saw fallible human grace and glory in all people. Some pioneers of open-heartedness were also agnostics or atheists who espoused tolerance from a human belief that we needed each other and from deep skepticism that a world where so many suffered could have anything to do with God. Their unstoppable, courageous witness for compassion finally closed the Inquisition.

But what does this four hundred year old argument teach us about baptism?

Everywhere we turn we find a bind -
Most Episcopal clergy that I know and most of our theologically reflective laypeople disavow the necessity of baptism to deliver people from God’s wrath or hell.
Most Episcopalians positively recoil at the idea that un-baptized babies go to hell.
But we want to claim that baptism bestows an otherwise unattainable spiritual good whether it’s “salvation” (though with classic good-mannered Anglican reserve we won’t say salvation from what) or whether it’s “initiation into the Body of Christ,” or whether it’s “becoming a child of God,” or “becoming one with the People of God,” or simply getting or doing whatever it is we “need in order to receive communion.” All these formulations leave us asking what we’re saying about the rest of humanity.

The simplicity and single-mindedness of Lynn’s joyful photo, like the daring early voices for grace that broke all bounds, prompts me to ask whether trusting desire might wash away our investment in the compulsions, necessities, and scrutinies of purity that divides us. Whether or not the girl at the font is thinking about baptism - none of the compulsions or consequences we’ve been considering haunts her moment at the waters. In this moment the font, the water, and baptism mean exactly what she sees and feels, what she has seen and felt. Seeing and feeling unleash desire. Testing waters we know are sacred, she tries out her embrace of a wider world.

As a church founder in mission to an increasingly un-baptized American population, I quit wondering who must be baptized and to what end. My experience was that when our congregation sustained a deep welcome, accepted who people as they came and listened for the Spirit’s nudging them to grow and be more, that baptism beckoned strongly to all and that most, sooner or later, would answer the question, “Do you desire to be baptized” with a simple, emphatic “yes!” And thirty years’ experience of making an unreserved invitation of all to communion, says that letting God satisfy people’s simple, immediate desire for communion will move them to desire baptism.

The baptismal rock in the photo is outdoors, wholly outside the walls of the church. That font doesn’t stand guarding the church door. Altar Table greets each visitor with its invitation to taste communion in Christ. And beyond the Table, the font waits, promising the fullness of life in Christ.

It makes Gospel sense that the font is out doors. Walls keep the weather out and make a safe place for worship. Each baptism at this rock “outside the walls” draws us out from worship to the open sky, unsheltered and in the world. And even more than Jesus’ wilderness baptism in the Jordan, baptism here outside the church recalls the baptism that Jesus’ words in Matthew, Mark and Luke keep warning and promising his disciples lies ahead for him and for them, baptism on the cross. Outside the walls of the holy city, beyond the bounds of self-consciously sanctified community, in solidarity with all humanity, even the worst of us, Jesus death embraces God’s fullest work of reconciliation, Christ living and dying in communion with even the worst of us.

Jesus’ baptism leaves the safety of the city behind to burst the gates of hell. 17th Century England and Spain give us hair-raising cautionary tales about the dangers (to people and to baptism itself) any time baptism is the gate back to insider status. Golgotha strips from us our hopes of being an insider and hanging on to power. When Jesus died outside the city walls, the sinless one made sin, dying literally cast out and ‘accursed’ for hanging on a tree, he invited the dying thief to feast with him in paradise – where in group is left behind forever. Dying between condemned criminals Jesus invites us into the fullest human communion that must include even those we’re tempted to say have ‘no place,’ those whose absence from the Table diminishes us and the Body of Christ.

As Charles Wesley wrote,
Love like death hath all destroyed,
Rendered all distinctions void.

Jesus’ example makes it clear that desire for solidarity with all humankind may cost very dearly. Some of Jesus’ followers have learned to flinch at the name ‘Christian,’ because that name, in our culture, has come to mean the exact opposite of the communion in which Jesus died. “Christian” names an in-group with membership requirements in belief and practice as strict as any other ordinary group. “Christian” voices in public routinely condemn outsiders and judge, shun and cast out members. I have gladly baptized people who were reluctant to call themselves, “Christian,” but who knew they wanted to follow Jesus learning to live “on behalf of all and for all.” If we’re to continue to call ourselves “Christian” we’ve got to live without designating ourselves insiders.

Paradoxically recalling the exclusion, exile, stigmatization, and scapegoating that Jesus embraced in his baptism on the cross, seems wholly consonant with World War II Jewish philosopher and classical scholar Simone Weil’s decision to follow Christ but NOT be baptized lest she seem to be choosing Christian insider status for herself that cost her solidarity with the rest of humankind. Weil’s rejection of baptism tells us as much about what baptism must be as it warns us of what it can no longer be.

I am grateful to have presided at many joyful baptisms of adults, children, and babies. And for myself and all those I’ve baptized, and for all my sisters and brothers in Christ, my hope and prayer is that the waters of baptism (and the life in Christ we live, falteringly from our baptisms but somehow still persevering) wash from us the presumption of ANYTHING that separates us or ‘sets us apart’ from the Love of Christ for all humanity.

In the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa argued that all humankind together bore the blessing of being made in the ‘Image of God,’ and that nothing less than the whole of humanity could be the Body of Christ. Baptism in Christ, baptism into the scorned sinner’s death he suffered outside the walls, baptism into the communion he embraced with the worst outcasts gives us what Jesus’ lived and died to establish, lives that belong to all, selves we find in communion with the Other.

Jesus asks us, “Do you desire to be baptized – with me?”

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

Is blood thicker than water?

This is the second of a three-part article.

By Donald Schell

girl.at.the.font_6.jpgIn Merchant of Venice, Shylock, Shakespeare’s imagined Jew, faces forced baptism on the terms of those in power. The outsider Shylock’s dilemma mirrors the plight and bitter choices of Roman Catholics in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Spain in the same period was also reinventing baptism, posting a different question of desire, a question something like this, “Just who do you think you are to imagine you could desire baptism and that it would make any difference to your blood line?” It had taken Spain about a century to come to that question (which would never have been spoken quite like that – after all, the questioners were Christians).

In Cervantes Spain around 1605, most Spanish communities included at least some first and second-generation descendants of forcibly converted Jews (conversos) and Muslims (Moriscos). In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella had given Jews and Moors the forced choice of baptism or exile. Many left Spain, but many also chose baptism to stay, trying to assimilate as good Catholic Spaniards. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, his poignantly appealing, mostly harmless deluded knight and Sancho Panza, the reluctant peasant squire wander through a society obsessed with the question of whether conversos (descendants of converted Jews) or Moriscos (descendants of converted Muslims) deserved society’s acceptance and could be trusted with responsibilities alongside “Old Christians” (people like Quixote himself who could claim his family had been Christian, “since time immemorial”).

Ferdinand and Isabella had founded the Spanish Inquisition as part of their 1492 plan for nation making. The expulsion wasn’t enough - they wanted to be certain that conversions of Jews who remained had been sincere. Quickly enough their Inquisition extended its concern to the descendants of Jewish converts, and then to families of Muslim descent, and finally to its broadest task of investigating the reliability of conversos, Moriscos, and heretics of Old Christian stock and their descendants.

Have you ever wondered why Spanish cuisine includes bits of Jamon or why seafood Paella includes pork sausage? Spanish cuisine is deliberately not Kosher or Halaal. Serving ham and eating ham declared (to vigilant neighbors) a nonchalant Catholic freedom from Islamic and Jewish dietary restrictions.

Still neighbors, servants and rivals found it easy to question some ritual hint they thought they might have seen or heard or they could wonder what an offhand remark about salvation or heresy or independent thinking might have meant. If a servant or passerby saw a housewife lighting candles on Friday night – was it just for light? And did that servant (who had perhaps suffered an unwelcome reprimand earlier in the day) think her mistress’ sigh sounded like Hebrew? Was she muttering a Sabbath prayer? The Inquisition welcomed such questions, creating a massive (and meticulous) investigative process and manuals for questioning suspects of possible Jewish or Islamic practice, or scrutinizing even off-hand remarks that might imply someone asking wrong-headed questions, reading forbidden books, or teaching troubling doctrine.

After investigation and judgment the Inquisition held regular Autos de Fe, publicly staged rituals of ‘reconciliation’ for those lapsed or heretics who confessed and were penitent. For severe offenders, those the Inquisition judged inadequately penitent or guilty of heresies that made them dangerous to themselves and others (even after recanting), the ceremony ended with turning them over to the Crown for legal penalties from loss of property and forced labor to imprisonment and execution.

Alongside the Inquisition another investigative profession emerged, genealogical and social researchers who would interview all possible witnesses in one’s home village or town, and research and make certified copies of ancestors’ baptismal records generations back to certify NO Jewish or Muslim ancestors and NO convicted or suspect heretic ancestors. The New World colonies and wealth made 17th Century Spain a real land of opportunity, but political office, military rank, ordination in the church, university admission or appointment, or any work in the New World was only open “Old Christians” of impeccable lineage and demonstrably Catholic theology.

Your baptism and whatever you thought desiring it might bring were not enough. Only “pure” or “clean” blood proved your reliability. Whatever we might imagine the proverbial phrase “blood is thicker than water” means now, we inherited it from the widespread, popular opinion that blood inheritance trumped the waters of baptism so baptismal community was only as reliable as the purity of the members’ blood (ancestry). Versions of this English saying show up in many parts of Europe in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

And for the Inquisition blood shaped every conversation. After all, wouldn’t the child or grandchild of a Jew retain some essential Jewish “stain"? Shouldn’t we expect that sooner or later the grandchild or great-grandchild of Moor would “revert” to Islam? Once a heretic? Always a heretic. “It’s in the blood.” We’re talking biology. The same thinking had the Inquisition scrutinizing the lineage and orthodoxy of wet nurses. The milk of a wet nurse descended from Jew, Moor, or heretic, like inherited blood, was considered irremediably determinative of Jewish, Moorish, or heretical character.

Maria-Elena Martinez’s Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico, and Stuart Schwarz’s All Can Be Saved, Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World (like Antonia Fraser’s English history of the gunpowder plot) raise deeply troubling questions about how power and privilege reshaped baptismal practice and theology, discarding desire and grace in favor of inheritance and ancestry. And ironically the choices the Inquisition and society couldn’t trust were the same choices the same authorities had compelled a few generations before.

Remembering our history and these contradictions of church practice challenges us today to clarify what we mean by ‘baptismal ecclesiology.’ Though the church has always claimed the baptismal candidate’s desire was essential for baptism (with the intriguing, nuanced exception of infant baptism where the desire belongs to parents, godparents, and community), through much of Christian history, the Church has, in various ways has kept the prerogative to define, compel and extort ‘desire’ for the sake of the candidates’ good, or for the sake of good order or political and social unity.

Our own Church of England history made baptism by state-authorized ministers the decisive watershed for insider identity. In Spain and the Spanish New World baptism was deliberately diluted to withhold insider as the church judged kinship, origin, blood and mother’s milk a more reliable measure of Christian identity than good faith baptism. Both Spain and England manipulated baptism to protect entrenched power and established order.

In the Dark Ages, centuries before the time of Shakespeare and Cervantes, some early missionaries bringing Christianity to heathen Goths and Visigoths, Celts, Saxons, and other tribes in the remote parts of Europe took an expedient short-cut to evangelization – encouraging or allowing a converted local chieftain to compel all his subjects to be baptized. More recently and closer to home, some slave ship captains baptized “their cargo” of enslaved Africans bound for the Spanish, Portuguese and English colonies probably congratulating themselves on the Christian charity that saw to what these unwilling baptismal candidates “really wanted.”

The church has found that enforcing baptism and withholding baptism can work equally well to enforce insider privilege. In the English colonies, sometimes slavery was enforced by withholding baptism, thus protecting slaveholders from laws that would have given rights to the baptized.

In living memory both the U.S. and Canadian native schools systems deprived native children of language, customs, and religion and often forced or ‘encouraged’ baptism as part a process of cultural assimilation.

What do these baptisms warped by power teach us new about baptism?

First, the history prompts us to ask hard questions about ourselves. For all of us, deep-seated fear of the stranger or outsider, and fear of losing our own power, in fact any fear that clenches God’s baptismal grace in our own hands and control will make us mistrust baptism. Unless our trust in Christ’s embrace of all is stronger than our fear of ‘the other,’ the stranger, and the outsider, our practice will proclaim that blood is thicker than water. Then our anxiety about the mixed character of our own faith and morals will recoil from those ‘others’ and strangers on whom we project our own faithlessness, impurity, and inherited, irrepressible immorality.

This history also makes me wonder how to free baptism into Christ from the church’s alliance with power. All this religious rationalization of oppression in Christ’s name has found some theological justification, most commonly a disingenuous asking, “Who wouldn’t want to be enrolled as a child of God and grafted on to the Body of Christ?” But honestly asking, “Do you desire to be baptized?” gives decisive power to the candidate. When the question is truthful and open, the baptizing church and minister make themselves servants not just of Christ but also servants of the candidate. Might this reversal of power be essential to ‘putting on Christ?’

This history of Christian betrayal of baptism leads directly into the American tragedy, the institutionalization of racism in the land of freedom.

In Limpieza de Sangre Maria-Elena Martinez argues that Catholic Spain’s obsession with bloodlines and pure descent gave us Europe’s first political attempts to define distinct races, a way of defining people that Protestant English colonies would turn into civil law.

In Virginia, 1675 Nathaniel Bacon and a few wealthy landowners mobilized widespread discontent among black and white indentured servants to defy the royal governor, leading genocidal raids against local Indians. Before the rebellion collapsed, Bacon’s men had turned on the capital itself and burned Jamestown to the ground. In 1676 the new laws of a restored Virginia Commonwealth cannily divided the indentured servant class whose angry alliance had wreaked such havoc. Making America’s first legal definition of race and racially based slavery of African Americans gave white indentured servants a small level of privilege and rank to defend. Virginia Commonwealth’s divide and conquer strategy pitted poor white against poor black and the laws held for almost three hundred years.

The Inquisition in New Spain had shaped the racial definitions that Virginia wrote into law. The practice of defining ‘pure blood’ unstained by Jewish, Moorish, or heretic ancestry was elaborated in the New World as Spain baptized Indios (Native Peoples) and Negros (Africans). Separate baptismal registries divided by what we now call race ranked baptized Indios over baptized Negros, while distinguishing both from conversos and Moriscos. Of course lust, love, and sex crossed the boundaries and to preserve the separate registries and complex baptismal consequences of these unions, New Spain was the first to define different “blood” for different races, and to gives names to degrees of “mixed blood” and designate where to record the illegal mixed offspring’s’ baptisms.

Through this long, Transatlantic political and theological struggle that privileged social place and race (blood) over leveling community in baptism (water), a few brave clergy, religious, and laity defended baptized Conversos’ and Moriscos,’ as well Indios, Negros, and Mestizos legitimate place in church and society. These more compassionate voices argued that when anyone had a genuine conversion of heart, baptism truly did define who they were.

In fact, even in its blunted form the Gospel narrative and sacraments continued to open hearts. The work of God is stronger than our betrayal of it. Some of us can only guess how faith began to matter to the descendants of our distant ancestors who’d been forcibly baptized. But in recorded American history, in the Black Church, Black preaching, Gospel music, and our homegrown synthesis of Self-Help Religion and Liberation Theology witness to the power of Gospel story and practice.

Spain has its own powerful evidence that even forced baptisms could change and open people’s minds and hearts to simple, faithful following of Christ. St. John of the Cross was probably a Morisco and his mystical poems synthesize Jewish Song of Songs Mysticism and traditional Moorish-Arabic love ballads. John’s friend and mentor Teresa of Avila, the only woman the Roman Church has designated a ‘Doctor of the Church,’ was the daughter of a converso.

Fortunately for the church, Teresa and the Spanish Inquisition were both long gone, with Teresa duly sainted with her books in print and widely read when 20th century historians determined that as a young boy Teresa’s father had been marched through the streets of Toledo on Good Friday, spat on and pelted with garbage with his parents wearing the yellow robe Jews were forced to wear for this annual ceremony of derision and scorn. Immediately after that Good Friday, he had his family ‘convert,’ bought a title and royal papers to certify their “Old Christian descent,” and moved them to Avila where their neighbors would not know their history as conversos.

The grandfather’s ruse had been so successful that no one is certain whether Teresa herself know her heritage. But she lived her trust in the sacramental power of baptism and the Spirit’s presence in people’s hearts, courageously welcoming conversos and Moriscos into her religious order. The Inquisition didn’t use the word “inclusive” but they suspected Teresa didn’t ask hard enough questions of her novices’ background, though they never managed to get the evidence against her that they sought. A generation later in Cervantes’ time even their suspicion would likely have cost Teresa everything.

