‘BOTH THESE IN THEE, ARE IN THY CALLING KNIT’ – Balance and Vocation, John Donne

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with the new priest of our neighbor Roman Catholic church – also St. George’s.   It was a good meeting and we shared a worthwhile conversation. What impressed me most of all was his deep faith and sense of God’s call.   For him, it’s a call that came in his 20s – while he had already studied pre-med in California – and not one without demands and limitations.

It also seemed that this was the first time he’d spent a substantial period talking with an Episcopal priest. Noting the small-town grapevine that’s our best (and sometimes worst) news source, he said: “Some of the ladies in my parish told me they heard I was having lunch with Fr. Greg. They call you ‘Father’. Is that normal?” I explained that, yes, in different contexts many male Episcopal priests are called ‘Father.’

“You have the sacraments?” he asked.

“Yes,” I explained (not wanting to visit the distinction the 39 Articles and our Catechism make between ‘Sacraments’ and ‘Sacramental Rites’, still unclear to me), “all seven. We, too, are a catholic church.  We only disagree theologically on the issue of authority.”

“And you have a family?” he asked. I told him about my daughter and showed him some pictures. He, for his part, spoke beautifully that part of his priestly vocation meant that he would not have children biologically, even though his life would be filled with profound relationships, and such honesty shone through as a fundamental part of his Christian, indeed priestly character. I explained that children are certainly a gift and yet, in the demands of ministry, I’ve sometimes found it hard to balance my vocations as Daddy and ‘Father.’

It’s hard to find balance in life because we are often tossed to and fro between various responsibilities and opportunities and choices and challenges. In classical teaching, those are cares and occupations. The Christian church has often suggested the concept of vocation as one way to resolve this tension – that vocation is who you are (theologian Frederick Buechner suggested that ‘vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need’).  The argument goes that your vocation, then, should guide your life’s choices and inform your occupation, being defined as merely what you do. I think, for this reason, many are attracted to the religious life, in part because it seems so peaceable and serene and marked by prayer and solitude and scripture study. Plus, priests seem only to work one day a week – a joke that’s not always a joke – and your priest shows up to your family reunions and friendly gatherings and takes part in your life’s celebrations, such as baptisms and weddings, and your life’s most fragile moments, such as funerals. In many ways, inasmuch as the concept of vocation is appealing, the fact is that the priesthood – as well as other vocations in the church – seem to be the last clear-cut ‘vocation’ around.

In this, the Christian church has done itself a disservice. All of us balance multiple vocations, not just a cornucopia of cares and occupations. Even celibate clergy have other callings; my neighbor and colleague is still vocationally a son to his parents and a brother to his siblings. Likewise, there’s no dissonance between my vocation as Carter’s father and that as priest of the church. This is not to say there aren’t tensions and times when one gets greater stress or needs to come into better balance with the others. This is to say, however, that a life that seems all too clean and pure, as if there is only one vocation, one guiding principle, is probably not real and, if one is trying to live life that way, it will only end badly.

Lucky for us, we have a plethora of examples of lives lived well and fully and lives lived only halfway.  In fact, we have more of the latter than the former, but even in that imbalance is the call to find a more wholesome middle.

For starters, when God came among us in the person of Jesus he became the only one who lived wholly as one integrated person, at union with God and with himself. God did this in the person of Jesus because, well, God is God and only God is at perfect union with Godself and God’s creation. We who live on the other side of perfection are not able to fully replicate such balance, a fact which reminds me that Christ is not so much a model, nor an exemplar, but rather an eschatological hope, a promise of who we will ultimately become.

That’s why we get into a bit of trouble, then, when we turn God’s action and our hope for the life of the world into our action and God’s hope for the life of the world. There’s a story told around here of the Roman priest who, several years ago, was transferred from his parish in another part of St. Mary’s County to a new pastorate in the Archdiocese of Washington. He was a good and faithful priest, beloved by many, and he was ready to follow the Cardinal’s orders but also upset. In his mind and according to many who knew him, he was prepared to die as the pastor of that congregation – at the ripe age of somewhere in his late 40s – and he was miffed that God hadn’t taken his life just yet! Turning Jesus into a model of what ministry and vocation should look like in this world, on our part, is a highly dangerous thing. We, unlike Christ, are profoundly unable to sustain the fullness of the union between God and world, the balance among God and self and neighbor, the creative tension between an absolute love and convicting judgment.

“George Herbert at Bemerton”

In our own Anglican tradition, George Herbert is the one shimmering and, equally, dangerous beacon of this all-or-nothing stance. I’ve written elsewhere of the unhealthy patterns we’ve established by reading backward into Herbert’s life the countours of his poetry and prose, and I maintain, along with Justin Lewis-Anthony’s poignant contribution, If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him (subtitle: ‘Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry’), that George Herbert, at least the peaceable country vicar Herbert we’ve created posthumously, is not a sufficient nor a healthy model for the priesthood, not in the 21st century, neither in his native 17th. I am a huge George Herbert fan, don’t get me wrong; I love his penetrating religious poetry and moving prose and I’m attracted very much to his story. At the same time, there is a greater deal of complexity in the actual man than we’ve allowed to surface and, at once, a truly dangerous tendency in him toward an extremist, all-consuming determination, couched in pietistic language and single-minded vocational certainty.

A balance to such extremism, in our tradition, is John Donne, whose feast day is today, March 31 (the day he died in 1631). An elder contemporary and, at times, mentor and guide to the aspiring young George Herbert, John Donne’s path is similar in many ways to his younger fellow priest but markedly different. Where it differs, there’s a notable level of health and wholeness, at least of balance. I’ll be honest that I’m not such a fan of Donne, at least not as much as Hebert, at least not in the literary sense. I am, from time to time, moved by the stirring metaphysics, indeed sacrament of language Donne crafts but, unlike Herbert’s apparently natural gift, Donne seems to work awfully hard at it; the mechanics are too obvious and the not un-occasional stretches clunky, forced.

