Streams to Refresh and Gladden

Born in 1775 and consecrated Assistant Bishop of New York at the age of 36, John Henry Hobart’s life and ministry offers something of a model for our time.  Without him, who knows what would have happened to the church he served.  What did happen, we know, is quite a remarkable thing.  Or is it all that remarkable?

Most reports about Hobart focus on the High Church faction of the Episcopal Church, of which he was a strident spokesperson and advocate; most notably, his conviction in the importance of the apostolic succession and historic episcopate – set against the individualized, evangelical tendency he saw in his own church and fellow countrymen.  A man of integrity, charisma and consummate drive, Hobart is also remembered for the things he did – create The General Theological Seminary, revive Geneva, now, Hobart College, build up the clergy in his diocese, plant churches, and write hundreds of meaningful devotional manuals.  He was all those things, apparently, and he did all those things, and he happened to be a leader in the Episcopal Church.  But his vision goes far beyond the Episcopal Church, far beyond the nineteenth century, far beyond his time, and offers models for our own.

The world into which he was born was a world of dramatic, profound and, for some, sudden change.  Only one year after Hobart’s birth, the American colonies declared their independence from the mother country, leaving what was the Church of England on American soil  in a serious quandary and search for a reason to exist.  Some sided with England, and fled.  Others argued for revising their way of being church while staying true to their tradition.  We know what happened in the Revolution and we know what happened to that church, now called the Episcopal Church.  We know how this new nation established a Constitution and this new church established an American Book of Common Prayer, and we know that these new entities found their way forward, step by step, in the later decades of the eighteenth century.

But what we forget is the steady, dark cloud of fear and anxiety that surrounds any change, no less significant political and cultural change.  We forget the way, I’m sure, many remembered the good ole’ days, even though those days weren’t so good and weren’t coming back.  We seem to have forgotten that change doesn’t happen overnight, and history isn’t always linear, and even when people are on board with the idea of revision they don’t always act nicely.  We fail to remember that having your world changed right under your feet leads inevitably to anxiety and fear; most people either shut down or act out.  And even with great visionaries in the decades immediately following the American Revolution – leaders in the Episcopal Church such as Samuel Seabury and William White – ordinary folks and everyday congregations were left in stasis, extended paralysis.

Enter John Henry Hobart.  I’m sure he heard from countless members of his grandparents’ and parents’ generations all about the good ole’ days, but he never experienced that culture and he knew it wasn’t returning.  He also knew that the changed political and cultural landscape (even though he disagreed with some of it) meant that his church, which was the very definition of the establishment, was going to die unless it stopped doing two things and started doing two others.  First, stop denying the change and, two, stop looking at other churches (the rapidly growing firebrand Methodists, for instance, or the more culturally nimble Congregationalists) as if they had a better answer.  And they needed to start, for one, accepting the change (something his mentor William White established) and, for another, mining their own ‘Anglican’ tradition for ways to be true to their story and authentic in their environment.  What historian Robert Bruce Mullin has coined as the “Hobartian Synthesis” is precisely this – a compelling vision that isn’t just about getting over denial and beginning to accept but, rather, a new way forward that is, at once, entirely rooted in their story, the story of God in Christ acting through their tradition.

That’s our moment today, I believe.  I believe it because I’m living it, and I feel it profoundly most days of my own ministry.  I was born in 1975 – long  after the glory days of the post-war years, long after the Baby Boom ended, long after the mainline Protestant establishment realized it was on the decline, long after social and cultural and political shifts had fundamentally changed our country and world.  I never knew a world in which every mother stayed home all day, although I’m grateful my own mother did.  I never knew a world in which neighborhoods were all one color or race or ethnicity.  I never knew a world in which prayer was legitimate in public schools, nor did I know a world in which Sundays were set aside, solely, for Christians to go to church.   I never knew that world, and yet I was personally drawn to church – my neighborhood’s classic Old First Church.  Unfortunately, that church was in deep paralysis during my childhood years.  They fretted about the changing neighborhood, about white families moving out to the suburbs and “other families” moving in.  They remembered with fondness their church bowling league, and twittled their thumbs about numbers and a huge physical plant.  They told their story as one of bewilderment and loss, and I was growing up there, growing up in a church that was dying, and knew it.