It matters to us to understand that all this is our history. With killing consistency, the church, our historic leaders and most ordinary Christians have refused to stand by their own baptized sisters and brothers in Christ. The seed of the church’s long failure to accept Christ’s power and purpose of making us one, of Christ drawing “all people” to himself flowered and bore fruit in 19th and 20th century theories of master races and inferior peoples. Evolutionary scientists followed the lead of a church-formed society, crafting theories that distinct races weren’t made so by God… but evolved separately on different continents. Progress? Was this scientific self-deception or the big lie? Either way the fruit was genocide, extermination of Native Peoples, the Nazi holocaust, Hutu and Tutsi slaughtering one another, and more.

What theological antidote can we find to the damage we’ve done ourselves with believing that blood is thicker than water? How does the Spirit of Truth break through our oppressive constructs to change ordinary people’s hearts and minds? What if we go back to the wellsprings, to Paul and the Gospels?

How can baptism nudge us toward hope that God is saving and uniting humankind? Tomorrow – All Can Be Saved.

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

Do you desire to be baptized?

This is the first of a three-part article.

By Donald Schell

girl.at.the.font_5.jpgMy friend Lynn Park shoots all her photographs from chair level, so here she takes us to this girl’s perspective to give full attention to living water as it flows into the rock basin and spills down the face of the rock.

How can a moment feel so complete, but still charged with expectancy? The girl stands in warm springtime shadow. Sunny radiance plays on the water and hillside behind her. The girl’s steady eye draws us beyond any ‘figuring things out,’ or ‘thinking about.’ Water on stone reflects the sky above.

Lynn’s photo brings us so close that we feel the girl’s wanting to touch, to feel, and to know, and seeing her gaze and touch stirs our curiosity and piques our desire.

The rock is the outdoor baptismal font at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco. I know this rock well - I commissioned the sculptor who carved it, and I’ve baptized adults, children, and babies at this font with two hundred people crowding close around it.
But I’m not St. Gregory’s pastor any more, this is a different moment from a baptism, and I don’t know this girl. Has she seen baptisms at this rock or was she baptized here herself? Is she seeing the rock for the first time? I don’t know. But I hear her quiet and feel how she’s taking in the rhythm and melody of the water’s even splash at the base of the rock’s face.
What’s stirring her? Is it scientific curiosity about water flow and surface tension? Will she stand on tiptoes to look into the basin? My own history with this rock moves me to wonder whether she hears Someone beckoning or feels here the mystery of Something that could change everything. So the longer I look at the photo, the more persistently I hear the Prayer Book’s wonderful question –
‘Do you desire to be baptized?’

When we ask someone that fascinating question, what do we imagine they desire or hope for? And what do we hope, by God’s grace and in God’s name to offer them? Are they looking to be enrolled in a new society? Might it be something even bigger than that? The flow and fall of water in the photo speak to me of a great river, something flowing from this spring that could carry us to the wide sea we were made for.

And so I recall Archbishop William Temple’s saying, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members,” and I wonder just how we exist for the benefit of those who are not members. (I’ve tried to track down the context of the saying with no success, so I’d welcome a reader telling us where it came from.)

Some in our church would equate commitment to those outside our membership with a ‘Great Commission’ (the oft quoted early editorial addition to Matthew’s Gospel of a post-resurrection saying of Jesus, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”). Was that what Temple meant? Is our commitment to those outside our membership to bring them inside our membership even if for their sake? That kind of commitment to those outside is typical of any self-perpetuating society or organization. Is Temple calling us to something riskier than making sure church visitors get nametags?

The freestanding quotation challenges us to look beyond our expectations to see who God is including in “the blessed company of all faithful people.” Could God be calling us to understand the holiness of all people’s deepest desires and bless them wherever we found them? Where would the Spirit take us if church formed us to ask each person we encountered what new thing she or he could each us about desire?

What does the girl in the photograph (or anyone we meet) most want, desire and hope for?
Do you desire to be baptized?

I’m thinking differently about baptism after watching three performances (two different productions) of Equivocation, Jesuit playwright Bill Cain’s new mind-bending, heartbreaking play about Shakespeare and his company of players, James I, the Gunpowder Plot and the English Jesuit martyr Henry Garnett. Cain’s Fr. Garnett makes very good sense as a priest. Watching Equivocation I knew I had to learn more about the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes Day.

So remembering the girl at the rock, let’s think back to 1605 and the time of the Gunpowder Plot.

James I succeeded Elizabeth as England’s Monarch in 1603. Shakespeare’s company had been performing his plays since 1598. They performed for James as they had for Elizabeth. The King James Bible would come out in 1611. Shakespeare’s last new work was performed in 1613. 1605 was barely a hundred years past the Spain’s 1492 discovery of the New World - lands, peoples, treasures, and civilizations no European had known before - what Shakespeare called the “brave new world.”

We celebrate the renaissance for its rediscovery of forgotten classical literature and brand-new appreciation of the beauty and poetic power of vernacular speech. Advanced naval and military technology also made it a time of enormous colonial expansion of Europe’s Atlantic naval powers – Spain, Portugal and England. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation disputes over how to use new knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, new appreciation of common speech, and the new technology of the printing press for Christian formation erupted in violence and literal war. Ferdinand and Isabella and Elizabeth I in their different ways had created nation-states.

In 1605 Shakespeare was an established playwright with great work completed and more to come, and Cervantes published his masterpiece Don Quixote. In their two countries, everything was possible and everything was at stake, and the question of who to trust at home and abroad seemed on everyone’s mind, including the minds of newly powerful rulers and emerging parliaments, councils, fraternities, universities associations that saw in print, literacy and widespread new learning the opportunity for propaganda and the constant danger of insurrection. And in this global ferment of ideas, encounters with new peoples, in this time of intrigue and warfare, creativity, compassion, love, terror, and oppression, Christian Europe (we’ll be thinking here about England and Spain) was re-making baptismal practice for the sake of political and social unity.

Unity was the urgent concern in religion and in politics. Spain and England in their different ways counted on vigilant censorship to enforce good order (which included religious conformity). English censors scrutinized any play Shakespeare’s company produced and Spanish censors read any book Cervantes wrote to make sure what they regarded as popular entertainments would usefully distract the population from politics and support Good Order. Catholic Spain and Protestant England knew literature could equally well incite rebellion. And it wasn’t just literature the establishment scrutinized. The royal establishment counted on fear to keep neighbors suspicious enough of one another that many eyes and ears could help keep stable order, peace, and security.

Do you desire to be baptized? Antonia Fraser’s Faith and Treason, the Gunpowder Plot offers a painful, enlightening perspective on Elizabethan society’s everyday experience of baptismal compulsion. What does it cost faith to make baptismal conformity (rules about who does the baptizing and where) the ticket to full membership in society?

In England neighbors were supposed to look for hints of Catholic sympathy and so wonder whether a stranger passing through the village or visiting the manor house might be a Catholic priest in disguise.

In Spain, neighbors and trade associates might reap substantial reward (or wreak vengeance in a feud) by sniffing out hints of apostasy among recently converted Jews and Moors or hints of ‘Lutheranism’ or Erasmian tolerance and freethinking among “Old Christians.”

Do you desire to be baptized? Careful how you answer that one! Whether on Catholic or Protestant soil, what someone might desire had become a matter of life and death.
In Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s mind-bending play about “the quality of mercy,” Portia, having invoked mercy in one of the most theologically nuanced arguments for compassion and forgiveness in English literature, reverts to the punitive voice of Law and Judgment, offering Shylock, the Jewish banker, a bitter forced choice.

Shylock’s offense was attempting to claim his due in the vengeful ‘pound of flesh’ loan pact (the penalty Antonio had willingly agreed to forfeit in lieu of interest should he fail to pay the substantial sum he had borrowed from Shylock). Portia appears in court as Antonio’s attorney for the defense, but after saving Antonio’s life, she deftly moves to become Shylock’s prosecutor, refusing to allow him to accept simple re-payment of the loan and stripping him of all his property, before presenting him with this choice:
- convert and be baptized or
- suffer execution for the capital offense of making attempt on the life of a Venetian citizen.

To our modern ears the whole play is dangerously, appallingly anti-Semitic. To Elizabethan ears the play was safely anti-Semitic. Shakespeare’s ready defenders can rush to tell us that the character of Shylock is an empty stereotype because three hundred years after England had expelled all Jews (sent them to places like Spain), Shakespeare’s audience would not have known a Jew, so the play couldn’t have caused direct harm to anyone, incited a riot, or launched a pogrom. And, I add, a play about ambiguous justice in Catholic Venice wouldn’t trouble the crown’s Master of the Revels.

Jesuit Bill Cain’s Equivocation and Fraser’s Faith and Treason set me to wondering why Shakespeare created this Jewish villain-victim no one could have known, and what else Shakespeare could have had in mind writing about Christian mercy, the rigors of the law, and forcing outsiders to conform for Good Order?

Is Merchant of Venice a Protestant window on a distant Catholic country’s prejudices and dilemmas? Did censors see the window and not notice how it mirrored the audience making them see themselves and wonder how they treated outsiders and people judged dangerous, deceptive and unworthy of mercy? And who were the outsiders in Elizabeth’s and James’s England?

Did Shakespeare create this Jewish (not Catholic) Shylock and set his play in Catholic Venice (not Protestant London) to challenge his own church and country’s oppressive shadow? The anti-Semitic prejudice that frightens and angers modern audiences made the play so safe and harmless in Elizabethan England, that Shakespeare could slip a politically dangerous meditation on Christian mercy, justice and desire past the censor who would gladly have closed the Globe theater and done Shakespeare himself far worse.

In the peace of the Elizabeth settlement, Parliament and crown demanded that everyone be baptized in “their” local Church of England parish church by “their” parish priest. What could English Roman Catholics who persisted in “The Old Faith” do? They baptized their children. But how? Some called on Roman Catholic clergy, living In England under assumed identity to risk their lives to baptize their children (as they risked their lives every time they presided at a Eucharist). If they chose NOT to have the child baptized in the local Church of England parish, the child was reckoned not baptized and the parents faced a stiff fine. A boy child secretly baptized by a Roman Catholic priest was reckoned “unbaptized” when he was old enough for university and so barred from Oxford or Cambridge. Parents who could afford the fine could also afford to send their sons to the continent for an education.

Some Roman Catholics chose a different solution. They’d call on their Roman Catholic pastor (again, at risk of his life) to baptize their children, and then, acting like ordinary Church of England parishioners would take their child to “their” parish church for a legal and politically expedient second baptism. Those who chose this route would attend the same church to meet their legal annual requirement for attendance at Church of England Eucharist (think ‘communicant status’), and would also double sacraments there (and with their Catholic pastor) for a family wedding.

Again remember that a Roman Catholic priest presiding at a baptism (or Eucharist or Marriage) did so at risk of his life. If a servant or neighbor betrayed the (disguised, secret) priest and he was captured, he would be tortured and executed. English law that made it a capital offense to be a Roman Catholic priest on English soil.

Do you desire to be baptized? Why does desire matter to what the church says baptism IS? When we ask people about their desire, do we want to hear their answer? Can we pre-determine or compel desire? Can we frame it as forced choice, without closing our eyes and forgetting the girl’s bright attention and hope in the photograph?

Tomorrow’s piece looks to the other side of the coin, how these questions shaped baptismal theology in Catholic Spain, and our question will be “Is blood thicker than water?”

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

The question at the top of Page 303

By Adam Thomas

As the church in which I am blessed to serve God prepares for a new adult Christian formation program, I have found myself thinking about baptism quite a bit lately. And I have also found myself jotting down notes about several pieces of the baptismal services. A few of these notes, I share with you below.

If you were baptized in an Episcopal Church after 1979, either you or your parents and godparents answered a series of six questions. The last of which reads, “Do you promise to follow and obey [Jesus Christ] as your Lord?” Whether or not you were baptized under this particular liturgy, this is the fundamental question at the heart of the Christian faith. The answer, “I do,” is simply two little words, but these two words really aren’t the answer at all. The true answer to this question is the manner in which we choose to lead our lives in the wake of such a powerful promise. Let’s take a moment to break down this question to see what we are really getting ourselves into.

Do you promise…
Girls link pinkies. Guys spit on their hands and shake. Car dealers sell extended warranties. Banks make you sign the mortgage paperwork a dozen times. Each of these signals a promise: the secret is safe, the ex-girlfriend is off-limits, the car will be repaired free of charge, and the loan will be repaid. The act of making the promise itself means little compared to the continuous act of fulfilling the promise. Ex-friendships, fine print wielding salesmen, and foreclosures point to the fact that many promises do not last.

But there happens to be a significant difference between these promises and the one we make at baptism. In most promises, the other entity entering the trust is another human being—another fallible, flawed human being. When we promise to follow and obey Jesus Christ as our Lord, we make our promise to God. And God never breaks trust with us. So our promise to God follows God’s eternal promise to us to be faithful always, to be with us always, just to be…always.

Thus, our fulfillment of the promise always happens in response to God’s steadfastness. When we break the promise, it does not cease to hold sway because God continues to fulfill it. And God invites us to renew the promise again and again and again.

…to follow…
In the Gospel according to Matthew, the first words that Jesus says to Peter and Andrew, his prospective disciples, are “Follow me” (Matt. 4:18). In the Gospel according to John, the last words that Jesus says to Peter are (you guessed it) “Follow me” (John 21:22). Therefore, considering how the compilers of the New Testament chose to lay out the Gospel, the first and last words out of Jesus’ mouth are “Follow me.” What does it mean to follow Jesus? Like the main promise we are discussing, this question takes a lifetime to answer; but here are a few quick observations.

To follow means to come after or travel behind. You do this most often when you don’t know the way to, say, the movie theater, and the friends in the car ahead of you lead you there. Our Christian faith tells us that Jesus walks with us, leading us on right paths through our lives. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). In Greek, the “way” is literally the “road” on which we walk down. So not only is Jesus the guide for our feet; he paved the road on which our feet tread. The Letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus the “pioneer” of our faith: he is the trailblazer. He invites us to walk the difficult path he first walked, a path full of both pain and joy (Hebrew 12:2).

To follow also means to learn by example. To quote a learned man at my parish, we are “apprentices” of Jesus Christ. During the Renaissance, master painters directed their students to copy their works of art in order to learn the craft. More often than not, these apprentice copies couldn’t compare to the master’s, but they still learned how to apply paint to canvas, and they learned well. Likewise, we will never be able to reach the full example of Jesus Christ, but this shouldn’t stop us from following him just the same.

...and obey…
Obedience is a tricky thing because it involves something that many folks aren’t all that good at: listening. To obey means to listen carefully and then to act. Obedience to God begins with our intentional effort to discern God’s will in our lives and continues with our reliance on God to live out that will. The good news is that when we choose to obey God, God has already given us the gifts we need to accomplish that will. (Of course, this doesn’t mean the act of obeying will be easy.)

When Jesus commands the paralyzed man to stand up, take his mat, and walk, the man gets up immediately (John 5:8-9). Jesus speaks no word of healing at all. Rather, the act of healing is subsumed in the command. Jesus gives the man the gift of healing in order that the man can obey his command. Likewise, we discover new gifts when we listen for and obey God’s will in our lives.

…[Jesus Christ] as your Lord…In our Christian parlance, we call Jesus many things: friend, brother, teacher, savior. But in this question, we call Jesus “Lord.” We promise to follow Jesus as our “Lord.” How does “Lord” differ from other titles for Jesus? Leaving aside the masculine nature of the title, a lord is someone in a position of authority and respect. In the Gospel, the Greek word for “lord” (kyrie) can also be translated as “sir.” In the military, a person you call “sir” is someone who has the authority to command you to do something.

Likewise, when we promise to follow and obey Jesus as our Lord, we acknowledge that Jesus has the authority to direct our lives. This authority comes from the fact that God is the author of each of us. God pens each day in the books of our lives; sometimes we are the protagonists and sometimes we are antagonists of our own stories. When we follow Jesus as our author, as our Lord, we consciously take on the protagonist role. To change the metaphor, we resonate with God’s directing creativity in our lives. We are in tune with God.

Of course, these few notes simply scratch the surface of this immense question. I wonder how we each live out this promise in our everyday lives? I wonder how the promises we make with other people reflect the promises we make to God? I wonder how readily we allow God to fulfill God’s promises, which, in the end, allow us to fulfill ours?

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

Destination sacraments

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

By J. Kenneth Asel

If I enjoyed writing, I would have been a European History professor. Generally, I like to tell of my experiences rather than writing about them. For me, this one is different.