For these reasons, as well, Donne has been in and out of favor among literary communities. He was admired among circles in his day – first as a poet among a relatively small circle [only a few of his poems were actually published in his day] and then, on a much grander scale, as a preacher in the final stage of his life – but in the Restoration and throughout the 18th century his work was dismissed, as by Samuel Johnson, as “no more than frigidly ingenious and metrically uncouth.”[1] Coleridge in the late 18th and Robert Browning in the 19th centuries were appreciative of Donne, but Matthew Taylor’s 1880 anthology of English verse had no mention of him and appreciation only resurged when, in the 1920s and 30s, T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats saw in Donne “the peculiar fusion of intellect and passion and the alert contemporariness which they aspired to in their own art.”[2]

More than a comment on his reception among literary communities, this vacillation has as much to do with Donne’s own life, and the hard choices and rather circuitous path he took. His early years were spent choosing between his ancestral Catholicism and the Church of England which, obviously, he went on to join, but not without losing some family members and friends, some to the bloody siege of those violent times. His intellectual and literary gifts earned him access to good schools and desirable positions in civil service. But in 1602 he lost his job as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper of England – a result of his secret marriage to Anne, the young daughter of one of Egerton’s relatives.  Even though he would become the father of twelve children in sixteen years of marriage, Donne did not find regular, paid employment until he was ordained a dozen years later. Instead, we find in Donne’s earlier years a vast collection of passionate love poems, many quite good and now famous, and, in the middle years of his marriage, verse and prose written to several benefactors and friends who provided for the growing Donne brood – among them, Lady Herbert, George’s mother. Donne exercised his wit and intellect in countless genres in these years, no doubt the expression of his searching and wondering mind. There was satire and theology, love poetry and scores of letters, prose and epigrams and sonnets – all a working-out of a long vocational journey.

JOHN DONNE 1572 – 1631

Early in January 1615, John Donne was ordained a priest in the Church of England. Given that he was, then, forty-two years old and had tried out a number of jobs and fields and occupations, the tendency would be to think that Donne settled, at long last, on his life’s one true pursuit: the vocation of clergy. That tendency, rooted in the idea that life has certain definitive chapters and is not one long narrative, has little to do with the historical John Donne and is, itself, a dangerous misconception for us, today. In an elegy for his contemporary, John Cudleigh noted: “He kept his loves, but not his objects, wit / He did not banish, but transplanted it, / Taught in his place and use, and brought it home / To Pietie, which it doth best become”[3] Indeed, becoming a priest, for Donne, “should be regarded … not so much as a decision [but] a response to a totality of circumstance which had been accumulating over many years in both his private and public life.”[4]

When we think of John Donne, today, many may think of the erudite and well-known preacher and Dean of St. Paul’s – the great success he went on to enjoy in the last decades of his life. But focusing too much on that ending, alone, would only blur the long journey and overlook the searching back-and-forth of the man himself. Or, conversely, he may be compared too much with his contemporary, George Herbert, perhaps (in my opinion at least) a better poet and more compelling read, but one who threw himself over to the grip of a single-minded imbalance and exhausted himself, serving barely three years until his untimely death as rector of Bemerton. Does John Donne look more worldly, less holy next to George Herbert? Does Donne’s long religious searching and spiritual journey, his bouncing between those many and, at times, conflicting roles of devoted husband and aspiring socialite, priest and man of the world, father and scholar make his priestly vocation seem any more or less a retreat from the world, or his long life’s story more or less a working-out of holiness and sanctification?  Does worldly success run contrary to the Gospel of Jesus?  Does a pursuit of simplicity and relative poverty mean therefore, that it’s either God or the world?  Does an invitation to try new things mean we must cut off the old?  Does vocation grow, in time, and do new vocations also emerge?

In his poem, printed in full below, “To Mr. Tilman after he had taken orders,” Donne reminds Mr. Tilman, apparently, and us that “Thou art the same materials, as before” and that only the image, not the substance of “God’s old Image by Creation” is changed to “Christ’s new stamp.”  That at every stage in life we have the opportunity to realize there is a fullness in our story, which is hardly as long as God’s own hope for us and for the world.  That opportunity is not necessarily to know or achieve or ‘get there’, but to be and keep becoming, to progress and keep growing, to emerge as a child of the living God.

I don’t suspect that God is calling us to one thing and one thing only, whether it’s a job or a place or a community or an entire lifestyle.     Rather, I suspect that God is inviting us, sometimes challenging us to find in life a more wholesome balance, a middle way so we, too, might catch a glimpse in this world of that eschatological hope in the next.

 

 

TO MR. TILMAN AFTER HE HAD TAKEN ORDERS

John Donne

 

Thou, whose diviner soul hath caused thee now

To put thy hand unto the holy plough,

Making lay-scornings of the ministry

Not an impediment, but victory;

What bring’st thou home with thee? how is thy mind

Affected since the vintage?  Dost thou find

New thoughts and stirrings in thee? and, as steel

Touch’d with a loadstone, dost new motions feel?

Or, as a ship after much pain and care

For iron and cloth brings home rich Indian ware,

Hast thou thus traffick’d, but with far more gain

Of noble goods, and with less time and pain?

Thou art the same materials, as before,

Only the stamp is changèd, but no more.

And as new crowned kings alter the face,

But not the money’s substance, so hath grace

Changed only God’s old image by creation,

To Christ’s new stamp, at this thy coronation;

Or, as we paint angels with wings, because

They bear God’s message and proclaim His laws,

Since thou must do the like and so must move,

Art thou new feather’d with celestial love?

Dear, tell me where thy purchase lies, and show

What thy advantage is above, below.

But if thy gainings do surmount expression,

Why doth the foolish world scorn that profession,

Whose joys pass speech?  Why do they think unfit

That gentry should join families with it?

As if their day were only to be spent

In dressing, mistressing and compliment.

Alas! poor joys, but poorer men, whose trust

Seems richly placèd in sublimèd dust,

—For such are clothes and beauty, which though gay,

Are, at the best, but of sublimèd clay—

Let then the world thy calling disrespect,

But go thou on, and pity their neglect.

What function is so noble, as to be

Ambassador to God, and destiny?

To open life? to give kingdoms to more

Than kings give dignities? to keep heaven’s door ?

Mary’s prerogative was to bear Christ, so

‘Tis preachers’ to convey Him, for they do,

As angels out of clouds, from pulpits speak;

And bless the poor beneath, the lame, the weak.

If then th’ astronomers, whereas they spy

A new-found star, their optics magnify,

How brave are those, who with their engine can

Bring man to heaven, and heaven again to man?

These are thy titles and pre-eminences,

In whom must meet God’s graces, men’s offences;

And so the heavens which beget all things here,

And the earth, our mother, which these things doth bear;

Both these in thee, are in thy calling knit

And make thee now a blest hermaphrodite.[5]

 

 

 

[1] “John Donne,” at The Poetry Foundation website. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-donne

[2] Ibid.