What I learned in those years has become, in these, a priceless gift.  I learned to love Jesus, not the church.  I learned to become rooted in God, not this ever-shifting world.  I learned that a culture which supports church-going isn’t necessarily a culture that is Christian, faithful in the ways Jesus preached.  Since my church also felt like it didn’t have what other, more ‘hip’ Christian groups had, I was dragged to more 80’s Christian rock concerts and evangelical “Jesus-be-my-boyfriend” rallies than I care to recount.  And I wasn’t fed by emotional, charismatic Christianity; it seemed as shifty and unstable as anything else.  So I also learned that the subtlety and majesty and accessibility of what has become known as mainline Christianity is a wonderful thing, for it lets people go in and go out, it creates space for diversity (at its best), it’s built to change (at its best), it doesn’t force God upon anyone, and it’s solid, staid, beautiful.  I also learned that most people who have remained in mainline congregations have a lot of depth to their life and faith.  Even though they were never trained to be evangelical, they’re unashamed of talking about struggles and joys, and they’re not afraid to mention God or Jesus.

I learned that we have a rich tradition, and we don’t need a complete overhaul – we only need a new spirit.  I suppose, for starters, to believe that you also have to believe that God in Christ is acting in the world today, and that things of deep meaning are also things of constant revision and adaptation.  (Those are pretty big “starters”, and maybe you don’t agree.  You’d better stop reading, then.)  That’s what it means to be traditional.  From its Latin root, tradition implies handing down, passing on.  Things that are of the tradition are things that speak through the ages, and anything that’s powerful enough to be passed down from generation to generation is going to be expanded or, at least, have its original packaging altered.  We know, for instance, that “all men are created equal” in our political discourse has been expanded, revised, and changed.  I, for one, am not willing to go back to its original packaging just because it was, well, original.

So is John Henry Hobart’s work all that remarkable?  No.  Not at all, in fact.  And, moreover, it can be replicated by women and men today, in this time of significant cultural change.  Provided that there are people of faith who are unafraid of making a choice between being culturally acceptable or being faithful to Christ.  Provided that there are people who don’t care to “see and be seen” in a pew but, rather, be transformed by God.  Provided that there are people who know or want to know the power of the Holy Spirit, not the invitation of social convention.  Provided that there are people who will root themselves in Christ, and his story – which is a story about death, first, then resurrection.  Provided that we as the institution called “church” begin to deepen our conversation and formation, and seek to become what we receive — the Body of Christ in this world.  You bet we’ll grow, provided we make that one, simple turn.

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* The title is taken from Bishop Hobart’s address at the the opening of The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City, held on Monday evening, 11 March 1822: “The event that calls us together is a subject of real congratulation. An institution, organized by the Church in her highest legislative council with a unanimity and cordiality that could not have been anticipated, has commenced its operations in this city under auspices that promise not to disappoint the expectations of its founders and patrons. Here is the sacred school in which are to be trained the heralds of the cross, we hope, to the latest generations. Here is the fountain, drawing, we trust, its living waters from the throne of God, whence are to proceed those streams of divine truth and knowledge that are to refresh and gladden the Zion of the Lord, the city of our God.”

The Akasie Screen – and, at last, a Conversation

Look, that whole Jay Akasie Wall Street Journal-thing was a screen, an offensive blocking move which freed up others to make more substantive arguments or — sticking with basketball — shots.  And you, church, fell for it!

The thought struck me at lunch the other day with a colleague.  I’m not that interested in people’s conclusions — whether they come out theologically conservative or progressive, whether they vote Republican, Democrat or who cares what.  No, I’m more interested in the methods by which folks arrive at their conclusion; whether she’s aware of the sources; whether he’s checked his assumptions at the door and, at least, is pretty darn clear about the baggage he’s bringing into the conversation.  Part of it, for me, is the happy fruit of ministry formation in an academic divinity school.