At the Episcopal Church in Jackson Hole we are used to “destination sacraments” – weddings, baptisms, renewals, even funerals. Several weeks ago I received an email from a woman asking if she and her two-year-old son could be baptized upon an upcoming visit to Grand Teton National Park. We often do services such as these. We require that the candidate or parent visit their pastor to discuss the sacrament and its meaning. If they do not have a congregation, I direct them to a nearby Episcopal Church. In her email, I noticed she attended a congregation that had left our denomination as a part of one of the four dioceses attempting to continue as dioceses of ACNA. Having worked with a previous rector, I knew the parish fairly well. It is a large, succesful, evangelical church. I explained the requirement for pre-sacramental counseling and said she would have to go to an Episcopal parish in the area.
As things happen, time got away from us, but I agreed to do the ceremony anyway if she would meet with me before Sunday and if she would promise to engage with a priest back home upon her return. I made a call and it turns out that the Episcopal priest I selected knew the family, which is prominent in the area.

We met. It was one of the most profound, and indeed holy, experiences I have had in a very long time. As I was explaining the meaning of the baptismal promises, “Millie” began to cry. “Millie” and her husband, “Tom,” joined this well-known congregation while it was still a part of the Episcopal Church. They did not support the break. She loves her parish, but not its anger. Last fall she went to membership classes, but this great evangelical church spoke of a hard gospel and an angry God. She chose not to join. Then she asked me why her best friend, “Charlotte,” was condemned to hell because she is a lesbian. I told her, the church belongs to Christ and not to me. . . that St. John’s in Jackson is a house of prayer for all people, everyone of whom is welcome at God’s table. She cried again, then asked if “St. Mary’s” would become an Episcopal Church again. I said, although it would take awhile, all the court cases seem to be pointing in that direction. She wanted to know when it returned to the Episcopal Church, would her family be allowed still to go there. I said, “Of course!” I am almost certain the next set of tears were of joy.

To me, there are three general aspects to our faith: belief, practice and relationship. Of the three, relationship with God through Christ is the most personal and the most important. Belief, though, is the one we “professional Christians” fight about. Do we ever stop to think the scandal we cause to our parishioners? “Millie,” despite our foibles, just wanted to be a part of the Christian family, for herself, her son and the baby on the way. It was an enormous privilege to be asked into her family’s life for the occasion of their baptism. I wish we could put aside our political posturing and our attempts to justify ourselves by condemning others, remembering God’s generous gift of the church.

It made me proud to be an Episcopalian. I hope “Tom” & “Millie” ask me to baptize the new arrival next summer!

(The Reverend) J. Kenneth Asel, D.Min is Rector of the Episcopal Church in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Covenant-making, divine and human

This is the second of two excerpts from Writings on Marriage, the journal of the Bishop of North Carolina's Task Force on Marriage, edited by Greg Jones.
By Jo Bailey Wells

There is a thread that runs throughout the Old and New Testament in which human marriage finds its theological context. One might argue there are differing models of marriage visible in Scripture: patriarchs and monarchs practiced polygamy without impunity (including Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon); the Hebrew law prescribed remarriage within a deceased husband’s family to protect a widow (Deut. 25:5-10); Jesus challenged divorce (Mark 10:2-12; Matt. 5:31-32); Paul championed celibacy (1 Cor. 7:8-9, 32-35). Nevertheless, the context within which all marriage is understood relates fundamentally to the overarching relationship of God to his people, through the language of covenant.(1)

Our 1979 Book of Common Prayer explicitly articulates this covenant understanding of marriage. Consider, for example, the words of one of the nuptial blessings:

O God, you have so consecrated the covenant of marriage that in it is represented the spiritual unity between Christ and his Church: Send therefore your blessing upon these your servants, that they may so love, honor, and cherish each other in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (p.431)

This chapter explores the scope, significance and limits of covenant language in the Judaeo-Christian tradition: how, in particular, it enriches and defines a Christian understanding of the bond of commitment between two parties traditionally termed ‘marriage’ and how it may appropriately be applied elsewhere. Our Church does not only invoke the concept of covenant for marriage; the Episcopal Church also speaks of the baptismal covenant; and more recently the Anglican Communion has explored the idea of an ecclesial covenant. What does the common Christian usage of covenant language have to do with the theology of covenant as it is developed through Old and New Testaments, and what does the biblical concept have to offer the Church today?

Covenant in Biblical Perspective
The Old Testament term for ‘covenant’ (berith in Hebrew) is borrowed from everyday life, to describe a deal, agreement or contract. It becomes used, fundamentally, as a metaphor to describe the relationship of God to God’s people.

As with other metaphors for the divine-human relationship – father and son, or husband and wife, or king and subject, or shepherd and sheep – an everyday image is borrowed from one realm of life and applied illustratively to another, on the principal of analogy. In its new theological context, the concept of covenant takes on a life of its own – lending itself to imaginative development far beyond the original scope and significance of its origins. Consider, in particular, the book of Hosea which assumes a covenant theology in describing God as a lover who has been spurned by his bride, Israel. Hosea underlines the faithfulness of God: even though Israel has become a whore, yet God longs for her to return (Hosea 1:2; 11:8). The covenant is not broken, even though it is continually threatened.

The books of Exodus and Deuteronomy tell the story by which God initiated the covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai. It is rather like a love story, whereby God had patiently wooed his people. He had brought them out of Egypt; he had sustained them through the desert. Now, prior to entering the long-promised land, God ‘gets down on one knee’ and asks Moses to communicate a gracious proposal:

“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation…” (Exodus 19:3-6)

Notice how the initiative lies entirely with God, even though it is clearly bilateral. The biblical account underlines how God wishes to reveal himself to humankind in order to enter into relationship with them. The covenant with Israel is the means to that end, not just for Israel’s sake but through Israel to all nations. Covenant is oriented to relationship and particularly to God’s self-revelation.(2 )

Where the story is retold in Deuteronomy, it is emphasized that this covenant is not a past action that related only to the original generation in the wilderness but a living reality for subsequent generations. That is to say, the covenant does not end in the way that most human covenants do. In Deuteronomy a later generation is addressed, as if it were the recipient of the covenant:

Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today (Deuteronomy 5:3)

Indeed, the encounter with God that is so carefully described in Exodus 19 at Mount Sinai depicts a spatial architecture that mirrors the temple (as well as much subsequent church architecture), underlining that what the Sinai covenant describes in Exodus is not a one-time encounter belonging to the past, but the regular encounter of Israel with their God in worship. This covenant goes on forever.(3)

At the heart of the covenant are the ten commandments. At times the covenant is equated to the commandments:

[The LORD] declared to you his covenant, which he charged you to observe, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them on two stone tablets (Deuteronomy 4:13)

These are given so that the people ‘do not sin’ – to equip them to live up to the original lofty proposal, to be a holy nation. Even as obedience is invited (Ex.19:5; 20:20-21), it is underlined how these stipulations are life-giving, not life-destroying. Thus, the narrative frame by which they are introduced: ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt’ (Exodus 20:2) – emphasizing the relationship of redeemer to redeemed, Lord to servant, Life-giver to creature. Obedience to the commandments is for Israel’s growth and development. The story of redemption is the grounds for which God asks for loyalty, for an exclusive choice – a choice which is ratified enthusiastically by the people ‘with one voice’ repeating their previous intention, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 24:3).

As our Prayer Book puts it, Israel has discovered ‘the God whose service is perfect freedom’. As at a wedding, promises are made that are exclusive and binding at a special ceremony, following which there is eating and drinking. Then Moses heads up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, which (like wedding rings) serve as a practical physical reminder of the promises made. Further, we may recognize the practice of covenant renewal, a sort-of ‘anniversary’ celebration for the sake of regularly remembering the promises made (Deut.27:1-10; Josh.8:30-35).

As many scholars have explored, the Sinai covenant – which becomes the overarching picture of God’s special relationship to Israel – incorporates all the key characteristics of any typical ancient treaty. The narrative we build from the Pentateuch includes an historical prologue, a list of covenant stipulations (the ten commandments), a ceremony of ratification (followed by regular reminding), a description of the witnesses present (here, heaven and earth) and a set of expectations regarding future blessings and curses that accompany either faithfulness or failure in keeping the covenant. While tracing all these elements of the ancient pattern, the notion of covenant in its new-found Israelite usage takes on a life of its own (while also shaping the life of Israel), such that its origins are rendered virtually irrelevant. ‘Covenant’ is re-defined, as the ‘marriage’ between God and his people. Even though we may also use legal language to describe it – for example, that it is binding and inviolable – it is not primarily legal, but relational.(4) A covenant is no longer simply a contract.(5)

Most of the rest of the Old Testament relates to that faithfulness and failure, to the ups and downs of the divine-human journey together. Even at the ‘honeymoon’ stage, the relationship is threatened by unfaithfulness. That is how the book of Exodus depicts the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32-34): before Moses had descended from Mt Sinai with the stone tablets, the people had forgotten the commandments and forsaken their promises. It is here that the unconditional nature of the covenant is explored. The situation begs the question: can the covenant bond be terminated? That is, will there be a divine divorce? Certainly God threatens to abandon Israel: so great is the anger. Yet he does not. In the face of the worst human depravity comes the most unconditional statement of divine mercy (Exodus 34:6-7) as well as the most emphatic demand concerning God’s uncompromising loyalty (Exodus 34:14). The occurrence of sin, destructive as that may be, does not imply an end to the covenant. Rather, it reinforces it: its privilege, its permanence, its exclusivity.

The fact that the possibility of failure is envisaged from the outset stands as a testimony to the fact that God understood human nature from the start, yet perseveres. Later in Israel’s history there is a rocky period resulting in a separation – the exile – but even this does not rupture the covenant. Although Jews would differ in their interpretation of the new covenant announced in Jeremiah 31:31,(6) Christians recognize in Christ an extension of the Sinai covenant to include non-Israelites.(7) Thus we find ourselves welcomed in to ‘the marriage made in heaven’ – that is, to the ongoing covenant between God and God’s people Israel. The New Testament describes the same covenant, now between Christ and his Church, the new Jerusalem. Consider the picture painted in the book of Revelation, describing the end times:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… (Rev.21:2)

Human Covenants
There is no carefully-nuanced definition of human marriage in Scripture Yet the permanent, committed partnership of a man and a woman is clearly present, something regarded as a norm from Adam and Eve onwards, based on the pattern of creation (Genesis 2:24). It is taken for granted that this is the unit from which children are conceived (consider the domestic assumptions concerning the raising of children in Proverbs, for example), even though the modern concept of the nuclear family would have been alien. The problems associated with loss or failure in marriage are raised (the vulnerability of widows and orphans; the circumstances for divorce). The norm, however, is not something that is given any significant constructive exploration in Old or New Testament. Furthermore, it can be argued that both Jesus (by his example) and Paul (1 Cor. 7:32-35) challenges the very assumption of marriage in favor of promoting the ‘ministry’ of singleness.

Nevertheless, the concept of covenant for understanding the dynamics of committed relationship between two parties is well-developed in Scripture.(8) The term that was borrowed from the circumstances of everyday life – a treaty between senior and junior colleagues, a deal between two merchants – is applied to the fundamental relationship between God and Israel, and by extension, to Christ and his Church. It is the ‘marriage’ between God and God’s people that in turn becomes the context for the working-out of human covenants, which may take many forms, including marriage.(9)

As we have already explored above, a covenant represents a binding agreement between two otherwise-unrelated parties. The commitment is permanent and unconditional. It requires absolute loyalty (‘monogamy’). It is no private arrangement between the parties, but an oath formally established through a publicly recognized ritual, whereby the duties and privileges of kinship may be extended to another individual (or group). In this light, we may recognize how radically inclusive is the concept of covenant: enabling social ties beyond familial relationships, even extending to aliens.(10) The ritual involves spoken declarations, an expression of consent and the presence of witnesses under God.(11) Their task is to remind the two parties of their commitment, with an awareness of the opportunities and demands (the ‘blessings and curses’) that potentially ensue. Witnesses are those who then bear responsibility for recognizing and supporting the covenant in the community where it is to be lived out. Failure to keep up to the demands of covenant does not deny the existence of a covenant: a covenant is not dissolved by error or failure, only by death.

Christians have come to understand baptism as a covenant, and this example helpfully illustrates the way in which the biblical notion of covenant is appropriated in the Church. Baptism is the ceremony that marks the personal recognition and participation in the covenant of God with humanity, even though the conceptual linkage is not found directly in Scripture, it involves the making of promises, the demands of commitment, the presence of witnesses and the anticipation of blessing. Even though the ritual directly hears promises only from one side – from the baptized (or parents and Godparents on behalf of the baptized) – it nevertheless marks a covenant between two parties given that it recognizes the story of salvation whereby God has already made commitment to his people.

In the same way, covenant provides a theological backdrop for shaping life-long human commitments. The linkage in Scripture is clear for marriage in particular (Eph. 5:21-30), and may also be applied to other forms of human commitment. That is, that God’s covenant with his people provides the context within which we make covenant commitments one to another. A biblical perspective on human covenant recognizes the way in which, in our small corner, we seek to mirror and reflect the greatest covenant of all. If we love because Christ first loved us, so we can live in covenant because God in Christ first lives in covenant with us.

In the Old Testament God shows us what it means to make a covenant and keep it. Covenant becomes the means of growing in faithfulness, of living into the call to be ‘a priestly kingdom and a holy nation’ (Exodus.19:6). Jesus reaffirms this archetype. Although he does not use the term ‘covenant’ of marriage, in ruling out all divorce and remarriage, he makes obligatory for his followers the ideal of God’s covenant with Israel, in which God is faithful even when Israel is faithless.(12)

In other words, the call to discipleship in the Judeo-Christian tradition demands so shaping our lives that we become covenant-keepers. That shaping we may call spiritual formation: it happens through the habits of our lives in relation to God and neighbor. For Christians it is the natural – yet disciplined and necessary – response to baptism. Such discipleship, in the end, is not about what we do but who we are: where we fail and how we respond; how we see and where we are blind; what we give and where we resist; how we trust and how we are trustworthy. These are just the aspects covered, in the tradition of TEC, by the baptismal covenant. The sacrament of baptism is the Christian recognition and response to God’s covenant.

As in baptism, so with other forms of covenant. It is on the principle of imitatio dei (‘imitating God’ – for example, [Lev. 11:44, 19:2, 20:26), that human covenants are shaped to reflect the elements and characteristics of God’s covenant, and through them that we ourselves are shaped to reflect more fully the image of God. That is, also, that through them we strive to be a window through which others may more fully understand God’s covenant commitment and mercy.

This is the context in which I understand the gift of marriage. Scripture suggests it is the key context in which I may grow to understand how to live in covenant and thus grow into the reality of God’s ultimate covenant. Though we may describe other forms of covenant – the covenants between business partners or between Churches – these do not mirror the features of God’s covenant to the same extent. That which models an exclusive, permanent commitment of two parties represents the most direct, and personal, and particular outworking of the call to be covenant-keepers. Seen in this light, it seems to me unnecessary that the opportunity be confined only to conventional heterosexual marriage, even though I hesitate to use the term ‘marriage’ for any other kind of union. So long as it is done responsibly – as the marriage liturgy puts it, ‘not… unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately…’ (BCP p.423) – it seems fitting to encourage all forms of covenantal relationship that seek to mirror and reflect the divine. Enabling God’s people to fulfill the covenant call to be God’s ‘priestly kingdom and holy nation’ is what ultimately matters; and this might most obviously include encouraging all who long to imitate God’s rich-but-costly pattern of covenant commitment.

This is the purpose and experience of those who are called to make monastic commitments in the setting of a religious community. As with the Sinai covenant and with the covenant of marriage, vows are taken in the presence of witnesses that are permanent and exclusive. The stakes are high: that is, the costs and benefits – the blessings and curses – are substantial. Yet we recognize here a high calling, and a means to holiness. That calling, and indeed the practices of holiness, require the community – the witnesses – who are charged with the responsibility of helping sustain the covenant they have witnessed in circumstances that intentionally limit the human options so as to discover the freedom of service to God. Brueggemann speaks of covenant relationships involving ‘revolutionary discipline, devotion and desire’.(13)

Whatever the context for the human covenants we may conceive – in baptism, in the partnership of two people, or in monastic vows – we are not at liberty to shape the nature and characteristics of God’s covenant. They are the givens – the graces – within which we exist as Christians, explored and presented in the biblical and ecclesial tradition in which we are planted. If we in our human relationships seek to inhabit that tradition and live up to our calling as the people of God, then the terms of our human covenantal commitments are similarly not negotiable. We may choose whether and with whom we partner: but the terms and conditions of that partnership – if it is to reflect God’s covenant – are not ours to negotiate. The self-giving cannot be quantified (unconditional and unending) while its locus is wholly defined and confined. As I say repeatedly to couples preparing for marriage, "You have to be crazy! You have no idea what you are letting yourselves in for." Covenant-making, in human terms, is a crazy idea. But it is not our idea: but God’s. Perhaps that is the only explanation for why so many strive for it.

The Rev. Dr. Jo Bailey Wells is Associate Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry and Bible, and Director of Anglican Studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. She is a priest of the Church of England.