[3] In John Booty, “Introduction” in John Donne in The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press), p. 21

[4] Charles M. Coffin, “Introduction” in The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne (New York: Modern Library), p. xxxvi

[5]Donne, John. Poems of John Donne, vol I. E. K. Chambers, ed. (London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896.) 191-193.

 

 

Maryland Day & the Annunciation

O Lord Christ, whose prayer that your disciples would be one, as you and the Father are one, inspired certain of your followers to create on American shores a colony that would practice tolerance, consecrated in the name of your blessed mother to whom the angel announced this day a new gift: Grant that the people of this land may continually give thanks for your protection and uphold the liberty of conscience and worship, until all shall receive the benefits and follow the disciplines of true freedom, endowed by the Name of the same, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

……….

 

On my grandmother’s Illinois kitchen windowsill there was a decorative ceramic tile, maybe it was a coaster or a trivet.  “Maryland,” it read, an image of that state’s flag.  I suppose my aunt and uncle who lived in Maryland gave it to my grandmother, or she bought it there on one of her trips.  I, too, had visited my aunt and uncle, and I remember that Maryland was a faraway place — not just geographically but historically and, in many ways, another world entirely.

I remember staring at that flag, the checked black and gold set in quarter panels opposite red and white crosses; the family crests, I learned in time, of the Calverts (black and gold) and their ancestral Crossland family.  I’d seen nothing like it before.  It suggested another world, an ancient world.

I’m now a Maryland resident and, what’s more, our daughter was born here, specifically in the birthplace of the colony: St. Mary’s County.  After nearly seven years of residency, I still feel honored to live here, blessed to participate in an ongoing experiment of community building, a gift we celebrate today.  It’s Maryland Day.

On 22 November 1633, a group of English travelers — about 150 in all — boarded two ships, the Ark and the Dove, and set off from their mother country from the Isle of Wight.  Most of the group were indentured servants.  They would help settle the new colony and prepare the way for future arrivals.  There were, roughly, an equal number of Catholics and Protestants, and on board was at least one Jesuit priest, Fr. Andrew White.  Also sailing with them was Leonard Calvert, the future governor of Mary’s Land — the third English colony in the so-called “new world” — himself, Lord Baltimore’s younger brother.  Rough sailing met them as they traversed southward down Europe’s coastline and even more demanding storms beset them as they made a direct western trek across the ocean.  At one point, the Ark separated from the smaller Dove, only to be reunited in Barbados.  Eventually, they made their way to their new home, pausing initially at their destination to make a peace treaty with the native Conoy tribe in advance of their landing.  When the time was clear and the setting just right they waited a few more days.  That is, they waited until March 25 — the Feast of the Annunciation, the Christian remembrance of the moment when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear a child (amazingly exactly nine months before December 25!)

On 25 March 1634, Fr. Andrew White, along with the others, stepped off the boat onto the shores of what is now St. Clement’s Island — a rather tiny island in the Potomac River, a quick swim from what is now northern St. Mary’s County — and celebrated Mass, presumably the first such Catholic celebration in what was British North America.  Although religious toleration wouldn’t be the official policy of the new colony until several years later — the Maryland Toleration Act, an ‘Act Concerning Religion’ wasn’t signed until April 1649 — it was clear from the earliest days that this new place, named for and consecrated in Mary’s name, was going to practice a degree of forward-thinking inclusivity that was unknown in their homeland and yet unpracticed in this new frontier.

Today, March 25, is Maryland Day.  We in St. Mary’s County uphold our role as the birthplace of the colony.  For some among us, St. Mary’s County is the birthplace of Catholicism in America and, indeed, just as it was in the 17th century, so too it remains today — Episcopalians down here are vastly outnumbered by Catholics!  For still others, Maryland Day and this place, the birthplace of the colony shines with the bright and not uncontroversial origin of a new thing in a new land: religious toleration, or at least freedom of worship for Trinitarian Christians.  This is a special day celebrating a special place.  Mary’s Land is a unique contribution to the American experience, and it’s well worth the time to pause and consider what implications the ideas that led to this colony’s founding had on the development of the rights and privileges we enjoy — some may say, ‘take for granted’ — today.

It’s not inconsequential that March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38).  I’m sure it was just good timing.  But the story we hear in Luke’s gospel is a profound story about God doing a new thing and in a new way with a new setting and new people — God’s messenger, Gabriel, announcing to a poor Jewish woman that she would bear and bring into the world the living presence of God, Jesus.  It’s downright amazing that the King of the universe would’ve acted in this way, this strange and unexpected way — inviting a marginal, poor, frightened woman not only to say “Yes” but, depending on her answer, re-route the world and overturn the powers-that-be.

The special gift of these juxtaposed stories — Maryland Day and the Annunciation — is that they are new revelations, new ‘showings forth’ of ancient, eternal mysteries.  When, after hearing Mary’s striking tale, you read the story backward, turning once again through the pages of prophecy and the unexpected ‘showings-up’ of God in scripture, it all starts to make sense.  When you see what those Calverts were up to, and trace the lineage of their thinking back in time, the pieces start to come together.  And when you live, like I do, in a place that will constantly humble you by the very imprint of its history and historicity, its tradition and profound staying power, you realize that you are both new and, at your best, part of the old; that your creativity is truly fresh and yet, at once, also just another instance of the long story resurfacing.

When, that is, you’ve had the gift of practicing new revelations for a very long time, you realize that the old is the handmaiden of the new and the new the power of the old.  You realize, in a far deeper sense, what the writer to the Hebrews was trying to say: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.” (Heb. 13:8)

YET MORE WONDERFULLY RESTORED

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; Amen.

Collect of the Incarnation, Book of Common Prayer

……….

It’s hard to be human, very hard indeed to be a grown-up adult with responsibilities and demands and others to look after.  It’s hard and, somedays, we may look back fondly when we were small children and didn’t have to worry about a thing; our food was already provided, our decisions made in advance by elders.  But you can never really go back or, at least, you can never really unlearn what you’ve already learned, for good or bad, like it or not.  As it turns out, then, it’d be even worse if we were forced to go back, forced to become like children once again, to have others make our decisions and usurp our place as adults.

So we press on, striving to do those things which we know to be right and avoid those things which we know to be wrong.  That’s why we continue to learn how best to love God and our neighbor and our self and, in addition, not leave those things undone which need to be done.  There are a lot more gray areas of life.  That’s the case when things aren’t so crystal clear or roadmapped ahead of us.  We fail, from time to time, and we also succeed and grow.  Life is designed this way.  It’s so we might become a better, more wholesome creation.   That’s precisely why we’re in the midst of life with all of its complexity and challenge, for it yet has so much potential and joy and beauty, too.  That’s what it means to be created in God’s image, no longer a mere child but one with knowledge and potential, creativity and agency.  That’s what it means to be fully human, indeed that’s the very way in which we become like God, fully divine.