I don’t care about General Convention resolutions or the reasons why breakaway Anglicans are breaking away.  I don’t care when the Wall Street Journal makes mistakes about the Presiding Bishop’s staff or how much money the Bishop of Eastern Swizzlestick spent on wine and fancy dinners.  Nor do I care that the Bishop of the Lower Heartland ate only $5 footlongs from Subway every day of General Convention, and divided them evenly between breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I just don’t care.  I want to know if the church is having a genuine, authentic conversation.  I care whether we’ve been courageous enough to be a community of “inquiring and discerning hearts,” to quote the Prayer Book.

The short answer is: we haven’t.  In fact, we’ve been downright terrible about having a real conversation, respecting differences enough to listen, being bold in our faith claims to speak of how we know God to be acting in Christ.

And yet – poof! – out of the blue comes a genuine conversation.  Lots of folks missed it because they got all bent out of shape by Jay Akasie’s silly opinion piece, but here is an actual theological conversation, transpiring in the public realm.  How cool!

Kicking it off, on July 14, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat wondered “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”  Responding to what he opined has been going on in the Episcopal Church — and, in particular, the 2012 General Convention — Douthat argued that so long as organizations such as the Episcopal Church continue their progressive trends they will only appear to the world as increasingly secular institutions and, in turn, lose members until they ultimately die.  Agree or disagree, I don’t care.  It’s a solid argument.

Of course no card-carrying liberal Christian is going to take that sitting down.  Plenty of snarkyness roiled on social media, but it took Diana Butler Bass’ comprehensive July 15 Huffington Post article to present a compelling counter-argument.  Bass’ “Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat,” maintained that – one – declining church membership is neither a conservative nor liberal issue, everyone’s struggling with loss; and – two – since liberal Christianity had to wrestle with decline for a longer period of time than other Christian traditions, it might hold out promise for the entire bunch, re-invigorating Christianity by returning us all to a balance between orthodox faith and social responsibility.  Bass concluded: “So, Mr. Douthat asks, ‘Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?’ But I wonder: Can Liberal Churches Save Christianity?”

After that, opening Facebook or Twitter was what I could imagine being in a crowd at a so-called professional wrestling match would feel like — no one was saying much of substance but everyone was making plenty of noise, that’s what it meant to be part of the game in the first place.  Blogs were posted like pamphlets of old, as if the thing spoke for itself and summarized everything:  Diana Butler Bass (yay! … hiss!)  Andrew Douthat / Jay Akasie (boo! … yay!).  I still can’t believe so many bloggers took such enormous time to refute the Akasie claims, one by one, and I thank God there was some humor in some of them, lest we, Episcopalians, be rightfully accused of failing to actually read those parts of the bible about how taking prophetic stances isn’t a good first step to making friends in high places!

Arguments of substance were starting to appear more frequently, though.  Bishop Stacy Sauls, the Chief Operating Officer for the Episcopal Church, weighed in in response to Akasie’s Wall Street Journal piece, and went beyond the tit-for-tat that dominated the blogosphere.  Like a fast break, Sauls concisely asserted that the Church has been “radically faithful” to scripture, tradition, and reason.  Slam dunk.

Taking on Bass, The Living Church ran a July 16 piece by Thomas Kincaid, asserting that she simply “doesn’t get it.”  Kincaid presented a solidly argued conservative theological criticism of liberal Christianity: it’s about salvation, after all, and what liberal Christianity doesn’t get is that the Savior role has already been taken by one Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Christ.  Like his conclusions or not, Kincaid raises a solid argument, not to mention another point that’s stopped me in my haughty tracks — factoring out immigration from Latin America when determining the numbers of Roman Catholics in this country borders dangerously on racism, if only elitism.

Back to the original players, Ross Douthat blogged a response to Bass on July 25.  Unfortunately, most of Douthat’s “Is Liberal Christianity Actually the Future?” is another tit-for-tat, this time quoting whole chunks of Bass’ claim in order to disagree, but he does get around to offering an intriguing counter-argument: Isn’t much of the searching Bass calls “neo-liberalism” happening as (Douthat:) “individuals, rather than as members of the liberal churches and congregations that keep trying to roll out a welcome mat for them”?  So we’re still talking about a decline in religious institutions, and that’s happening at a faster pace in liberal churches than conservative ones.