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Marriage and sanctification

Today through Wednesday, Daily Episcopalian will feature two essays from Writings on Marriage, a recent book published by the Diocese of North Carolina. The first, which will be featured today and tomorrow is by Gene Rogers of the University of North Carolna at Greensboro, and the second, which will run Tuesday and Wednesday is by the Rev. Jo Bailey Wells, a priest in the Church of England who teaches at the Duke University Divinity School. We'll let Bishop Michael Curry offer the introduction:

Writings on Marriage, the journal of the Bishop's Task Force on Marriage, was envisioned and produced by Greg Jones as an appropriate format to respond to a resolution of the 193rd Convention of the Diocese of North Carolina calling for study and report on the theology of marriage and the relationship between church and state vis a vis marriage. I am deeply indebted to Greg, and to the task force members and the journal's contributors for their excellent work. My prayer is that it will be a resource for teaching and conversation among us a diocese, as a church, indeed, as a culture.

But my deeper prayer is that as we listen to Holy Scripture, to the wisdom of Christian tradition, to the stories of each of us in this conversation, the Stranger will walk with us and talk with us as he did centuries ago on a road between the city of Jerusalem and the village of Emmaus. May the conversation and journey continue.
Keep the faith,
+Michael B. Curry
Bishop of North Carolina

MARRIAGE AND SANCTIFICATION

By Gene Rogers

The consideration of marriage theologically raises many questions - but the obvious essential question is: "What at its core is marriage for Christians all about?" One might seek to find the answer in the various ritual forms for marriage across the Christian churches - though it would be difficult to settle on a single "essential" feature. For Catholics, it is essential that one not have been married before to someone still living. For Protestants not. For Catholics and Protestants alike, the essential moment of the sacrament is the exchange of vows. That moment does not occur in the Eastern Orthodox Order of Marriage, or of Crowning. Although an Orthodox couple express their intention to be married, they express that intention to the priest rather than to each other, and the priest marries them, rather than their marrying each other, by announcing that they are crowned. In Judaism, what is essential is the ketubah, the marriage contract signed by witnesses – although many Jewish weddings take place without the parties knowing much or much caring what the ketubah says, and with no intention of carrying out its more interesting conditions. Of course there are further particulars essential to Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, pagan, and civil marriages. And yet, it seems, that very few if any of us who do not hold any of these different essentials would assert that couples married in any of these traditions are not truly married. So, while it is clearly impossible to speak universally about what marriage is - there does appear to be a family resemblance across the various forms of marriage.

Within the Christian tradition, to narrow the focus, there does appear to be a prominent feature of family resemblance among types of marriage, and I recognize that feature under the rubric of sanctification. Considering the theology of marriage in this way is particularly consistent with the tradition of the Orthodox Church, which regards marriage as a way of participating in the divine life not by way of sexual satisfaction but by way of ascetic self-denial for the sake of more desirable goods. Theologically understood, marriage is not primarily for the control of lust or for procreation. It is a discipline whereby we give ourselves to another for the sake of growing in holiness–for, more precisely, the sake of God.

In this respect marriage and monasticism are two forms of the same discipline, as the Orthodox writer Paul Evdokimov has argued. They are both ways of committing ourselves to others–a spouse or a monastic community–from whom we cannot easily escape. Both the monastic and the married give themselves over to be transformed by the perceptions of others; both seek to learn, over time, by the discipline of living with others something about how God perceives human beings.

Rowan Williams (1) has written, "Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ's body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God's giving that God's [Son] makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created [and we marry] so that we may be caught up in this, so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God." (2). Like all forms of ascetism, this is a high-risk endeavor. It can expose the worst in people–so that it can be healed.

Sexuality, in short, is for sanctification, that is, for God. It is to be a means by which God catches human beings up into the community of God's Spirit and the identity of God's child. Monogamy and monasticism are two ways of embodying features of the triune life in which God initiates, responds to and celebrates love. Monasticism is for people who find a bodily, sexual sanctification first and foremost in the desirous perception of God. Marriage is for people who find themselves transformed by the desirous perception of another human being made in God's image. In a marital or monastic community, the parties commit themselves to practicing faith, hope and charity in a situation in which those virtues get plenty of opportunity to be exercised.

Marriage and monasticism are two ways in which Christians make their bodies fuller of meaning by donating them to concentric communities with an other and others. The narrower community is that of the spouses or the brothers/sisters. Larger ones include the local congregation, the witnesses at a wedding or a taking of final vows, the town, the Church, and the whole human race. But the most embracing community of all is that which it is the goal of both marriage and monasticism to promote, however distantly, their members growing inclusion, in this life and the next: the community of the Trinitarian life. Here it is marriage that is the root metaphor from which monasticism grows. For Jesus says, "the kingdom of heaven is like a father who gives a wedding feast for his son."(Mw 22:2) And marriage analogies abound in Christian texts and practices for the relationship of the human community with God. Thus we read:

• "I will betroth you to me forever...I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know [who I am]." (Hosea 2.19a-20)

• "Why do [others] fast, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?" (Matthew 9.14)

• "Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom." (Matthew 25.1)

• "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready...Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb." (Revelation 19.6-9)


Throughout the Christian tradition, in many times and places, what you might call an analogia nuptialis is productive of much theology. As Karl Barth has said, "Because the election of Israel is real, there is such a thing as love and marriage." That is, God's love for God's people is the prime analogate, which marriage is to represent. Not only Catholics, but the Orthodox and even Protestants practice the analogia nuptialis.

The paradigm case of the analogia nuptialis is Jesus' eucharistic remark, "this is my body, given for you." It is Jesus' self-giving that the married and the monastic both imitate in institutional form. That self-giving is at once a celebration, a wedding feast, and, under separable conditions of finitude and sin, a sacrifice. Both because marriage and monasticism are meant to sanctify, and because they imitate the eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus, they are essentially ascetic practices. That, indeed, is one of the two main things that make marriage and monasticism two forms of the same practice. First, they celebrate community; second, they practice asceticism - the giving up of less significant goods to gain more significant ones, the pearl of great price.

True asceticism is not a denial but a use, even a heightening of desire. Jesus did not give up his life from lack of desire, but from the intensity of it: "God so loved the world." (Jn 3.16) Jesus did not descend from the cross, because he desired solidarity with the thief, because he so loved the thief: "This day you will be with me in paradise." (Lk 23.39-43)

The choice between marriage and monasticism depends on which leads to the right sort of vulnerability that will change the human being for the good. It is about the right sort of vulnerability before the face of what sort of other. "Grace," Rowan Williams has written, "is a transformation that depends on being perceived in a certain way, as desired, as wanted." The transformative perception par excellence is the one by which God perceives us as God would have us be. God sees Christ in us, that we may change. In the next life, we enjoy the beatific vision, according to Aquinas, not by the power of the one seeing, but by the power of the One seen – by God's causative perception of us. (Summa 1, 12, 13) People who find bodily satisfaction in God's loving perception of them, who can place their bodily selves in God's sight for transformation into God's child, may be called to the monastery. Other people need the focus of a single human other for transformation; the one who, over time, loves them into growth, exposing their faults so that they may be healed. Given human sinfulness, this transformation is risky. To have the best chance of success - to be most hopeful and patient - Christians have traditionally believed that it needs singleness of focus, support of the community, and the promise of a lifetime. For this reason, the Church affirms marriage to be, at the very least, the public and solemn covenant between these persons made in the presence of God and before the nuptial witnesses, the Christian community, and the public community beyond.

Turning again to Matthew's Gospel,

"Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast to his son, sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come...Then he said to his servants...'Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.' And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and cast him out into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.'"(Mt 22,1-3.9-13)
The parable reminds us that the Christian community must respect and celebrate how the Holy Spirit sanctifies in a public, committed, interpersonal, and life-long way: in concrete, marriage-like practices, ascetic practices, disciplines – "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8.2) – that lead the parties, Christians would say, into the sacrificial and glorious marriage of God and God's people. The marriage of God and God's people – Christ's donation of his body to be for others – ramifies in diverse ways through Christian practices, in marriage, in monastics in community, and in the faithful baptized gathered as one in eucharistic fellowship. Dr. Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Among his published works, Rogers edited Theology and Sexuality, Blackwell Readings in Modern Theology (Blackwell, 2002) and authored Sexuality and the Christian Body (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999).

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Halloween and the masks of marriage

By Jean Fitzpatrick

The bride in a black cocktail dress with a black veil, carrying a flower bouquet adorned with miniature skulls. The groom in dark slacks, a pirate shirt and a top hat. Theme music from The Addams Family and The Munsters. Guests in costume. That's what Lisa Panensky and Jim Nieves had in mind when they booked their Halloween 2009 wedding at Westchester County's Old Dutch Church, built in 1697 and cited by Washington Irving in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." "Sleepy Hollow is the Halloween capital of the world," Nieves told the local Journal News explaining the couple's eagerness to be married there. "It's a landmark."

But the Rev. Jeff Gargano, pastor of the Old Dutch Church, nixed the plan. Gargano did offer to perform the ceremony outside in the church's historic "Burying Ground" (where, it is said, Irving's Headless Horseman tethers his horse nightly among the graves) but Nieves and Panensky declined. The wedding will reportedly take place -- Munsters music and all -- at their home in nearby Elmsford.

But the couple remained disappointed and puzzled by the minister's objections. (This is, after all, a church where Irving's ghoulish story is read aloud every year in the sanctuary.) "I don't know where he [Gargano] got this idea of burning crosses and killing babies," said the bride-to-be. I guess the pastor worried that darker forces might be involved in the Halloween wedding, he perhaps not subscribing fully to the engraving on the 1685 Old Dutch Church bell: "If God Be For Us Who Can Be Against Us?"

I'll admit that I'm partial to the long white wedding dress. But let me tell you what really upset me about this story, and it had nothing to do with the Addams Family. According to local news reports, the church had decided to waive its requirement that the couple participate in premarital counseling.

Now, that's scary.

You've heard the statistics. And with or without a pirate shirt and skulls, today's couples -- so often lacking role models for how to sustain a marriage through crises and everyday conflicts -- benefit enormously from the opportunity to reflect on their union and learn practical relationship skills. Sadly, many are so busy with work and wedding plans that they are hard pressed to find time to lay the groundwork for their relationship without encouragement. Even if they've had some previous therapy, as a couple prepares to walk down the aisle, it is essential that they talk together about the meaning of marriage, their own experiences of relationship, their struggles and hopes and dreams.

As for the Old Dutch Church couple, what a missed opportunity that was to make a real connection with them. I can't think of anything more telling than to ask an engaged couple about their masks and disguises. The costumes we choose, like Venetian carnival masks, conceal our identities...but they also reveal our deepest yearnings and fantasies. What do those skulls mean to Lisa, anyway? And why did Jim the groom decide to don a pirate hat? How do their two "characters" relate to each other? Sounds like the start of a rich and interesting conversation.

Through the years, those identities and yearnings often evolve. With each new life stage we deepen certain aspects of ourselves, discard others, discover new ones. I can't count how many times a husband or wife has sat in my office and told a partner, "I don't know you anymore," or "This is not the person I married." At times like these we feel as gloomy and bedraggled as trick-or-treaters on a rainy night. The beauty is that if you're willing to keep on stumbling along in the dark, sooner or later a door opens, you wind up at a house that's all lit up and warm, and a friendly face is inviting you in.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

Wondering about risk

By Joy Caires

As a pediatric chaplain I saw people of all faiths pour all of their being into the attempt to save a child's life, again and again--regardless of any differences we may have had. The Orthodox Jewish family anticipating their baby's heart surgery; the lesbian couple seeking baptism for the infant they knew would not survive much beyond birth; the Hindi family I led in prayer as we gathered barefoot at their adult son's bedside; the Jehovah's Witnesses watching their son's last breath leave his body; the evangelical fundamentalist father expressing concern over his son's obsession with Heaven; the teenager I baptized who's grandmother had left the Episcopal Church over the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy-desperate in their need they welcomed my presence. They didn't question whether I was "eligible" to pray for them, bring the sacraments to them, or love them. They clung to me like a life boat and I in turn held steady at their grasp. As they watched their children struggle their relief at the presence of the priest was often palpable. In that moment all they cared about was the fact that a child, their child, was dying and that I was there.

Now that said, the relationship was primarily one way. I had something they needed, I wore a collar, and they were in crisis. So, no personal questions were asked of me-and I rarely volunteered information about myself. Occasionally in the quiet moments, or as the relationship grew I would answer their questions while still dodging the inevitable "so are you married?"s with an answer of "yes" and a quick follow up question. They would keep talking and I would keep listening--their question answered but not answered--and I would feel relief at my preservation of the pastoral relationship. Yes, I often found myself wondering, did my duplicity help or hinder my ministry? If they knew about my sexuality would they still call me to anoint their dying child? Would they still ask for me if they knew that part of my familiarity and comfort in the medical setting came from having met my beloved while she was still in medical school and learning the language of medicine second hand?

And, I wonder, and part of my wondering is the knowledge that many of these families want the pastoral relationship to continue beyond the bounds of the hospital. They want to visit me at my parish; they invite me to birthday parties for children that made it despite it all. They, gasp, want to friend me on Facebook so that they can share photos taken of me with their children! How much do I let them into my life now that their crisis is over? Would knowing more about me harm their memory of the relationship I had with them in the hospital?

As a chaplain it was about them--and after the crisis I got to walk away. There was little risk of rejection and I knew with surety that what I did was crucial. In the parish I find that getting the bulletin proofread does not strike me as a crisis (at all) but that it is its own kind of ministry. I find the parish world to be a different kind of challenge-with greater personal risk. Because, now, as a parish priest I find that it is usually about us, as a congregation, as a gathered community. These are people who share the journey with me-they know my spouse, in sermons I share with them some of my story as we embark on the journey of faith together. It seems odd at times to have so many know so much about my life. But, at the same time, I can see the difference it makes to the people who make up the congregation to have these insights into my life and love.

So, I wonder...what would have been different if I'd let patients and parents in a bit further, if I'd answered instead of evaded? And, as these relationships settle firmly into the past, I wonder whose loss it has been?

The Reverend Joy Caires, a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School, is currently the Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Akron, Ohio. Joy's first call, after ordination, was as the pediatric chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.

Bylaws, baptism and open communion

By Kathleen Staudt

Whenever a baby is baptized in my congregation, the priest presents the newly baptized child to the congregation and announces joyfully. “Join me in welcoming the newest member of our church,” and there is applause, and rejoicing and delight all around. Baptism is what makes us part of the Body of Christ, the Church .

When we welcome the newly baptized as our newest “member,” the celebration is of inclusion, expressing the open arms of the community of faith. Theologically it is the incorporation of a person into the mystical Body of Christ, of which we are all “living members,” and we celebrate that, even though we know that often the baptism of a child is primarily a rite of passage for a family.

But very quickly, even well intentioned language about “membership” begins to sound like language of exclusion. I’ve been mulling this over as our congregation begins the process of revising our bylaws, part of which involves deciding who is a “member” of the congregation, mainly for purposes of vestry elections and voting at the annual meeting.

The old bylaws defined a member of the church as a communicant in good standing who made a regular financial pledge. But the question has been raised lately about whether one can be a “member” of the church without making a pledge: whether it is sufficient to have made a financial contribution during the previous year – whether membership should rely on making a financial contribution at all. Our culturally diverse congregation’s mission statement is “to be a home for all God’s people.” How does that square with putting a financial requirement on “membership”? people wonder, perhaps rightly. Our rector wants to keep the bylaws language about membership consistent with what he says at every baptism. As long as you’re baptized and we’ve recorded it here, you’re a member. That’s what the canons say. So far, so good

But in the theology expressed in our local practice, this all quickly becomes more problematic. Under our current bylaws, the bar is actually higher for voting at the annual meeting than it is for receiving communion! On the one hand, the priest’s announcement at each baptism reminds us that we are members by virtue of our baptism. At Eucharist, like many Episcopal churches, we have a local practice of open communion: we gladly welcome all who wish to receive.

In practice, then, in a post-Christendom world, Eucharist is for some people the point of entry into the life of the church. Baptism, for an adult not previously baptized, becomes once again the major step of risk and commitment that it was for the earliest Christians -- a serious moment of intentional commitment to Christ. We do not insist that someone prove that they are baptized before they come to the altar. We have lost that ancient connection between a catechumenate and admission to the Eucharist, and the statement that this makes about Christian identity: that we are baptized into both the death and Resurrection of Christ, and that Eucharist is the meal that nourishes us for faithful living. I love that teaching, in its positive version. I believe it.

The trouble is, to someone coming in the door of the church for the first time, what I think of as an inclusive statement: “All baptized Christians are welcome to receive” gets heard as exclusion. I’ve experienced what it’s like to feel excluded from the Eucharist (see my previous post), and I see the wisdom of the open table practiced in my church and in many Episcopal churches now: we simply say “all are welcome to receive” and leave it to the Holy Spirit, working through the life of the local community, to invite those who are drawn to Christ to receive communion, and perhaps eventually, if they are not baptized, to embrace what amounts to a “believer’s baptism” – making their own adult commitment to the Christian life, in full awareness of all that it involves. But I think we have some work to do on supporting and encouraging people toward that second step. And on remembering why Baptism is important.