Likewise, it would be a mistake to read the scriptures that annually inaugurate Lent — the gospel stories about Jesus’ temptation — as if they had little to do with our created nature.  For when God determined to change the course of history, God immersed Godself in the fullness of our humanity, taking our createdness upon himself and dealing firsthand with temptation and desire and struggle.  God did this not to show us what we are incapable of but, rather, to prove to us who we are, being made in God’s image.  God did this not only to save us but to restore in us that created, that original blessing with which we can, and always could, use our human agency.

Salvation is much more the act of restoration than it is of pulling us out of the mire and pit of where we have sunk so low.  Salvation in a very real sense is restoring in us that original blessing, that primal gift of what it means to be human, the only way proven through the pages of scripture by which we also might become fully divine, like God.

That’s why we take on these Lenten spiritual disciplines, some of which may have to do with self-denial and penitence; some of which may also, I hope, have to do with restoration and promise, with rekindling in you what it means to be a living member of the body of God.

For this reason, I find such meaning in this poem – the origins and author of which I couldn’t find.  Do not fast, then, at the expense of feasting.  And make this season an opportunity, once again, to be restored in Christ.

Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ dwelling in them

Fast from emphasis on our differences; feast on our oneness

Fast from the darkness around us; feast on the light of Christ

Fast on thoughts of illness; feast on the healing power of God

Fast on words that pollute; feast on words that purify

Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude

Fast from withholding anger; feast on sharing our feelings

Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism

Fast from worry; feast on trust

Fast from guilt; feast on freedom

Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation

Fast from stress; feast on self-care

Fast from hostility; feast on letting go

Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness

Fast from selfishness; feast on compassion for others

Fast from discouragement; feast on seeing the good

Fast from apathy; feast on enthusiasm

Fast from suspicion; feast on seeing the good

Fast from idle gossip; feast on spreading good news

Fast from being so busy; feast on quiet silence

Fast from problems that overwhelm us; feast on prayerful trust

Fast from talking; feast on listening

Fast from trying to be in control; feast on letting go.

———-

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Valley Lee, Maryland on the first Sunday of Lent (2014); click here for the full text of the sermon.

LENT: WITHDRAWAL AND EVANGELISM

One summer, I went to the Chicago Bears’ training camp in Platteville, Wisconsin, a quaint small town that for a few weeks every summer was literally overrun by orange and blue and the entire machinery of an NFL organization.  We camped at a local campground and, from time to time, made treks into town to see the practices and get autographs.  One night, we found ourselves hanging out on in a place on Main Street, feeling we were best buds with the squad of hulking professional athletes who also happened to be in the bar – letting us buy them drinks, mind you.

It’s an odd thing, these mobs of fans who gather around spring training for their favorite baseball team (or is it just a good excuse for Midwesterners to travel to Florida?) or flock to little towns in the late summer to watch their favorite football team practice.  That’s what they’re doing, after all: they’re practicing.  Occassionally, they have scrimmages and occasionally there’s something to watch, but the point is, well, practice.

Lent is Christianity’s spring training, our tradition’s practice field.  There’s nothing wrong – and everything right – with being intentional and serious about practicing.  The introduction to a holy Lent, found in the Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday liturgy (pages 264 & 265), summarizes it quite well:  “Dear People of God…” the Celebrant or Minister says, telling the story about why we do Lent, why we do what we do on Ash Wednesday, in particular, and for what we are preparing.

There’s a great deal of ‘company speak’ in these Prayer Book paragraphs.  It’s not really for public consumption and, no, for once we’re decidedly not talking about filling up our pews, bringing those who do not yet know Jesus into the church.  Lent, we say, is about “converts to the faith” being “prepared for Holy Baptism.”  They’re newbies, but newcomers who’ve already converted, who’ve already joined the body.  Lent isn’t necessarily the season to meet them on the street and bring them in.  Lent is a time to help them prepare.  We also tell ourselves Lent is about bringing back those “notorious” sinners who’ve been “separated from the body of the faithful,” reconciling them and, indeed, all of us.  Lastly, Lent is about reminding “the whole congregation,” those already active members of the body, that they, too, need “continually … to renew their repentance and faith.”

Learning to more intentionally practice the Christian faith is an important discipline and accords with everything early Christianity held dear.  The early Christians had no problem with and, in fact, thrived because they were considered outcasts and oddities, they were counter-cultural and perfectly fine with that.  That afforded them the opportunity to withdraw and gather together as a new and distinct society.  That afforded them the opportunity to develop their own spiritual and evangelistic muscles.

And yet everything shifted when Christianity was no longer persecuted but made legal (Constantine, 325 CE) and then, a few decades later, the official religion of the Roman empire (Theodosius, 380CE).  Everything changed further around the 8th century with Charlemagne and the unique coupling of the eventual establishment of the Holy Roman Empire and the Carolingian Renaissance which swept across Europe, firmly planting the ideal of Christendom in the western world’s  consciousness, a chain of events which leads up to our contemporary moment.

Sadly, we can place the theological revisions to Lent and Ash Wednesday alongside these cultural, largely political changes.  As Christianity became legal, then official, then the very definition of the status quo, so too did Lent become less counter-cultural, less inward and more about maintaining good order and a Christianized society; likewise, so too did Ash Wednesday become less and less about authentic, heartfelt repentance and more and more about community norms and practices.

It’s ironic that behind the movement to make Lent and, in particular, Ash Wednesday so much more public, so much more accessible, so much more a sign of what we can bring to this world there’s an implicit vaulting, once again, of the ideals and norms of Christendom.  When some among us realized they weren’t coming to us any longer, at least not so much on this inaugural fast, we went out to find them and bring them back.  Further, we brought a veritable symbol of the establishment, carrying out into the public square the very Christendom so many of them had long ago left, some quite intentionally so.  “You know where you were supposed to be today!” I’m afraid Ashes to Go implicitly insists, like a liturgical father berating his flock.  Sure, some respond positively; some are no doubt appreciative.  But many were just too busy to come to church in the first place and most probably didn’t make the connection between the obvious smudge of inescapable death and the real gift of new and life in Christ.  The creativity [and as I’ve written elsewhere I do think Ashes to Go is creative] of this movement is a good spark for a day or two, but making disciples and empowering the body of Christ isn’t done in a flash.

Making disciples is done in the quieter, less visible work of practice.  There’s nothing wrong with withdrawing, at least for a six week season of intentional spring training and spiritual preparation.  In this world in which we think we need to be ‘on’ all the time, 24/7; in this culture in which we, the current incumbents of the institutional Christian church, feel like it’s our fault that average Sunday attendance isn’t what it was, say, in 1957, it’s okay for at least a few weeks to quiet the anxiety and set aside the marketplace and deal, first and foremost, with ourselves, our own struggles and blessings, our own failures as well as our gifts.

In fact, there’s everything right with withdrawing for a season.  Try as we might, the images and symbols we’ll inevitably display still bear the unmistakable sign, for many, of Christendom, of establishment; we haven’t yet developed the language of a counter-cultural society.  The world needs vibrant, living members of Christ’s body; the “saints” the writer of Ephesians talked about, reminding us that the reason God gives a multitude of gifts is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

Sometimes withdrawing for a season to train and practice, to develop new language and more subtle and no less revolutionary skills is much more important than spinning our wheels and expending more energy.  The circus of this world and the draw of others will be there, sure enough, and there’s nothing wrong – and everything right – with the quiet, less visible, diligent, demanding, interior work of practice.

THE CAREFUL INSTRUCTION OF WOMEN

“No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.”

– Catherine McAuley, 1778 to 1841

……….

It’s Women’s History Month and today, March 8, is International Women’s Day, a growing, worldwide observation.

CATHERINE McAULEY
Foundress of the Sisters of Mercy (RSM)

A  while ago, I found myself thinking about my time teaching high school in Chicago.  In part, I was thinking about the experience of being a classroom teacher but it was more than that.  I was thinking about the community into which I was welcomed and which truly helped form me as a person, as a Christian, as a servant, and — ironically — as a man.  I say “ironically” because the Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School was a women’s school: a high school for women, led by women, which prided itself on raising up thoughtful, creative, faithful, strong, courageous women.  And they did just that, in droves.  Back then, I was one among, maybe, 9 or 10 male teachers.  Most of the maintenance staff and a few of the administrative staff were also men.  That made, oh, about 16 of us — on a good day.   16 amidst 1,800 students (all girls) and maybe 150 faculty and staff.  It made finding a men’s bathroom, for instance, a bit of a challenge, but the good news is that once you found one the lines were always short!

It was, for me, a great experience to be in such a pronounced minority and, more so, to be part of a tradition which is, even today, counter-cultural, radical, different.  It confirmed for me that those spiritualities which run against the grain of this world offer the greatest possibilities of new life.

I needed that, and I needed it (though I hardly knew I did) at that precise moment in my life.  At 24 years young, I’d already experienced the odd faith formation of growing up in a Christian congregation which was in mourning that it was no longer at the center of the community and starting to die, and I’d just come out of three years of profoundly challenging, formative, but also spirit-numbing education at a predominately secular divinity school.  I needed creativity, vitality, liveliness, and yet I couldn’t walk away from all that intellectual stuff I loved.  I needed balance.

On a rainy afternoon in early June 2000, I went to an interview at a school which, I thought, wouldn’t even think to hire me to teach theology — a man, an Episcopalian, at that, and someone who’s never had any teaching experience, ever.  I was so convinced they wouldn’t hire me that I didn’t even wear a tie.  “I’m going there to get ‘interview experience,'” I told a friend.  A few hours after I walked in and was given a tour and went through a round of interviews the Principal, Sr. Rose, offered me a job.  I said I’d need to think about it.  Walking out onto the circle drive which led to the school’s front doors, the morning rain had cleared and it was sunny and starting to get warm.  I got in my car and knew I had to say yes.  About 15 minutes later, I called back and accepted.

I’m forever grateful I said yes.

One reason, I suppose, I was thinking about all of that a while ago is because I was working on a sermon about women and Christianity.  The New Testament lesson for an upcoming Sunday was from Acts of the Apostles chapter 16, in which Paul on one of his missionary journeys runs into Lydia, a “dealer in purple cloth.”  Lydia gets baptized along with her whole house, and it’s surmised that Lydia not only became a Christian but also served as a patron and sponsor of early Christianity — she even founded a church in her own home.  Obviously, I was thinking about early Christianity’s gender inclusivity which was, to them, nothing really to be thought about or discussed.  They just did it.  They welcomed men and women into leadership positions, because their Master and Lord had already done so.  They didn’t practice inclusivity for a better marketing slant or to be more relevant or hip.  That’s who they knew themselves to be, a new people in Christ, so to do anything different would be to defy their own nature.

One of my colleagues in the Theology Department, while I was teaching, used to reserve the Community Room — an expansive room down the hall from the theology classrooms.  When the girls got to her classroom door, they noticed a sign which read something like: “Go to Lydia’s home (i.e., the Community Room).”  There, they met their teacher dressed in beautiful, flowing purple fabric.  She invited them to come in.  They sat in a wide circle on the floor and lit candles and shared a meal and sang songs and read scripture and said prayers and reflected on their life.  Then the bell would ring and off they’d go to their next class — geometry or chemistry or english or history or painting.  Lydia was, to them, new, different, odd, unusual, counter-cultural.

Lydia was all those things to the secular communities in which early Christianity grew, too.  Reading the New Testament, I’m often struck that so many of Jesus’ earliest followers were, in the eyes of their world, strange.  And it’s not that they didn’t notice or didn’t care or get hurt — emotionally, perhaps, but I’m also thinking about the demands of physical persecution — but, rather, they simply couldn’t live differently than the way they knew to be in Christ.  Spontaneity abounded.  Wherever God the Holy Spirit was moving that’s where they went.  Creativity pulsed through their message.  They rejoiced when they could come together and wept when they parted, but they weren’t entirely tears of sadness.  Conflict was rife.  Because of which, I’ve always thought, they grew.

The Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Chicago is named after the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley, who set out to do a new thing in nineteenth century Dublin.  She set out to make that society a little bit more just and liveable, and her only viable option was to form a new religious order.  From what I gather, reading a bit between the lines, Catherine wasn’t entirely thrilled about becoming in the world’s understanding a “nun.”  This isn’t altogether clear from the history books which celebrate Catherine and the movement she started, but a lot of the treatment of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy and the Mercy charism, I found, were somewhat hagiographic and romanticized.