One of these days there will have to be a conversation in the Episcopal Church about open communion and how we understand it theologically. It seems to have become part of our witness to an open and generous-hearted Christianity in a post-Christian world, and I expect it is here to stay. Indeed, I welcome the practice, despite theological reservations. But the power and grace of Baptism also needs to be reclaimed as part of our understanding of who we are as Christians.

I am glad that ours is a liturgical tradition where “praying shapes believing,” where to some extent we learn where the Holy Spirit may be leading us through our evolving practice, rooted in tradition but also changing with the times. So where is the practice of open communion leading us, in terms of our understanding of what it means to be “members” of the body of Christ? Is there perhaps an opportunity here, in a post-Christian world, to reclaim baptism itself as a truly intentional commitment to Christian discipleship? I really am interested in what readers of the Café have to say about this.

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


Invitation and exclusion

By Kathleen Staudt

Several weekends ago, I spent a refreshing and prayerful time on retreat at Holy Cross Abbey, a Cistercian monastery near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. As one might expect in an atmosphere infused with the monastic tradition, I felt thoroughly welcomed and quieted, and was nourished by the opportunity offered to enter what T.S. Eliot called “time not our time. In the one conversation I had with a monk, I was reminded of the Cistercian devotion both to prayer and to the intellectual life, two parts of myself that I’ve been a long time in bringing together. (A favorite book title of mine, about the monastic tradition, is called The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. I think that does describe something important about my vocation).

Sure of the divine welcome in the place (and of creation’s welcome, among the meadow flowers, birds and mountain scenery), I became vividly aware on Sunday of the obstacles to welcome that still exist in a church that is still far from the unity for which Jesus prayed. As a Roman Catholic order, the Cistercians abide by a discipline that limits participation in Eucharist to Catholics. I knew this. I knew I could present myself for Eucharist and no one would speak or object, but I was interested in the way that the non-invitation to Eucharist was worded. “The Catholic bishops do not allow us to invite non-Catholic Christians to receive Eucharist. We ask that you respect the discipline of the Roman Catholic Church and join us in prayer for the unity of all Christians, for whom our Lord Jesus prayed on the night before he died.”

My own operative theology is scandalized at the idea of excluding anyone from Eucharist, believing that we go at Christ’s invitation, rather than at the invitation of a human community, however organized or faithful. And the careful wording of the placard I’ve just quoted suggested to me that whoever wrote it might even share the same operative theology. I’m certainly glad that the Episcopal Church has pushed back against any statement that would begin “The Anglican Communion does not allow us to invite. . . . " But there was also in this sad non-invitation a solid piece of truth-telling that I appreciated. I was grateful to the community for honestly naming the brokenness. It caused me to experience, as I have not before, what it is to be excluded from a rite that is our central expression of belonging. It was wrong. But it was true to how things are in the Church for whom Jesus prayed, and died.

So, I accepted, and learned from, the invitation to “join us in prayer for the unity of all Christians, for whom our Lord Jesus prayed on the night before he died.” As people lined up to receive the Body and Blood, I remained kneeling, praying fervently and deeply for the unity of a broken church, the whole church catholic, Anglican, orthodox, whatever our sad divisions may be. I heard in my heart snatches of hymns: “Bid thou our sad divisions cease/ And be thyself our king of peace. . . . . “ “By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” It was a rich, full and genuine participation, in its way – a sharing in the broken heart of Christ, in the midst of the assembly. I wouldn’t want to make a habit of this way of prayer. But at least on this day, it was an unexpected gift.

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

Soul-deep hunger

By Joy Caires

There are times when I crave the island I grew up on--missing it with a longing indeed a yearning, that nothing can fill. Last week, I was in line at the pharmacy’s photo kiosk and a man came up behind me. He looked like any of a number of the men I grew up around—the uncles, cousins and friends who would gather around my dad’s pick-up truck late in the afternoon “talking story.” I knew it wouldn’t be appropriate to turn around and say “where are you from?" That would have been rude. But, I longed to speak. I longed for a tangible reminder in the middle of my summer afternoon and I began to long for home.

But, rather than speak, I waited for the photos from our mission trip to download—glancing behind me a bit too frequently for politeness. Then, he picked up his cell phone and began to speak. And suddenly, the familiar lilt of Pidgin English filled my ears—intonations I rarely hear, except in the occasional long distance phone call. As he finished his call I steeled myself, turned and asked, “Excuse me, are you from Hawai’i?” He looked startled—this was probably not a question he’d heard often in rural Ohio! With his “yes” we plunged into conversation—how often do you get back, how long have you been here, where do you get good Hawaiian food, wow, they really let you check a cooler full of Ahi tuna!

As we talked the photos from the mission trip to Kentucky downloaded and soon it was time to go. But, this encounter cued the longing in my soul for the smell of the salt air, the taste of kalua pig and a time zone that fits me just a little bit better than the one here does. So, as my longing for home has increased I’ve cued up the Hawai’ian music in my car and I crave the foods that I grew up enjoying: Spam musubi, manapua, kalua pig, poi (the list goes on) chicken long rice, haupia, lau lau, cone sushi, pulehu beef, char siu, hekka, komoda’s donuts, saimin, opihi. (Are you hungry yet?) This food represents comfort and my taste buds long for it as this litany of the soyu soaked, sugar filled and salt cured appears across my computer screen.

When I graduated from high school I was given a rice pot—just like every other graduating senior who was headed to the mainland for college. Our relatives feared that we would starve on the mainland without rice. Rice that had been rinsed in cold water until the starch was released from the grain, rice poured into the pot and swirled with your hand and then drained. Rice which was cooked in the rice pot where it would sit, waiting to be scooped into the next bowl or plate, until it was time to make more rice. Rice came in 25 pound bags—and there was only one kind of rice. Going away to college with our rice pots in tow was our community’s way of telling us that we were loved and would be missed. And, for many of us, our rice was salted with tears in those initial days.

I’m guessing that most people know what “home food” is, what “comfort food” should taste like. Southern friends search out grits of the right texture, taste and consistency and know that most things improve with a generous lashing of bacon grease. Fry bread, baked beans, biscuits, rice, spaghetti…we all have our own litanies. But, for most of us, our hunger isn’t about the need to fill our bellies; it is about the need to fill our hearts. My hunger for local food isn’t about the food—although I wouldn’t turn down a plate of chicken long rice or a stick donut if it were offered. It is about the familiarity, the love, the sense of wholeness I have when I am back on Maui.

It is about the security that comes of being related to everyone and the comfort of fitting in. It is about the unity of family and the way the air smells of flowers and salt breezes. It is about being surrounded by people who are more than happy to speak the truth in love and who, despite their grumblings, love you even when you are most unloveable. It is about being with people who share my story and quite simply, get it. I long for the bread, or in this case rice, of eternal life—the rice that gives me back that sense of home, of family, of being known and belonging. It is this yearning, this craving, which brings me to church and calls me to the altar. This is the hunger that drove me to awaken with the bells on Sunday mornings in college and to warm up the car’s engine on wintry Ohio Sundays. It is a soul deep hunger and I long to fill and be filled with good food, food that will indeed “give life to the world.”

So, approach the railing and extend a hand—fill your soul and abide until you are home once more.

The Reverend Joy Caires, a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School, is currently the Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Akron, Ohio. Joy's first call, after ordination, was as the pediatric chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.

My first Baptism

By Joy Caires

On my first day in the children’s hospital my only experience with pastoral care in the clinical setting was eleven weeks of clinical pastoral education--in a geriatric psychiatric unit. My seminary education was heavy on scriptural work and theology—light on pastoral care courses beyond the required. I had worked with children as a youth minister, as an assistant teacher at a daycare center and as everybody’s favorite babysitter. At the time, it didn’t particularly occur to me that accepting a position as the only pediatric chaplain at a 244 bed children’s hospital was, well, kind of crazy. But, even if it had occurred to me—well, what else was I going to do with my newly minted collar and newly minted seminary debt?

Minutes into my first day my pager sounded for the first time. The pediatric intensive care unit needed me. I walked briskly towards the elevators, I had not yet found the stairs that were the most direct route from the first floor of the hospital to the pediatric intensive care unit. My heart was thumping in my chest as the elevator doors opened and I swiped my keycard to access the unit. The unit secretary pointed me towards the room where I had been requested. The nurse, who had never seen me before (I had only been in the PICU once before on a quick tour) hastily filled me in on the situation. A car accident late the day before, his mother had died on impact—it would have been better if he had died then as well.

I drew a breath before I entered the room; the child lay prone in the hospital bed. A young woman was at his side. She glanced up, taking in my collar, before turning her face back towards the little boy. I stepped closer to the bed side, his body was connected to IVs, his breathing controlled by machines. But, the tubing was not the worst of it nor was the steady hush of the vent. His head and face were completely covered in gauze-- gauze that despite the best efforts of the doctors and nurses was slowly filling with blood. He had no face. I took a deep breath and my nostrils filled with the tangy iron smell of blood.

“I’m Reverend Joy, the chaplain here…” The woman at the bedside paused and looked at me again…”I’m his aunty.” And, as he lay dying I learned about his life--the bicycle he loved to ride, the video games he played and his easy smile and affection for his family.

Throughout the day, relatives gathered and he continued to bleed. The doctors looked weary and drawn and the smell of blood haunted us. Later in the afternoon the pastor who had come the night before returned. The room ‘s air was thick with grief and I struggled to find my place within that grief--to offer love, perhaps comfort but mostly to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of the pain. But, that was in retrospect, at the time all I knew was the taste of blood and the clear sense that I was needed and wanted in that room. The other pastor was older than me by a couple of decades and I was shocked by her own level of need and her palpable anxiety. As his heart rate continued to drop she turned to me in the midst of the now crowded room. “I think we should baptize him”.

I had never baptized anyone before but I felt very strongly that I would never bring up baptism, much less baptize, unless the family initiated the request. So, I whispered back to her—“we should discuss this outside of his room”. Because she had been there the night before, because it was my first day, because she had been a pastor longer than I, I conceded—she could ask the family.

As we entered the room the boy’s grandmother looked up at us, questioningly. And in response to the question about baptism she replied, “if you think we should”. To which the other pastor perked up and announced that I would baptize him. I hope now that my face did not reflect my anger in that moment….I felt trapped and manipulated. Yet, there was no turning back as I gathered the family around the bedside. I glanced at his covered face and quickly looked away, not wanting to see the ravages where the gauze had slipped. I poured the sterile water into a shell and then slowly let three drops fall into his open palm.

Welcome to the household of God.

I can still taste blood when I think about him.

He died within the hour.

The Reverend Joy Caires, a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School, is currently the Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Akron, Ohio. Joy's first call, after ordination, was as the pediatric chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.

Who gets fed

We are now observing summer hours on Daily Episcopalian. Rather than six essays per week, we will be running five, with fresh essays appearing Sunday and then Tuesday through Friday.

By Peter M. Carey

At my family’s cottage on Cape Cod, there is a bird feeder place in the middle of the front yard. It has been there for 20 years or so, made of brown metal, on a black pole. It has a kind of a perch for the birds to sit on which “shuts off” the access to bird seed if an animal larger than the average bird tries to get the food. It is designed so that squirrels and blackbirds will not be able to get to the food. Over the years, this bird feeder has been given new life through a black bungee cord which helps to keep it attached to the pole, and also through several stakes pounded into the ground and fastened to the pole, so that it continues to stand more or less upright.

Recently, I was sitting and watching the bird feeder out of the corner of my eye during a Sunday morning rain shower. The birds came steadily to feed. Sorry to say I am no accomplished birder, but I recognized red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, blue jays, robins, an agile blackbird or two, as well as countless little birds beyond my ability to identify. What was also remarkable were two chipmunks who found a way to climb up the pole, onto the perch, and who filled their cheeks with food and then scurried down and into the woods. The chipmunks took turns, it seemed, to grab the food and then sock it away. At times, the chipmunks shared the perch with a bird or two, and at times the chipmunks startled the birds, and at times a bird startled the chipmunks. But, on that Sunday morning, there was plenty of food to go around. I even saw a courageous and agile squirrel hold onto the top of the feeder and stretch down to eat bird food for several seconds before sliding off the feeder. Luckily for the squirrel, the birds are somewhat messy eaters, and there is plenty of birdseed scattered on the ground.

While not the perfect metaphor or parable, what captured my attention about this old bird feeder is that it gave me a moment to wonder about the internal squabbles of our beloved Episcopal Church. It seems to me that much energy is being spent about who is welcome and who is not (ironic, of course, when you consider our Episcopal Church motto: “the Episcopal Church welcomes you”). I do wonder if we need greater attention to and reflection upon the sacrament of the Eucharist.

On rainy Sunday mornings (and every day), we are fed with the overflowing gifts from God, and we are all welcome and invited to the table. There is plenty of God’s grace to go around, if only we noticed it, if only we refocused our emphasis. I don’t mean to argue for some Pollyanna solution for our very real conflicts; that we only need to say “hey let’s get along.” For I know all to well the hurt, frustration, and anger that has welled up for so many people in the midst of our squabbles. However, I do feel that while we work through present disagreements and infighting we would do well to reconsider the importance of our mutual bonds to one another, at the foot of the Cross and around the Eucharistic Table. There is plenty of food to go around.

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is associate rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, Virginia. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

Real bread, good wine

By Martin L. Smith

On the day that the vintage had begun, my brother and I treated ourselves to an afternoon of wine tasting at one of his favorite vineyards of Martinborough in the Wairapa Valley, where some of the most celebrated wines of New Zealand are produced. We could watch the members of the owners’ family deftly snipping away every bunch of grapes as we sat sipping wines and enjoying superb bread straight from the oven. It set me thinking later as I took my daily walk by the ocean, about bread and wine and the Eucharist; a priest’s meditation about how hard it is to prevent the Eucharist from becoming disconnected from the fabric of everyday life.

Those who have explored the history of the sacraments become painfully aware of their vulnerability to mutations that distort their original meanings and weaken their impact with all sort of compromising adaptations in the name of efficiency. I suppose my reflections were triggered by marveling at the way wine is becoming more widely appreciated than ever, available as it is to ordinary people in a dazzling profusion of variety. And yet as more and more people love wine and make it part of their lives, most churches are stuck in a groove of convention that dictates that ‘communion wine’ must be a special cloying, sticky product that can be tolerated in a single sip, but would disgust us if we had to drink a glass of it.

And it is not so different with bread. There has been in the fast few decades a reaction against the bland industrial product and a demand for wholesome, fresh baked bread has grown up. The trend continues with the opening of more and more neighborhood bakeries that provide every day a range of breads that once only those who traveled to France would ever have encountered. And yet in church we present as bread a product that doesn’t resemble any bread eaten anywhere in the world, odd white disks that appear to be cut from paper and taste of nothing.

If there had been a deliberate campaign to isolate the Eucharist from everyday life, and seal it off a in a purely ritual context, the results could have hardly been more successful. But of course there hasn’t been. It’s just that the desire for efficiency and an almost superstitious concern with what we suppose to be reverence have created conditions for severing the roots of sacramental practice from our everyday lives. Wafers can be efficiently counted and stored, they don’t make crumbs. They don’t require any effort, simply being delivered by mail. The sickly fortified wines marketed by the ecclesiastical supply houses keeps indefinitely. We have dozens of excuses to justify using these customary products as the elements, and we would prefer not to examine the spiritual losses we incur. At home we can savor wonderful wholesome bread, and appreciate even modest wines day by day as the glorious distillation it is of earth and sunshine. And then we go to church and find unique ecclesiastical stuff being used that has no connection with what we love to eat and drink normally.

And in church, even the actions of eating and drinking have become something unrelated to meals. A lot of us refuse to drink at all (we’re hygienic), preferring to dip a corner of a host into the chalice. And eating the wafer isn’t even like normal eating, more a kind of special technique we deploy to prevent it from sticking to the roof of our mouths.

Our meditations could easily take in the Baptism as well. The robust practices of the early Church, in which the plunging of converts into water really looked and felt like the symbolic drowning it was meant to be, have been almost universally replaced by the scattering of a few droplets from bowls or miniature fonts that more closely resemble ornamental bird baths than anything our ancestors would have recognized as suitable for the sacrament of death and rebirth.

It is a challenge worth exploring in depth, because the introduction of authentic bread into the Eucharist, the use of wine that is actually like the wine we drink, the encouragement of real eating and real drinking, the expansion of the use of water from fiddling with drops to real wetting and plunging, won’t take on if reduced to the level of liturgical tinkering, as in the wretched game of ‘guess what the Rector is trying to foist on us now!’ The purpose of the sacraments is the transfiguration of our everyday lives and experiences, and the challenge is to undo the damage inflicted by generations of compromises, asking ourselves at every level: How can we restore the intimate connections that the symbols we use in our worship should have with the fabric of our real lives?