I’ve often wondered if today Catherine would’ve been a social worker or a Christian radical, but I suspect she wouldn’t have become a politician or establish a think-tank: Catherine’s gift was clearly relational, and she inspired women and, through them, men to join a movement which was fundamentally egalitarian and missional, a movement focused solely on meeting the needs of society as those needs currently presented — and present — themselves.  It was the Sisters of Mercy, nicknamed the ‘walking nuns’ because without hesitation they abandoned a cloistered lifestyle and quickly responded to the needs of the poor, who travelled in the early days alongside waves of second generation immigrants, most notably the Irish, to New York and Boston and Chicago.  It was those same Sisters of Mercy who established the first hospital and initial schools in late-19th century Chicago, that wild west, frontier town.  In part they were nurses and caregivers and teachers and servants.  On another level they were radicals — teaching young women basic skills so they wouldn’t need to be dependent on men; affirming that a woman’s voice is just as clear as a man’s; forging a place for balance and mission in a church and world, in many ways, ordered against such values.

I think it’s important that we, Christians, put in some hard work to learn a language and re-brand a set of symbols that are, at their heart, counter-cultural, challenging, different, other and, in that, profoundly life-giving.  The cross is the very definition of such a symbol, isn’t it?  Talk about strange, ironic, challenging and life-giving.  This is a kind of Lenten discipline we’d be wise to invest in, kindling once again the value of being ‘other.’

It’s already a part of our story.  Look no further than Lydia or Catherine or any of those women — and men — doing a new thing today.

BECAUSE WE HOPE TO TURN AGAIN – Ash Wednesday, 2014

If you could go back in time, say, to your teens or your twenties and, knowing everything you do today, live within your person at that time, and experience what you experienced, would you do it?  At first, your answer might be, “Of course!” You might be reminiscing about those halcyon high school days or those late nights and good friends in college.  But do you also remember the awkwardness and confusion?  The sense of wanting to move on in life but also the really dumb decisions you made?

You might still do it.  You might not.  Whatever your answer, this should be a hard question.

In some ways, that’s what we’re doing today.  We’re not just lamenting our own sins and wretchedness.  In fact, we make a great mistake if we think that Ash Wednesday is just about our sins and sinfulness.  In part, many of us are already over on the other side; many of us know for what we are preparing and for whom and why.  The season Ash Wednesday inaugurates, Lent, is an intentional, forty-day preparation for the only joy that can worthily be called by that name – resurrection, new life, Easter.  We are already Easter people, already there, already set free.  And we know it.

So why go back?  Why on Ash Wednesday, do we deal with our sins and our brokenness, that which we have failed to do and that which we have left undone?

We go back because this world needs us to.  Well, not so much us, but this world needs whose we are.  Having been gathered as this unique and counter-cultural society called “the church,” having died to our old lives and brought into a new life in Christ, we are no longer who we once were, although that self hasn’t gone away; we live no longer only to ourselves but, now, we live to God.  Now, we are his body in this world, the very Body of Christ.  The 16th century Spanish Carmelite, Teresa of Avila, said it best: “Christ has no body but yours: no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”

That’s precisely how and why we can go back.  We know we are already redeemed, already loved, already “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever,” as we do so profoundly in the service of Holy Baptism.  Knowing that, we can go back.  Those sins and that wretchedness you confess today is what you have done or have failed to do, and it’s who you are apart from Christ.  But that is not who you are, at the deepest level of your being.  That’s not who you are in Christ.  You know, and know at your core, what Paul said in his letter to the Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil.  4:13)

The reason so many don’t go backward, don’t revisit their past and deal with their shortcomings is because they’re afraid they’ll get stuck there.  I don’t think it’s inconsequential that T. S. Eliot began his collection of poems, “Ash Wednesday,” with the following stanzas:

Because I do not hope to turn again

Because I do not hope

Because I do not hope to turn …

Because I do not hope to know again

The infirm glory of the positive hour

Because I do not think

Because I know that I shall not know

The one veritable transitory power

Because I cannot drink

There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Many are afraid to go deep because, like Eliot wrote, they “do not hope to turn again.” But not us.  This, then, is the mystery of Ash Wednesday.  This is not a day in which we dance around our sins, naming them lightly or in a quick rush while we’re off to our next step on our day.  We don’t brush over our past unfaithfulness or what or whom we’ve ignored, quickly adding pardon and hope and a promise of something better.  No, this is a day when we dig and dig deeply into our own struggles and suffering and pain.

We do this because we know we won’t get stuck there.  We do this because we know we are not stuck there.  We do this because, yes, because we are already Easter people.

In fact, doing it the other way around is confusing and, frankly, a bit dangerous theologically, spiritually.  When we turn this day, as many have, into a day to be present at train stations or commuter bus stops or wherever the marketplace is – dispensing Ashes-to-Go – the tendency is to cut short this soul searching, to add a note of blessing and renewal to these ashes, these signs of unmistakable death.  Just look at what the Book of Common Prayer has already done; specifically, the (optional) prayer over the ashes on page 265:

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

This is liturgical theologian, Howard Galley’s, very 20th century revision of a much earlier, medieval prayer from the Sarum rite.  The original prayer is much heavier, much darker, much more concentrated on our sins and, for my taste, much more honest.  You can see the similarities and the very real differences between the two prayers in the original, here:

God, you desire not the death but the repentance of sinners: Look kindly upon the fragility of our human condition, and of your mercy deign to bless these ashes which we have resolved to put upon our heads as a token of humility and for the obtaining of pardon, that we, whom you have admonished are but ashes and know that for our depravity we deserve to revert to dust, consequently may be found worthy to receive pardon of all sins and the rewards promised anew to penitents.

Galley’s revision speaks of “our mortality and penitence,” but leaves out the reminder that these ashes are “token[s] of our humility and for the obtaining of pardon.”  Galley’s prayer skips over Sarum’s most cutting line, “for our depravity we deserve to revert to dust,” and entirely replaces the result of the prayer: today, the result is grace (“…that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life”); in the original, it is hope (“…consequently may be found worthy to receive pardon of all sins and the rewards promised anew to penitents.”)

We make this turn, this Ash Wednesday turn inward to deal straightforwardly with our sins and sinfulness, not because we know the why and wherefore of grace – that’s the greatest mystery of all; in fact, if we think too long about grace we’ll realize we don’t deserve it.  No, we make this turn because we are a people of hope.  We have walked through the fallen-ness of our lives and, we suspect, we will from time to time still fall short of the glory of God, but we also know we are already redeemed, already set free, already capable of so much transformative power – not because of our sins but in spite of them, and only because God in Christ loved us first.  That’s why we can go back, not because we want to nor because there is good back there, but because we can, in Him.