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

The sacred calling

A sermon preached at the annual convention of the Diocese of Washington

By Trevor Mwamba

Dear friends, I would like to convey on behalf of the Diocese of Botswana, our heartfelt greetings and God’s blessings on you all in the Diocese of Washington. We especially join you in praying for the success of this Diocesan Convention.

Botswana is in the southern part of Africa and is renowned for its working democracy and economic prosperity. But I think that for many of you Botswana is famous for Mma Ramotswe, the heroine of the bestselling series of books: The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith.

Mma Ramotswe, you will be delighted to hear is a very devout Episcopalian! In the book, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, in which I appear, Mma Ramotswe comes to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana when I am preaching. But, Mma Ramotswe is not concentrating on the sermon as her mind is wandering on how to solve a case involving a pumpkin. She stops herself and thinks, “This is not the way to listen to Trevor Mwamba!”

Well, being in the “Company of Cheerful Episcopalians”, I hope your minds will be clear of pumpkins!

Tonight I have much to be grateful for.

There is a lovely story set in the African forest which reflects gratitude, well. A missionary came across a big lion. Trembling with fear the missionary got on his knees and prayed fervently for dear life. Opening one eye he noticed that the big lion had also gotten on its knees and paws together was also fervently praying. The missionary truly heartened by this sight opened the other eye and said, “I see my brother we are of the same faith.” The lion replied, “I don’t know about you but I am just saying grace!” For what I am about to receive, O’ Lord, I am truly thankful.

Tonight, I am grateful to God for the honour of preaching in what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 40 years ago described as, “this very great and significant pulpit.” For making it happen I express my deep personal thanks to my dear friend Bishop John Chane for his gracious invitation to me to preach at this Diocesan Convention.

Bishop John is a man of integrity and highly respected in the Anglican Communion. Indeed, my respect for him increased by a hundred percentage points two years ago in El Scoria, Spain, when over dinner he told me he had been a drummer in a rock and roll band. I am also grateful to Dean Sam Lloyd and the Cathedral Chapter for the opportunity of worshipping with you all in this great Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. I stumbled across an interesting fact about the National Cathedral in an episode of The West Wing, entitled “Two Cathedrals”. It is that you can lay the Washington Monument on its side in this Cathedral. Just imagine. Another point worth saying is that, Aaron Sorkin, who was the writer and executive producer of The West Wing, described this Cathedral as the “Yankee Stadium of all Cathedrals.”

Now, in this holy place, the “Yankee Stadium of all Cathedrals,” we gather to begin the Diocesan Convention by celebrating the Holy Eucharist which is the ultimate Act of Thanksgiving. The word Eucharist is derived from the Greek, Eucharistos’ which means to give thanks. In the Eucharist we give thanks for God’s saving grace profoundly revealed in the gift of Christ. In the Eucharist we give thanks for our calling to share in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in the world.

It’s in the spirit of thanksgiving that we become aware and humble to see that everything in life is a gift from God. We cannot take anything for granted, people, friends, family, places, happenings, this moment.

Tonight, in the Eucharist we especially give thanks for this Diocesan Convention. In the context of the Eucharist may I impress on you the theme of this Diocesan Convention: That we may be one: Making Disciples.

To summarise the theme for those of you who might doze off! Here it is in two sentences. That we may be one is intrinsic in God in whom we exist. It is to know God and reveal Him to others in a living relationship that we are called.

Let me unpack this for you in two stages by first focusing on the first leg of the theme: that we may be one. We tumble over our oneness because we don’t take God seriously and each other. Six years ago, Bishops declared war on each other over the homosexuality issue. It was breaking news for the media who simplistically, to sell papers, created two bitter opponents, the conservatives compromised of African bishops in one corner and weighing quite a lot! And liberals comprised of Western bishops in the other and weighing the same as the Africans. The war was nasty. Totally dismayed, three years ago, I wrote an article in the Church Times published in London, entitled, "Consider the Communion’s Calling," which was
a plea for mutual tolerance among Anglicans worldwide. We are all children of God and need to be reminded of the generosity of God, humility, respect, and love for one another.

It was gentle reminder of the gift of oneness we share whether we like it or not, and how: we must all learn to live together. I quoted the wise words of the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who in 1981 in a foreword to a book entitled, Grow or Die, wrote

“…no single form of Christian experience, conviction or organisation is going to prevail over others. Conservative and radical, contemplative and activist, pietist and social reformer, all must learn to live together. They may and should see much to criticize in their own and others’ position. The critical faculty must not be lost. Reverence for truth must still be paramount. But all must learn to live together, for in religion, as in all else, the same things do not appeal to everybody.”

Mahatma Gandhi suggested that one of the greatest challenges of our day is finding unity amongst diversity. Unity implies oneness. But oneness does not necessarily imply sameness. In other words, we may all be different, unique individuals but through unity of purpose we can team together to accomplish great things – things of love where the whole is greater than the sums of its parts.

This is the heartbeat of the Eucharist: the mercy and extravagant generosity of God is greater than the sums of its parts. God is the whole and the parts, you and I, find a place at the table of love. All are welcome: black and white, male and female, poor and rich, straight and gay, clever and dumb, Peter Akinola and Gene Robinson. No one is left out.

Each of us is a reflection of God who calls us into existence. We are all hewed from the same Rock of Ages. Or to paraphrase John Donne’s insightful words: “No person is an island entire of itself. Every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

John O’Donohue picks the thread up in his magical book, Eternal Echoes, when he talks of God as the “Divine Artist” who is born in each of us revealing a different dimension of His divinity. It is not all the same. God has no spare wheels in life. We all have a special role in the world to which we are called. Each of us has our own work, gifts, difficulties and commitments to deal with. God expects us then to live out our unique gifts in order to bring forth an aspect of God that is only contained in our life. If you don’t live out your talent then that aspect of God cannot be known in you. And you cannot awaken new blessings in your life and the world. You will be poorer and the world too.

Amazingly, last summer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams, in his Retreat addresses to the bishops at the Lambeth Conference, touched on this. Quoting Galatians 1:16, where Paul speaks of God “…who set me apart from birth, called me by his grace, and was pleased to reveal his Son in me.” The Archbishop reminded us that, “Everything starts here because every calling… every vocation in the Church of God… is a calling to be a place where God’s Son is revealed. And that is because there is more to be revealed of the Son of God than any one life, or any one book, or any one church can reveal… Each one of us is a place in which the Son of God is revealed.”

That we may be one points us to be a place where Christ is revealed. How is Christ revealed? I discovered this snuggled in a cute book entitled Mister God this is Anna. The book is about an extraordinary child and her relationship with God, whom she called Mister God.

With that perceptive gift that children have of getting at the heart of things, she describes God this way, “Peple in Cherch are misrable because peple sin misrable songs and say misrable prers and people make Mister God a very big bully and he is not a big bully, because he is funny and loving and kind and strong.”

That is a good picture. Our oneness is that we become the place where people can see in us someone who is not a bully, because we are funny and loving and kind and strong. Like God. We don’t take ourselves seriously because we focus on the negative picture of the mess that we are.

How are we a messed up? Let me quote Mother Mary Clare of the Sisters of the Love of God, in Judy Hirst’s book, Struggling to be Holy. Mother Mary Clare says, “When you go before God in prayer you cannot leave anything behind. You carry in your heart every person, every incident, every thought, every feeling you have ever had and as you lay yourself before God so you bring all the mess as well. My prayer,” she said, “is really one sentence: Here I am what a mess”.

The Eucharist deals with mess and transforms it. The symbols of bread and wine are transformed elements having passed through a messy process. The bread is made from grains of wheat, sifted, ground, baked, to finally produce one bread. Likewise lots of grapes are pressed together in one vessel, and wine made. These are then consecrated and become places where the Son of God is revealed.

Imagine each grain of wheat as a life of person. Imagine each grape as a life of person. Imagine the sifting, grounding, baking, pressing, as the experiences and adversities we pass through in life. This messes up people. But in the Eucharist we drag our messed up lives and lay ourselves before God and we are transformed. Here we are what a mess. Here is the Anglican Communion what a mess. Here is our world what a mess. But God who is not a big bully, but funny and loving and kind and strong in His infinite mercy and generosity welcomes us and in our mess we are transformed in Christ. We are made new.

Ask not how? “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways, My ways,” says the Lord.

That’s true. It is also true that as St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians says: that if a person be in Christ, they are a “new creature” old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

In the Eucharist we are spiritually joined, first to Christ, and then with each other. Though we are many we are one body for we all partake of the one bread. In our oneness we proclaim together one faith, one baptism, one Holy Spirit, and bond of love. The first leg of oneness reveals then our identity in God. God is one and we must express the oneness we hold in common by being the place where we reveal God by living out love.

This brings us to the last leg of our theme: making disciples. The Eucharist is holistic it concludes with us being sent out into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit to live and work to the praise and glory of God. It send’s us out to deal with the mess of the world. God is at work in the political, economic, social, scientific, technological, and cultural world out there. We need to recognise this. The God of righteousness, peace and Justice does not doze off after the blessing. The Spirit of the Lord is always at work engaging the world and bringing about change to make it a better place for all.

In 1960, during his tour of British colonies in Africa the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave an historic speech in South Africa which became famously known as the, Wind of Change, speech. He said in effect, “The wind of change is blowing through this continent and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact…”

Three year years earlier, in 1957 Ghana had become the first African British colony to gain independence led by a charismatic leader named Kwame Khrumah, like President Obama, he was 47 years old. It marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Lots of foreign Statesmen attended the Independence celebrations.

The most enthusiastic guest was Richard Nixon, then the United States Vice President. From the moment he touched down in Accra, Ghana, he rushed about shaking hands, hugging paramount Chiefs, playing with black babies and posing for photographs. Once surrounded by a crowd of Ghanaians at an official ceremony, he slapped one man on the shoulder and asked him how it felt to be free. “I wouldn’t know, sir,” replied the man, “I’m from Alabama!”

God was at work in Africa and the world. The wind of change was blowing.

In America, God was also at work in the civil rights movement as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently stated in his I’ve been to Mountaintop, speech. “…I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world.”

Yes. God was at work. The wind of change was blowing.

And God continues to work in America with the recent historic inauguration of President Barack Obama, as the first black President of America. In this changing and uncertain times faced with the global financial crisis and it’s still unfolding negative impact. In the face of global poverty, climate change, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and all that robs people of their human dignity. God is at work. The wind of change is blowing.

Tonight, the Diocese of Washington, in oneness with God, is called to be that wind of change blowing through America that makes life better for all. Whether we like it or not, God’s purposes come to pass. It is as we address the suffering of God’s children wherever they may be that we realize our oneness with each other and become the place where God is revealed and disciples made.

The Rt. Rev. Trevor Musonda Mwamba is Bishop of Botswana

Rendering unto God and Caesar at the wedding altar

By Jacob Slichter

In the spring of 2007, as the date of our wedding approached, my then fiancé, Suzanne, and I discussed the political dimensions of marriage. Specifically, we spoke of how two close friends, Joe and Priscilla, had forgone legal marriage altogether because of their objections to the discrimination enacted by marriage laws, bans on same-sex marriage and so forth. In lieu of a wedding, they had a commitment ceremony, a commitzvah as they called it, a label that announced the extra-legal nature of their lifetime union (with a nod to Priscilla’s Jewish roots). “That’ll make Priscilla’s family your out-laws,” one person told Joe. Given my religious belief, I told Suzanne, I wanted to have a wedding and be married, but Priscilla and Joe’s commitzvah raised questions we could not ignore, especially given our support for same-sex marriage.

Our ceremony would take place at Saint Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco, my old parish, where same-sex couples had been joined for years. The auspices of Saint Gregory’s presented no problem; California’s ban on same-sex marriage did. We considered removing the marriage license signing from the church premises and having a separate legal marriage at city hall, thereby keeping the state out of our ceremony. (As it turns out, this was already Saint Gregory’s practice.) Still, this would leave us partaking of legal rights denied to others, and after further reflection, we decided to adopt a modified form of what Joe and Priscilla had done: forgo legal marriage and instead draw up a slew of documents that would approximate legal marriage. If and when same-sex marriage became legal in New York (where we live) we’d get married. Meanwhile, we’d have a church ceremony and exchange rings and vows in public.

The next question was what to tell our wedding guests. What was the point of doing all of this if no one else knew? We briefly entertained a printed statement or an announcement, but we didn’t want to come off as scolding the married people in attendance. I was already wincing over having invited my predominantly atheist friends and family to a church wedding where they would be asked to say such things as “Amen” and “Hallelujah.” We decided instead to inform family and friends of our extra-legal status in conversation, over time.

Our wedding day arrived. We exchanged vows and rings as those atheists belted out their hallelujahs, and we found ourselves swept along a tide that followed us out of the church and into our new life together. Upon our return to New York, I began the process of exploring what it would take to assemble wills, join our finances, draw up hospital visitation agreements, and all the other arrangements necessary to approximate legal marriage. The lawyers I consulted estimated it would cost us thousands of dollars in fees. Put off by the expense, I bought a CD-ROM of pre-made legal documents, but quickly found myself overwhelmed and confused by the number of options. I wondered if there was a simpler, cheaper solution—a civil union in New Jersey? Unavailable to straight couples. We could get married in nearby Massachusetts, where gay marriage was already legal, but New York would not recognize same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts, so we’d still be partaking in a discriminatory system. The legal steeplechase occasioned discussion with friends and family about our marital status.

“Wait, Jake, are you married or not?”

“We’re married, but not in the legal sense.”

Straight friends puzzled. Gay friends chuckled. “Just get married. I would.” An email exchange on the subject left an old high-school friend bewildered. “Is Suzanne a man?” Frustrated by how our gesture seemed to arouse only laughter and perplexity, I also felt a rising urgency regarding the legal documents, especially a will. I worried about Suzanne’s financial security in the event of my accidental death. The crosswalks of New York City never felt so dangerous.

Finally, last May, our solution presented itself when Governor David Patterson decreed that New York would recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where it was legal. We picked a date, borrowed a car, and drove to Greenfield, Massachusetts where we lunched with my cousins before strolling over to the town hall. After submitting our application to the town clerk, we went to the courthouse to seek a waiver on Massachusetts’ three-day waiting period, assuming this meant waiting in line for a rubber stamp. But after sitting through separate interrogations with a uniformed court officer (who asked each of us if we were marrying of our own free will), we were ushered into a courtroom and found ourselves standing before a judge.

“You two live in New York?”

“That’s correct, Your Honor.”

“And yet you’ve decided to get married in Massachusetts. Why?”

At last, here was the perfect venue to air our thoughts on marriage equality. Perfect, that is, provided the judge didn’t mind the injection of politics into his courtroom, that he wouldn’t be outraged by our views, and that he wouldn’t therefore reject our waiver request. “Your Honor . . . I have cousins in the area. We thought it would be fun to see them.”

Signed waiver in hand, we slunk out of the courthouse, returned to the town hall, and presented the waiver to the clerk, who doubles as a justice of the peace. She led us outside, stood us under a tree, and beamed as she read from her script. “Marriage is a solemn . . . ” I had anticipated a ten-second procedure, not a three-minute mini-wedding that coupled the legal and spiritual realms we had labored to separate. “And now please join your hands.” We exchanged vows, again, the clerk pronounced us husband and wife, and as she handed me the certificate, I felt only the lifting of my recurring anxiety: getting pancaked by a bus and leaving Suzanne penniless.

So ended our adventure in nuptial social action. I began with my eye on principle and concluded by figuring out how to secure inheritance rights for Suzanne on the cheap, an irony that argues more cogently for marriage equality than anything we had said or done.

I realize that what I had really wanted was to emerge with a sense of mastery—to know we had stirred conversations and reflections, to feel the vibrations moving outward, but all of that seems to have eluded us. We take away only a deepened appreciation for what marriage rights entail—a small prize, but one more real than mastery.

Jacob Slichter is the author of So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, a behind-the-scenes look at the music business. He lives with his wife, Suzanne Wise, in New York City. He has a Web site at www.jacobslichter.com.

Failure, forgiveness, re-marriage

By Donald Schell

A note from a younger priest stirred up a lot of memories for me:

A couple I met on Thursday are getting married two weeks from today. He's been married before and needs some kind of sense of closure from his previous marriage. I think he wants some kind of ceremony that will help him leave it behind. The new wife doesn't want the old wife to be involved...

Do you have any suggestions about what to do here?

What had I actually learned from my own divorce and remarriage almost a third of a century ago? Memories flooded in, a strange mix of crippling grief, guilt and exhilarating hope.