TO BEAR WITH THOSE WHO DIFFER

“Every wise man therefore will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs.  He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question. ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?'”

– John Wesley, “Catholic Spirit,” a sermon first preached in 1750

……….

In the life of the church, March 3 is set aside as a day to celebrate the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, most famously known — if known at all — with some historical inaccuracy as the founders of Methodism, a misunderstanding the Episcopal Church calendar of saints is quick to correct with the title: “John and Charles Wesley, priests.”  They were raised in a Church of England home, after all — their father, Samuel, was rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire — and the brothers were thoroughly Anglican.  Being caught by the zeal of missionary activity in the world was perfectly in keeping with the English churchmanship of their native 18th century.

JOHN (left) & CHARLES WESLEY

Not only because it’s their day but also because we presently find ourselves in a church obsessed with talking about mission, though seemingly leery of making that into a verb, it might be wise to spend a bit of time learning from our history.  Let me go ahead and say it: a potential consequence of investing carefully in this will be the creation of a broad and truly united coalition of Anglican churches in North America, if not one Anglican/Episcopal church which knows how to live out Anglican comprehensiveness in the 21st century.  Quite specifically, I believe the mission challenge of the Episcopal Church in the next several decades will be to find and forge a way in which conservative Episcopalians and those Anglican groups who have already left will find a place in a wider structure to return and form a much more comprehensive Anglicanism in North America, side by side with those of us who are already their brothers and sisters in Christ.  As an Episcopalian, I don’t want to (continue to) make the same mistake that our forebears did when the Methodist controversy started to boil over.

Not unlike our own, the 18th century was a period in which the institutions of yesteryear had become so consuming that concepts such as freedom and independence were high on the list for anyone interested in charting a more vibrant future.  Over the course of that century, such values obviously spurred creative re-thinking in the political sphere and equally creative missionary attempts in the ecclesiastical world.

ST. GEORGE’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH
Valley Lee, Maryland, est. 1638
The oldest continuous Anglican congregation in Maryland

It was certainly possible to do this work within the established institutions of their day; just look how long the British system tolerated the men whom Americans vault today as heroes: Washington and Adams among others.  Likewise, the Church of England found a way to balance missionary zeal with their commission as a national church.  Every Sunday and Wednesday, for instance, I pray the Mass in a chancel in St. Mary’s County,  Maryland in which there sits embedded into the floor a large stone dedicated to a former rector of the parish, the Rev’d Mr. Leigh Massey.  Massey, we’ve learned, was of Irish descent, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and at the tender age of nineteen and in the year 1723 — when John Wesley was twenty years old and a full twelve years before John would set sail for the colony of Georgia — Leigh became a truly missionary priest and rector of William & Mary Parish in the new world colony of Maryland.  The stone in St. George’s chancel reads: “Near this place lies inter’d the Reverend Leigh Massey.  He was educated at Oxford, the rector of this Parish, the darling of his flock and beloved by all who knew him. He died Jan. 10, 1732/33 aged 29 years.”  (What appears to be confusion regarding the year of Massey’s death is attributable to the fact that Britain and the eastern portion of what would become the United States had, by that time, not yet accepted the Gregorian Calendar, a move that would become official by Act of Parliament as late as 1752.)

One very real danger, looking backward, is to be romanced into the deception that the church as missionary and church as institution are somehow opposing entities or concepts.  They are not, nor have they ever been.

The fact is the divorce of Methodism from Anglicanism is a sad chapter, and was itself a prolonged and painful transition.  There’s fault on both sides.  For one, the Church of England didn’t help itself, failing to recognize that it was in some ways the very mission field the Wesley’s — and countless others, no less the Rev’d Leigh Massey — engaged which led naturally to the renewal or, at least, the desire to renew which they in time helped bring about.  The equally and, maybe, more inflammatory evangelistic efforts of George Whitefield didn’t help the Wesley’s gain a wide audience in the seats of power of the church of their day.  And yet they, John and Charles, were offering a much more thoroughgoing ‘Anglican Methodism’ than was the more stridently Calvinist Whitefield; the former brothers’ more Arminian emphasis on the necessary balance between justification by faith and works of mercy running clearly in line with the Caroline Divines, especially Jeremy Taylor whose most notable work is his profound devotional contribution, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living.

For another, the Wesley’s didn’t really help themselves.  There was, it seems, a bit of the rogue in the Wesley DNA: at one point, Samuel took such a strident stand on an issue in his parish that the villagers burned down his house, nearly killing his young son, John.  (Those biographers who make a big deal of this psychological trauma in the development of John’s theology have probably read too much Freud, although today’s United Methodist symbol — a flame and cross — is an ironic choice.)  Likewise, John was equally staunch, the one noteworthy instance being the time he refused to offer communion to the daughter of a well-connected colonist — either because she refused to marry him or he, not wanting to marry her, nevertheless didn’t want her marrying the man she did, the facts depending on the particular biographer — an act which led to his being shipped back to England.  Add to that that John, eventually, had enough with the foot-dragging of the church of his day and uncanonically commissioned elders, among whom Francis Asbury would become the most significant, to spearhead the organization of the church in America.  Charles bitterly opposed his brother’s decision and even John, himself, feared for the direction of the new Methodist Episcopal churches in America, especially when in 1787 Francis, nicknamed by some “the American Pope,” changed the title ‘superintendent’ to ‘bishop’.

We, too, have become eerily skilled at making minor differences, mostly differences in emphasis, the cause and consequence of our divorce.  Do you need an institution in order to do mission?  Or do you need a mission to have an institution?  Or, to God, do those distinctions make any bit of difference?  From what I can tell, there’s no basis in these contentions for anything like a substantial argument, so let’s move on.  But moving on, in practice, means that we would need to place obvious limitations on what we can and what we cannot institutionalize — meaning, specifically, what we can and what we cannot legislate or wrangle over at gatherings such as General Convention.  If the devil’s in the details, that’s a big one.

Another very real danger is the tendency to calcify the Anglican theological tradition.  Ever since the Church of England recognized that it had given birth to a worldwide family of churches, interestingly, on account of the American Revolution and around the time ‘Anglican’ began to become a term, itself, we knew we had a problem or, at least, an issue with authority.  Looking back, removing the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the 16th century was still a safe thing to do, provided the king could exercise sufficient power.  Once that power dynamic shifted, everything else did, too.