Thirty-three years ago, I was a divorced priest with a five year old daughter. I was engaged to be married but felt shaky accepting the happiness of new love. Though I trusted my fiancée and everything I saw and felt about how we were with each other, the promises I’d made in my first marriage haunted me. I had failed a good human being to whom I had promised lifelong committed love. Could I make the same promise again in good faith? When an evangelical friend demanded I tell him who was at fault, I knew in that moment that neither blame nor self-accusation would serve the truth. But when I told him I couldn’t reply, it cost me the friendship.

Questions of fault or blame, and just plain ‘what happened?’ filled pages of my journal and months of conversation with my spiritual director/confessor. Gradually my director, my bishop and the priest who pastored my fiancée and me, helped me find a balanced story of the first marriage’s failure, a story of two people trying hard in some ways, failing one another in other ways, sometimes even trying hard to hold together in ways that actually hurt and divided.

Seeing mutual failure in the divorce sowed the seeds of forgiveness and gave me hope that my ex-wife and I could learn to make the new relationship we’d need to raise our daughter in two households after the divorce. As our daughter grew up, our working together, much to our surprise I think, renewed friendship and deep respect.

But look, there I am trying to leap out of the uncertainty. My colleague’s question wasn’t about later. What transpires in that confused, uncertain time before making new vows? When I examined those memories directly—without filtering them through the lens of the good things that happened later on—I finally saw how much of my dilemma lay in my fiancée’s deep trust for me. Partly Ellen’s trust healed, but it also stung. A shadow in me brooded over her readiness to stand with me and make promises asking family and friends to bless the joy we felt God inviting us into. Reluctant as I was to admit it, my gut said it would easier somehow if Ellen had also been divorced. Illusions of balance or fairness (justice) and some share of guilt got me thinking that if we had divorces behind us, my conscience would rest and let me make new promises. Was I really wishing the loss and suffering of divorce on Ellen?

Conscience can be a trickster. Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn to show a good-hearted boy’s struggle with his damaged conscience. Huck feels guilty helping Jim escape slavery. Like Huck Finn, the best I could do was tell my troubled conscience to be still. But when that accusing voice was quiet, I heard another – what if Ellen’s hopes and trust in me were naïve? Her hope looked so much purer than mine. Could such seemingly pure hope live with my dark memories of failure and loss? How many months after our vows would she be waking in the night as I was now, wondering who this man really was?

Especially at the beginning divorce hangs its quarantine sign on memories as if they could infect those who heard them. Some memories feel burdensome, embarrassing or shameful. Others treacherously turn accusing and vindictive. The good memories may not be quarantined, but they’re orphaned. The couple who birthed all those good memories died.

Time does change and heal some of that. Present trust can make even old memories trustworthy. Over some years Ellen came to know the boy I had been growing up, the kid I was in college, and the young man I was in my first marriage. Now when that younger me shows up in our children, we can love, trust and forgive him. Other relationships grow and heal too. My daughter is the big sister in two families. Her four parents have come to respect each other. Ellen and my children are friends with their sister’s other sister.

But my mind is rushing ahead again. When the confusion was still fresh in Ellen’s and my first year together, she and my dad were talking, and he stopped, something crossed his face, and he said, 'We're really glad Donald found you, but his mother and I only wish he'd met you first.' Though she felt the welcome he intended, his words left her speechless. Regret simply made no sense. Ellen knew I was a different man for my failed first marriage. And none of us – not Ellen the new stepmother, nor either parent, nor the grandfather who was speaking regretted our daughter, his grand-daughter What was he saying? What could he really mean?

He was wishing for what couldn’t be – no divorce, no pain, no confusion. But wishing a more perfect and orderly life for me – not divorced – missed new life and blessing that was already showing up like fresh growth after a forest fire. Dad’s affectionate welcome to family risked rewriting the past, erasing real people, my ex-, our daughter (his grand-daughter!), and me.

Yes new life did happen, but how did we carry ambiguity and memory of failed promise into a whole-hearted, unambiguous commitment to new promise?

A month or so before the wedding, David Boulton, the priest who married Ellen and me, said he wanted to talk with me alone. I was afraid he’d seen how little I trusted myself. Would he try to talk me out of the wedding? No, David simply but forcefully told me I had to GIVE UP my pretense that I knew more any about marriage than Ellen. 'Your failed first marriage doesn't make you an expert,' he told me. ‘Offer your best to Ellen and learn from her while she learns from you.’ David’s words complemented what my spiritual director was doing.

David, Fr. Paul, and a handful of trusted listeners cleansed my memory and heart, letting me forgive myself and my ex-, reflect on a past that was ending, and let it go. Letting go, I entered a living future, a real marriage with Ellen.

Thirty-three years later I look back with gratitude at how the church – a bishop, two priests, and some very good friends – offered penance, counsel, challenge, and encouraging words that made me trust myself (and God’s grace) enough to make the promises I so wanted to make and live with a partner I love.

So now, pastorally what do I offer someone still raw from divorce and mistrusting himself/herself, but wanting to make new promises? I use the Prayer Book Rite of Reconciliation (penance or confession) or some informal approximation of it. Penance offers the release and simplicity of acknowledging promises made and not lived out. Penance and reflective counseling invite letting go of both blame and accusation. New life begins as the divorced partner makes confession and we talk, sometimes deflecting blame, sometimes probing for honest statement of failure. We can pray together for the person, and also for the ex-partner.

This pastoral work and ritual of penance make most sense to me by working with the divorced partner alone. or each alone If both partners are recently divorced. So many of the stories we tell ourselves as we come to marriage vows are burdensome illusions. Penance is a place to lay the burden down.

Broken promises demand the strange work of learning to find one’s self trustworthy all over again. I’ve often told people in their relationships (and their workplace) that ‘shattered trust’ can be rebuilt. Trust isn’t a commodity or a fixed state, it’s the unfolding experience of finding yourself or another person trustworthy. That’s as true trusting ourselves as it is trusting another.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company working for community development in congregational life. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago.

Here comes the Consumer of Bridal Products

By Ann Fontaine

I would rather do a funeral than a wedding. People are often startled when I say that. They respond but a funeral is so sad and a wedding is so happy – why do you prefer funerals?

A current issue of Newsweek speaks to some of my problems with weddings:

Fast Chat: the Price of Marriage

Why are brides spending so much money—and losing their minds?

We live in a consumerist society. You're not a bride, you're a consumer of bridal products. And second, there's something very profound psychologically happening. A wedding once marked a major transition in a person's life—the first time you slept with your spouse, lived with your spouse. Today, you're just not that different the day after the wedding, so the wedding planning has to function as a traumatic experience. So you can say, "I've been through this experience that was so demanding, it must mean something."

Is it fair to say the bridal industry took over the sacred space that religion left behind?

The bridal industry has filled a vacuum of authority that used to be important to how weddings are conducted. If you talk to ministers now, they hate doing weddings. The brides want to change the vows. They want to put flowers where they don't belong. They don't listen. What's so interesting is that one of the things the bridal industry says it's selling you is tradition. But if you asked your grandmother if she needed a personalized aisle runner when she got married, she'd say no.

As a priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with a beautiful chapel in Grand Teton National Park, I became even less enamored of weddings than I had been before. The large window over our altar shows a spectacular view of the Tetons. The Chapel of the Transfiguration is a 1925 log building with buck and rail fences surrounding the property. It is featured on most of the wedding planning sites in Jackson. Although we had a strict policy and required pre-marital counseling, those who were looking for a destination wedding would question every guideline. One secretary spent much of her time managing the 2-4 weddings per weekend held from Memorial Day until the end of September. Families spend amazing amounts of money on bringing families and friends for a week of festivities in the Jackson area. The wedding is almost an afterthought. And that is where I have difficulty.

I love a wedding when the couple sees it as place to make their vows to God and to ask their community to support them in their marriage. When this happens, discussing the wedding is a joy and the wedding is a celebration of their commitment to marriage and caring for one another. In the one same sex blessing service where I presided, that couple was one of the most involved in having a rite that reflected these ideals.

The money spent is not so much an issue except when families go into debt to buy the perfect wedding and all the trappings. The issue for me is what the church is doing to support a couple in the making of their commitments. When we respond in The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage to the question “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” I want the church to mean it when we say, “We will.” This is not a one shot ceremony attached to a party. It is heartfelt and for the long haul. Others can officiate at weddings, for me the church offers more. In 2006 Newsweek wrote of the post wedding blues for many brides. Maybe our offering can cure these blues.

And what is it about loving funerals more than weddings? At the time of death and during planning of the ceremonies for saying goodbye to a loved (or even on not so loved) one there is openness to the presence of God. There is an awareness of what is truly meaningful in life. People look at the importance of family and friends in their lives. If these elements are present at weddings I could learn to love weddings, too.

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

Baptisms, aisle 5

By Richard Helmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I don’t stock salvation insurance.

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

In defense of the first sacrament

By Derek Olsen

Proponents of Communion without Baptism (CWOB) present a set of propositions from Scripture to demonstrate the truth of their position. These principles, they maintain, should be normative guides for our current Eucharistic practice. The first is that Jesus’ own meal practice was unusually non-exclusive, inviting the socially marginal and the morally suspect to the table as a sign-act pointing to God’s great eschatological banquet at the end of time provided by God’s extravagant bounty. If Jesus invited all without regard for their status, so should we. The second is that meals with Jesus exhibited a surprising liminality, a fluidity, between the roles of stranger, guest, and host that should give us pause lest we act as gate-keepers for in doing so we may be turning away angels unaware or—worse yet—may reject the very host Himself who is found in the person of the least.

I take these arguments seriously, but I don’t find them compelling to the point where CWOB should be permitted. Some contain methodological flaws while others are absolutely correct but are misapplied when directed to our current sacramental practice.

Many of the arguments for the first proposition rest upon a saying found in both Matthew and Luke: “the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). The arguments I’ve seen suggest that the references to “glutton and drunkard” point to a bounty suggesting the eschatological banquet and that the “tax collector and sinner,” therefore, refer to the marginalized with whom Jesus shared fellowship. The conclusion drawn from this is that if Jesus welcomed the marginalized and outcast to his (holy) table we should as well. While I agree with the identifications of bounty and the marginal, I disagree with the conclusion drawn. In fact—I think this text presents an argument against CWOB…

If we examine the marginal here again, we find people on the outskirts of the children of Israel. The tax collectors of first century Judea were the traitors of the age. They not only didn’t resist Roman rule, they aided and abetted in the oppression of their own people by levying and collecting the taxes, typically through force and extortion. Politically, then, they had placed themselves outside of the people of Israel by means of their treason. “Sinners” is a much more generic term but at the very least identifies those who failed to follow God’s Law to the satisfaction of the community, thus—again—placing them outside of the “true” children of Israel. The evangelists nowhere clarify the purposes of the meals but what they suggest by means of verses like Matt 10:7 is that Jesus was issuing a call to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That is, he defied the authorities and gossipers by welcoming those people who were members of the covenant community—the children of Israel—but whose actions had put them outside of its cultic boundaries. The welcome of Jesus demonstrates the mercy of God to those members of the covenant community who had failed to uphold their part of the covenant. Furthermore, an integral part of many of the meal scenes that the evangelists do portray is repentance on the part of the tax collectors and sinners, a desire to return to their covenant responsibilities, to acknowledge the welcome of God in Christ by returning to walk in God’s paths.

If we would try and make an equation between these meal scenes and our sacramental practice, it would seem that the radical welcome found here is a welcome to rejoin the covenant community. The Christian understanding of covenant community is rooted not in the Abrahamic covenant marked by circumcision nor even in eucharistic fellowship—rather, it is found in Baptism. To issue the invitation Christ issued is to welcome the outcast and marginal into God’s covenant community through Baptism.

The second proposition is, to me, the most intriguing. The idea of fluidity between guest and host, known and unknown, is quite attractive. But when I turn to the texts put forward as evidence I do not find this pattern—the idea seems to be placed upon the texts rather than proceeding from them. The best treatment of this notion that I have seen comes from Dr. John Koenig’s New Testament Hospitality. Here—working exclusively with material from Luke’s pen—he appeals to seven “role-reversal” scenes. But I find it in only one, the Emmaus encounter: the unknown stranger issued an invitation to be a guest reveals himself to be the Host in the breaking of the bread. I don’t find it in the other cited passages. Yes, Jesus is present; yes, he takes a dominant position—but it is a teaching position, not that of host. The teaching role is different from the hosting role. Rabbinic literature indicates that teachers were invited to meals presumably for the purpose of instructing those gathered—there is no sign that through their teaching they somehow became hosts. I will agree that the guest-host fluidity appears in the Emmaus experience but I cannot see it as a characteristic of meals with Jesus through the rest of the Gospel record.

The argument against gate-keepers, tying into Jesus’ constant warnings about and injunctions against religious hypocrisy, proceeds from worthy motives but fails in its limited scope. CWOB proponents tend to argue hospitality from the pages of Luke-Acts. But Acts in particular presents an overly irenic picture of early Christian relationships. All of the inner-church struggles are resolved peaceably. No one leaves the Jerusalem Council mad; those who hold wrong beliefs are instructed and quickly see the errors of their ways. The letters of Paul and the Catholic Epistles—especially the Johannine Letters—tell a very different tale. Warnings against false teachers fill the pages of the New Testament. They do so not because of a desire to restrict or control God’s message of love and life, but because God’s message is not any generic message of love and life but has actual content to it! These authors understand the Church to be a covenant community, bound in Baptism, connected in Christ, and with covenants come responsibilities. These include both holding and enacting the basic beliefs of the Christian faith: Jesus is the Son of God who came in the flesh to announce the Kingdom of God and through whose death, resurrection, and ascension reconciled God and humanity. The insistence on Baptism is not about gate-keeping but rather about who we are as an intentional community—a covenant community.

Proponents of CWOB are correct to lift up practices of hospitality and to remind us of the Gospel’s call to share our possessions and our lives with others. Hospitality and the sharing of possessions with the stranger and the wanderer is a theme that runs throughout Scripture and is especially highlighted in the New Testament. Indeed, we are covenant-bound to offer hospitality and, if we follow the example of our God who showers gifts upon the just and unjust alike, this sharing of possessions should be extended without doctrinal tests or requirements.

However, the message of the Gospel is not simply a message of hospitality alone. Scripture also insists upon the reality and the responsibility of the covenant community. True Christian hospitality is a sharing of not merely of things or of time—as valuable as these are. Through these vehicles it is a sharing of what God has done for us, a sharing through both deeds and words, and an invitation for the stranger to remain a stranger no longer but to enter the covenant community through Baptism.

Derek Olsen is completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He is 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.


Holy action, holy space

Step inside St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco and you enter a soaring octagonal rotunda with a mural of ninety larger-than-life saints –from Frances of Assisi and King David to Malcolm X and Anne Frank—dancing above the altar in the center of the space. Stay for a service and you encounter a densely textured event, full of musical and liturgical elements from all over the world, with an Eastern/Byzantine feel that evokes fourth-century Christian practice. There is no organ; there are no pews or altar rail: the lively congregation sings unaccompanied, in four-part harmony, and moves confidently throughout the whole building. St. Gregory of Nyssa is a pioneering church: its innovations in liturgy, design, leadership and outreach have given it an influence far beyond the Diocese of California. Its practices of open communion, lay deaconing and liturgical dancing have outraged some and inspired more.

St. Gregory’s was founded in 1975 by priests Richard Fabian and Donald Schell, who met as students at General Seminary in NYC and discovered a common love for liturgy as a way to engage people in meeting God. With then-bishop Kilmer Meyers, they founded a special mission of the Diocese of California, putting into practice their developing ideas about how to remake church. St Gregory’s has been more than an “experiment.” It has pointed the larger church in a direction that has influenced a generation of church leaders around issues of open communion, lay leadership and participation, and liturgical innovation.

This month, Fabian and Schell are leaving St. Gregory’s and devote more time to the All Saints Company, a not-for-profit foundation established in 1978 to promote liturgical development and new models of collaboration throughout the church. Daniel Simons, executive director of All Saints Company, spoke with them in San Francisco.

It’s been a long three decades. Can you talk about the changes in Episcopal worship since you began working together?

DS: I was ordained about halfway into the Trial Use explorations that eventually led to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, so it was a time of tremendous liturgical change and controversy. We were also taking our liturgy into public places to witness for peace and civil rights. Some of the church's official voices were insisting that we weren't changing our theology, only the language. But the Prayer Book Society and other conservative voices saw otherwise, as did those of us who were most enthusiastic and optimistic about what change would mean for Christian community.

I think the most profound changes were in holy action and in holy space. Asking people to exchange the peace with one another hinted that we might encounter God during a face to face touch among laypeople in the liturgy. Ideas for reordering church space gave people the experience of gathering together for hearing the word and for sharing bread and wine.

When the 1979 Book of Common Prayer became the official liturgy of the church, a lot of people breathed a huge sigh of relief. Many places assumed we now had a new document to sustain a new rubrical obedience. We squandered much of our momentum for the renewal of community and mission... The big, obvious changes tended to stick, but the flexibility and rich options in the new book seemed less and less evident as time passed.