Ever since, there is and has become a contested core of Anglican thought and practice.  Within, there is indeed a core; a way of being and thinking in a uniquely Anglican fashion.  And it’s contested, sometimes with great vitriol, and it will continue to be so.  That’s actually part of the charm of our theological tradition.

WILLIAM LAUD
1573- 1645

As I hinted earlier, the Wesley’s themselves were in many ways giving a contemporary voice to that contested core, aligning their evangelical and missionary efforts with the thinking of Lancelot Andrews and Jeremy Taylor and those Caroline Divines who preceded them by at least a century.  So named for their support of King Charles (hence ‘Caroline’) and similar emphases to the reforms of Archbishop Wm. Laud (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1640, executed in 1645), whose 17th century reforms stressed a sacramental and liturgical piety, the restoration of episcopal authority, and the downplaying of Calvinist themes and preaching, these heavily influential theologians (a.k.a., ‘Divines’) were not in many ways united in their conclusions or arguments but, strictly speaking, in their methodology.  They drew heavily on biblical and liturgical sources, most notably the Book of Common Prayer, and sought to demonstrate the continuity of Anglicanism within the great, albeit broad Christian tradition.  They placed a strong emphasis on patristic studies and brought back many of the Eastern (Greek-writing) Christian theologians that had long been dismissed from the largely Latin (Western) Catholicism of recent centuries.

Into this context, then, it’s very easy to place the emerging theology of John and Charles Wesley: they, too, emphasized a liturgical and bible-based method of working out one’s salvation; they, too, taught that regular attendance to one’s spiritual, sacramental life was important, and they steered away, as I’ve already mentioned, from a more dominant Calvinist stress on predestination and toward a the thinking of the 16th century Dutch Reformer, Jacobus Arminius, who affirmed that our works to some degree, while not justifying, have something to do with God’s plan of salvation.

Equally so, we have much to learn from our past.  A friend lent me what I can only call a book-length rant, Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors (2004).  Author Edward Norman’s contribution (?) was an insightful and somewhat fun read, if only for its caustic dogmatism and bold self assertions.  The author, Norman, contends that contemporary Anglicanism is a theological mess.  I’d say he’s right.  Not wanting to legitimize this sloppiness or our church’s generally slipshod course, I can’t go so far as Norman does in tracing the root of the problem.  Here, below, Norman establishes the thesis; note that he traces the issue back to the Wesley’s (whom he clearly likes) and those who came after them (whom he doesn’t):

“The genesis of Evangelical revivalism at the end of the eighteenth century suggested no threat to the Church of England’s unity, for it occurred within a general consensus about the inherent Protestantism of Anglicanism.  It was possible for Methodism, for example, to continue to worship at parish churches for fifty years before they separated into a distinct denomination.  But when the new High Church movement appeared, in the 1830s, the appeal to Catholic antiquity, and to the past unity of Christianity, divided the Church of England in a manner which was instantly recognized. … It is also true, as some others noticed, that the ritual observances complained of were not, anyway, authentic revivals of early Catholic uses, but Tridentine splendor re-defined in the sharp light of nineteenth-century Ultramontane extravagances.  The outcome was the beginning of disintegration.  At the very time that the word ‘Anglican’ was coming into familiar parlance, in the middle years of the nineteenth century, the Church of England was in fact losing the semblance of unity which the name was supposed to express.  Since then there has been an uninterrupted internal crisis of identity. … The Anglican way — almost the hallmark of Anglicanism — is to compose vacuous forms of words within which hugely divergent viewpoints can be accommodated.  It is the promotion of expediency over principle, and is the manner in which Anglicanism is held together. … Not much force would be needed to flatten the Church of England as a coherent religious institution.  It is a house of cards.”  (Norman, Anglican Difficulties, pp. xi – xii)

Apart from his witty command of the English language and regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Norman’s overall point, he seems to commit the other problem we should’ve learned from the Wesley years — a dangerous seizing up of one or several parts of the Anglican theological tradition.  To Norman, what does the “general consensus about the inherent Protestantism of Anglicanism” mean, anyway?  And who’s in the “general”?  Likewise, even though I’ve stepped back with some critical distance from the Anglo-Catholicism in which I was formed, I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that such churchmanship and its related customs in any way voids the merits of that rich tradition within Anglicanism.

The Christian and, specifically, Anglican theological enterprise is much broader than we’ve made it.  And if we want to talk seriously about mission we’d be wise to start by acknowledging the single-minded theological dominance in the Episcopal Church of a 20th-century Protestant liberalism, as well as get much more serious about reprising Anglican comprehensiveness and bringing back that truly contested core.  Regardless of whatever theological tradition in which you find yourself at home and, as such, better able to articulate what God in Christ is doing in your life, it does not seem — nor should it be — an exclusive concept to welcome the more robust participation of those who work from a different, even completely different methodology.

And so I’ll close with a more personal reflection.

The Episcopal Church was really my saving grace while I was enrolled in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.  I was starting to feel that academic theology, which I really do love, was beginning to work on my soul like paint-thinner does on old finishes.  I looked and looked for a church community that could strike a balance between prayer and, yes, honest-to-God prayer to Jesus Christ as well as not forsake the intellectual and secular world in which we found ourselves.  The campus ministry, Brent House, was led by a gifted chaplain, the Rev’d Sam Portaro, and I was initially brought there by a fellow housemate with whom I lived in intentional Christian community, a Ph.D. student named Randall Foster.  Sam and Randall were certainly at opposite ends of the theological spectrum, but both men could speak in profound and powerful ways about Jesus and about their Christian life as well as the ways they carry out reconciling ministry in the world.  Sam is a priest in the Diocese of Chicago and I am proud that he was one of the presenters at my priestly ordination.  Randall is now a priest in the Diocese of Forth Worth (the Anglican Church in North America) and today, on the Feast of John and Charles Wesley, he celebrates the anniversary of his diaconal ordination.  I, too, celebrate Randall’s ordination and I celebrate, very much, that Randall is a minister of Christ’s redeeming Gospel.  I know without a doubt that Randall is a light to those who come into his path.  It saddens me, however, that he and I can only claim our continuing brotherhood in the larger, less visible Anglican Christian communion.

When will that time come, I wonder, when we really will come into the one-ness for which our Lord prayed?  Probably around the time when we learn from our mistakes, one of which occurred during the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, lights of the world in their generation.