But for the last fifteen or twenty years, at least some people have again been writing new material, borrowing from the New Zealand Prayer Book and other Anglican sources, and amending texts from the 1979 BCP. A welcome hint of freedom has re-emerged, sometimes reductionist, often unsystematic, but also sometimes inspired.

RF: Today there’s broad interest in participation, more lay ministries, and frank liturgical expression of our church’s official ethic. Plus growing attention to non-cathedral music and openness to non-British culture and identity. Optimistically maybe, I’m betting these trends are already re-orientating our liturgical strategy—from conformity toward mission.

A lot has changed. What do you think remain the most challenging areas of Episcopal worship?

RF: Lack of clarity about what we’re up to. Often our services are not so much culturally irrelevant as opaque. We have parishes with thoughtful preachers, timely social programs, and cornucopial coffee hours--where visitors could hardly guess from what we do in church what it is that we think we’re doing in church. Instead they meet a clubby strategy of reassuring a (steeply aging) group of insiders, and reluctance to talk openly or frankly with each other.

DS: What I most regret about Episcopal worship is a formalized, numbed aesthetic and an Anglophile caricature of Gothic revival. It’s a too-settled, status-quo feeling in liturgy that carries smugness: we say people have to “learn to appreciate it.” It’s sectarian and arrogant, it doesn’t touch people’s lives, and it’s why our Anglophile churches in America are relics.

What have you discovered, through work at St. Gregory’s and with other liturgists, that can break through that numbness?

RF: People, look east! Eastern churches offer a wealth of public worship that Anglicans have long admired and incorporated. Massey Shepherd, Prayer Book author and Church Divinity School of the Pacific professor, said if you line up all the world’s Anglican Books of Common Prayer in order of their publication dates they show a steady march eastward. Today we enjoy rich modern scholarship about Jesus, as well as about ancient traditions of worship. Our Prayer Book’s rubrics were written flexibly to guide us, putting these resources to work. So prioritizing and re-tuning rubrics for mission is faithful, as well as urgent.

DF: St. Gregory’s liturgy is deeply and radically traditional. This means shared leadership; real lay authority with lay liturgists, composers, preachers and worship leaders. It means musical richness—in our case, unaccompanied--- from a variety of sources. It mean naturalness rather than recitation; physicality and movement; and it puts the invitation to participate in worship at the center. In a passive, consumerist culture, our congregation sings; people move from their pews, they touch one another.

What do you see as the future of worship in the church?

RF: Today’s controversies continue a two-thousand year contest between reform and sectarian schism. Reformers say the Church is always corrupt, so we must always improve it (Luther’s “ecclesia semper reformanda”). Sectarians say this church is corrupt, so we must now leave it. Open invitation—to Jesus’ table, to baptism, to worship and full participation in making liturgy—charges us crucially today. We cannot simply say “we Episcopalians have always done this,” or “we do what headquarters approves,” or we will go the way of the Masons.

DS: We are always wholly in the presence of God, and always struggling humanly with our fears. Rowan Williams has said that it took sixty years after the council of Nicea for the church to accept that teaching. It would be great to hear our archbishop say, likewise, that it may take three generations to recognize that the Spirit spoke in New Hampshire, with the ordination of Gene Robinson.

Liturgy that welcomes the unprepared as Jesus did, that incorporates us into the heavenly banquet right now, gives us the power, Spirit, and experience to live Good News. It is completely continuous with life.

Praying together and communion make us one. This is not a “unity” based on documents and doctrinal nicety, or the theological platform of a party. When we allow the sacraments their God-given power, when we invite people to participate in worship that touches their lives, we find a fundamental alignment in action that may offer surprising latitude to explore our differences.

Communion without Baptism?

By Derek Olsen

So—what is the connection between the foregoing discussion about salvation and sacraments and the current issue upon the table—Communion without Baptism (CWOB)? The issue is about liturgical practice and how we greet strangers and seekers in our midst, not theology, right?

Well, I’m not so sure… I’m fond of telling my students that there are no such things as liturgical changes; rather, there are theological changes with liturgical implications. While there is more than a bit of hyperbole in that statement it captures an essential truth: our rites communicate our theology. When we change our rites, very often there is a change in the theology we are expressing whether we recognize it at the time or not. Thus, when faced with a decision about our liturgical practice (i.e., whether or not we should invite the unbaptized to receive the sacrament of the altar) we must first remember what we believe and why we believe it.

You see, Anglican—Christian—sacramental theology is the logic and theology of intimacy. Even the metaphors Scripture uses for the relationship between God and believers bespeak this intimacy: to abide, to dwell with, to remain within. The prophets and poets of sacred page have used time and again the figure of bride and groom in scandalous and sometimes shocking ways to communicate both the depths of intimacy (Revelation and the incomparable Song of Songs) and intimacy’s betrayal (Ezekiel and Hosea). Remembering the logic of intimacy, remaining faithful to its vision of life in relationship grounds our ritual ways, our liturgical practice, in a theology that honors the God who has chosen to be in relationship with us.

At the heart of intimacy is commitment. Nothing more—and nothing less. Intimacy is not instant; it grows over time. Intimacy is a process of growing into knowledge, love, and trust gradually—and its gradual nature demands that those growing remain committed to the process and to each other. It grows through hearing promises, then seeing those promises come true; through sharing truths, then recognizing and confirming those truths embodied in the patterns and rhythms of everyday life.

In our sacramental life, the moment of commitment is baptism. Like promises exchanged between lovers, like the promises made before the altar in marriage, baptism is a covenant relationship. God is constantly inviting us into relationship, simultaneously presenting and fulfilling the promise to be in relationship with the whole creation and with each individual member of it. In Baptism, individuals—or those presenting them—both recognize the call of God and return the commitment, recognizing the identity of God as it has been revealed to us in the baptismal creed and promising to be faithful to the relationship with God. This, we believe, is an everlasting covenant. Even if we fail, even if we fall away and betray the promises made or refuse their claim on us, God continues to love and call us again to the fullness of a life hid with Christ in God.

When we accept this call, however, God’s ongoing commitment and revelation of his deepest self to us comes through the Holy Eucharist: Christ’s own flesh and blood, given to us as a true sharing of body and essence, true intimacy. In the Blessed Sacrament we receive Christ into ourselves to abide, remain, and dwell so that we likewise may abide, remain, and dwell in him.

Furthermore, this intimacy to which we are called is not just about individual gratification or knowledge. For as we are baptized, we are baptized into the whole company of faithful people, into the company of all those also joined to Christ and most especially those embodied in our local communities. As we approach the altar we never do so alone; rather we participate—in the most literal sense—in the Communion of all the saints without regard to time or space or the limits of the flesh. For this too is part and parcel of the mystery of the life hid with Christ in God: as we grow in love, trust, and intimacy with God, we grow too towards one another and to the whole of humanity, indeed God’s whole creation, as we learn to love as God loves. This is the logic of Communion with Baptism; this is the theology of intimacy.

Coming from this perspective, Communion without Baptism misreads the logic of the liturgy. It demands intimacy without commitment, relationship without responsibility. To apply this same logic to another sphere of human relationship, this is the logic of the one night stand—the logic of the “meaningless” fling. Is this the relationship that we wish to have with the God who knows us each by name and who calls that name in the night, yearning for our return to the Triune embrace? But then again—who is this “we”? Exactly whose relationship are we talking about? Is this “we” the clergy, the members of the vestry, those who populate our pews day in and day out? Are those the ones invited to receive communion without baptism? No. The seekers, the strangers, the wanderers in our midst—they are the ones in view here. And here is my question; this is what we must answer to the satisfaction of our own consciences: Do we have the right to choose for the stranger and the seeker a relationship contradicting the logic of intimacy without offering them a yet more excellent way? Do we who make decisions for the church uphold our own baptismal commitment and covenant by offering the strangers and seekers less than what has been offered to and received by us?

The call of God is to all. God’s radical hospitality is for all. Truly Christ stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. Truly the Spirit moves over the waters of renewal and new life, beckoning and inviting. To the stranger, to the seeker, through our mouths we offer and issue God’s words of invitation: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden…” inviting them through the waters of Baptism into the household of God. And in doing so we fulfill Christ’s commission to baptize those of all nations and teaching them his words and ways, the depths of his love, the depths of a life hid with Christ in God.


Derek Olsen blogs at Haligweorc. This essay is part of a continuing reflection on the place of the sacraments in the life of the Episcopal Church. A future essay will focus on Scriptural issues. For a differing view, read Deirdre Good's essay on hospitality, and visit the Cafe on Monday for an interview with the leaders of a church that practices open communion.

Christian burial

By Micah Jackson

A couple of weeks ago, Ruth Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham, died after a long illness. As an admirer of Billy Graham, I was sad that his wife had passed away, but I will confess that one of the first questions that came into my head when I heard the news was "where will she be buried?"

This was not a random question. For the last several months of her life, there had been some controversy about plans for her gravesite. Last December, The Washington Post reported that Ruth and Billy's son, Franklin, wanted them to be buried at the now open Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. Ruth, according to the story, didn't like the Library, and wanted to be buried at The Cove, the Graham's rural home near Asheville. She felt that the Library was too commercial, and wasn't the kind of place she'd like to have her body. Novelist, family friend, and Ruth Graham biographer, Patricia Cornwell, also opposed the Charlotte site. "I was horrified by what I saw," she told Billy after touring the library. Ultimately, the leaders of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association prevailed. When Ruth Graham was laid to rest, it was at the place Franklin favored, a garden at the end of a cross-shaped stone walkway, at the end of the Billy Graham Library and Museum tour.

It reminded me of another recent controversy about the burial site of a celebrity. When Rosa Parks died in 2005, her body was laid at the Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel in Woodlawn Cemetery, in Detroit. Though she and some of her family members received their plots for free, prices to be buried at the chapel skyrocketed, especially after her death. Reports indicated that the cost rose to more than $65,000 for plots near the woman who many say touched off the civil rights movement.

This is nothing new, really. Early in Christian history, many people wanted to be buried ad sanctos, near the martyrs. At first there was competition for actual burial plots near those whose faith was officially recognized. When that became impossible due to the large number of Christians (and the comparatively few saints), people began scattering the ashes of the faithful near the graves of the saints, and then finally near any site associated with them in life.

Why this human fascination with the final resting place of a person's body? Should it matter to a Christian how their mortal remains are treated or where they are laid to rest? After all, the body is just a shell. After death the soul is released from this world and makes its way to the next. But, (if you read 1 Cor 3:16 this way) the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and should be treated with the utmost respect. Jesus had a body, just like ours, and we confess in the Apostles' Creed that we believe in "the resurrection of the body."

The Book of Common Prayer is clear, "Baptized Christians are properly buried from the church." (BCP 468, 490) The burial rite assumes that a coffin with the body normally will be present at the funeral, though Episcopalians are choosing cremation in increasingly greater numbers. And this makes sense. Because the Spirit of God resides in our bodies, and because we have been marked with the cross of Christ at our baptism, our bodies are holy, and should be disposed of as any holy object when its useful life is over—by burial in the earth, or by reverent burning. During the funeral, the body is censed with three swings, the same honor paid to a cross, a gospel book, or any other symbol of Christ and his Resurrection.

Christians have always honored the mortal remains of the faithful dead as the former home of a member of Christ's body. And this is as it should be. But our true home is in Heaven with our God. Disputes over the disposition of our bodies aren't worth a family splitting argument, or a $65,000 price tag.

The Rev. Micah Jackson, a priest of the Diocese of Chicago, is a doctoral student in Homiletics at the Graduate Theological Union. His personal blog is St. Jerome's Library.

Hid with Christ in God

By Derek Olsen*

One of my friends was recently writing about the end of a ninth-month chaplaincy placement. During an online discussion of worship practices, he stated that he had prayed and sat and wept with a lot of suffering people over that time; what then, he asked, does a lengthy document on sacramental theology have to do with the suffering of a common person?

My response—perhaps a bit flippant—was to suggest that if it wasn’t immediately obvious how the sacraments connected with the suffering, then either the lengthy document was bad theology, or the caregiver needed reeducation in basic Christian theology. In his case I was preaching to the choir. Just a few posts earlier, he had treated us to a moving meditation on a request for baptism from an inmate of the psych unit, one whose endless rounds from the ward to the streets and back again left him at the literal margins of Christian community.

Conversations about the sacraments are not—or should not be—esoteric arguments about essences and obscurities several frames of reference removed from our daily realities. No, the sacraments stand right next to our daily experience because they stand at the heart of what we understand Christianity to be; they are part and parcel of the mystery of salvation.

The whole issue of Christian salvation is fraught with difficulties and confusion: Who gets saved? Do I get saved? Does that guy get saved? How do I get saved? As we all well know, different Christian groups have answered and debated these questions in different ways, a debate that has accelerated since the Reformation and caused innumerable divisions between Christians. More effective than arguing “who,” I find, is contemplating “what.” What, as far as the Scriptures are concerned, is salvation? The answer to which I return again and again—an answer which seems to contain both so many other answers and possibilities—comes from one of the those books towards the middlish-end of the New Testament, one of those books we hear about too little and pass over too often: “…your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3b).

Your life is hid with Christ in God… There is no other promise in Scripture as open or deep as this, for what Scripture teaches is not simply metaphor but the ontology of the new creation—to be a Christian, to be saved, is not about getting wings and a halo when you die, nor having your consciousness expanded by a great teacher who died long ago. Rather, it is to participate in the very life of God through what Christ has done for us—and to us.

And, as Colossians tells it, the path to this life is through death; indeed, that’s the first part of the verse…: “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” This death of which Scripture speaks is mentioned but a few verses before:

“Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with [him] through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses…” (Col 2:12–13).

Death, Christ’s death, is our path to life through the waters of Baptism. Again—as Paul writes in Romans:

“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3–4).

There—that’s the key… We in our baptism are buried into death; we are drowned beneath the waters: the waters of the Flood, the waters of the Red Sea, the waters of the womb of the Spirit. As they close over our heads our breath is stripped from us and replaced with a new breath, a new Spirit, a Holy Spirit, and we rise from the waters new people of a new people, rising from death to resurrection life, a life invigorated by the power of the Spirit, a life hid with Christ in God.

Now, you may be thinking that all this is very mystical sounding—and it is. This may be all well and good for meditation in a cloistered nook—but what about reality: a poopy toddler in one hand, a frozen chicken in the other, and twenty minutes to get dinner done? The truth is simple—this too is the resurrection life. It is incarnate, and therefore messy. But it is in these moments, in that split second when trying to wipe and re-diaper before the wriggling infant can stab her foot into the filth of the recently removed diaper, that I have the potential to realize I am doing more than just one more chore; rather, I am performing an act of service to the very image of God, to a member of Christ. This is to live the life hid in God—but all too often, the diaper remains a diaper; the chore, a chore. The message, the truth of resurrection life is simple, so simple—but the remembering is hard.

This is one of the functions of the Eucharist. To recall us, to remind us, to bring us once again to an awareness of our place in the narrative of what God has done, what God is doing for the world through Jesus Christ. We gather to discern the Body, in broken bread, in gathered bodies, to find the presence of Christ made real and true and tangible in the words of the Gospel and in the wine. The relationship begun in Baptism—the life hid in God—is nourished, not by bread alone but by everything that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord, and when those words and bread are joined and the bread becomes bread alone no longer, then we truly receive the bread that satisfies, the bread of life. This bread, this wine, they lead us deeper into the relationship begun in baptism, changing us, converting us, not through a conversion of mind alone, but into the literal conversion of the nature of our being: as we take the very Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ into our body and blood we are changed more and more into his likeness—and another small piece of creation is invited into the redemption wrought by Christ.

Furthermore, as we receive this bread-which-is-Body we, in turn, become Body-which-is-bread to feed a world hungry and thirty for love, for knowledge of God and—indeed—for basic bread itself. The conversion is proofed, is completed when the Body of Christ moves like a Body, the limbs and members caring for one another, extending itself with arms outstretched to welcome the world, to invite the whole of the groaning creation into a life hid with Christ in God. And not just in the abstract either but with hands washing dishes, with arms enfolding those who weep, with bodies that labor on behalf of others, with voices that bring forth songs to praise and delight, and—yes—even in the changing of diapers.

* Derek Olsen blogs at Haligweorc.

About this article he writes: This post is in response to a string of comments from a while back concerning Communion without Baptism—sometimes referred to as “Open Communion.” (Because I find the latter term a bit ambiguous, I prefer the former language.) This is the first of a three-part consideration of the Eucharist in our Episcopal communities, especially in reference to the place of Holy Baptism. The current post considers the sacraments in the context of Christian life, the next will examine the issues of Scriptural interpretation connected with this debate, and in the third I hope to clarify conceptions and misconceptions about the relation between Baptism and Eucharist.

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