I want to play coach for a moment, and suggest future moves.  There are several:

One, admit that we are, in fact, talking about the decline, death, and substantial changing of religious institutions, social institutions that are not that old in the first place.  Frankly, this needs to be said — and has been astonishingly mute among neo-liberal voices.  Even our most mission-minded church leaders are still afraid of saying that the conversation we have embarked on will, ultimately, mean the ending of the diocesan/deanery/parochial system.  Say it anyway.

Two, admit that we need to learn from the conservative movement of the 1970’s and 80’s that bypassed denominations and, instead, focused on building a community from motivated individual seekers.  Douthat’s right: we can’t compare liberal and conservative denominations when the dramatic rise in conservative Christianity happened in from dynamic leaders leading much-hyped congregations, not because a denomination said so.  Admit that we liberals / neo-liberals / mainliners / deadliners / whoever we are suck at evangelism, and we’ve got to learn new skills and learn them fast.

But do not admit that we are anything but deeply Christian.  And remind the world that we […if you can’t tell by now, my conclusions line up with a fairly progressive Christian stance] are motivated to make these stands because we spend our days rooted in the tradition, the scriptures, and the gift of reason.

And stop getting hung up on the non-substantive conclusions — whether they like us, understand us, respect us, or know why our Presiding Bishop carries the stick she carries.  That doesn’t matter.  Engage the deeper, more important conversation about they ways we know God in Christ to be active in this world through the Holy Spirit.  And show how you get there by reading the scriptures, living with the tradition, and responding to ever-opening vistas of grace.  That, I’ll say, is the only conversation that has the power to save people’s souls.

Trying to figure out why we’re having this conversation

Last week, I was getting really excited — the General Convention of the Episcopal Church was kicking off in Indianapolis; Independence Day was coming up; I was getting together with Episcopal church leaders from southern Maryland to be more strategic about re-imagining the church in our region; and on Thursday evening, I was hosting a focus group in which someone from our diocese was coming down to hear from a diverse group of St. Georgians about the ordination process and what ordinary folks thought about the state of ministry in the Episcopal Church.

Sounds like a full week.  It was, but I’m afraid I justify my sense of busy-ness by, well, being busy.  That’s not necessarily the same as productive or meaningful or, in the end, making much of a difference, let alone much sense.

Take the Thursday night focus group, for instance:  I was supposed to get 8 to 10 people to come so I invited twice as many, thinking because it was July — and because it was an invitation to talk about the ordination process in the Diocese of Washington — most people would say something like, “Actually, Greg, my dog’s been needing a bath…”  Or “That sounds interesting, but I promised myself I’d avoid church conversations on Thursdays…” Or a simple: “No.”  In fact, everyone I invited said they were interested in coming, and all but two came.  Wow, I thought, what a moment for the Episcopal Church.  That moment didn’t last long.  About an hour into the conversation, I noticed some folks had grown quiet, whereas others were speaking up repeatedly.  You know that moment in a large group conversation that’s as if we all, suddenly, forgot why we came?

I’m sure much good will come from that conversation once the feedback is processed.  But I’m not talking about that meta stuff.  I’m talking about the impact such conversations have on those who gathered — the ones who make a choice to worship God in Christ on (most) Sunday mornings, a choice that’s different from some of their neighbors and friends who are, otherwise, sleeping in, reading the Washington Post, or on a bike ride.

That next Sunday, after the 8am Mass, in a quiet moment over coffee, two of those who were present on Thursday night asked me how I thought it went.  I think I said much of what I wrote, above, but something else was behind the question.  “I was trying to figure out why we were having this conversation,” one said.  Without prompting, he rattled off the institutional reasons we cited (because the bishop has placed a moratorium) as well as theological (because the church is dynamic) and business-based reasons (because we need more creative, entrepreneurial leaders).  But those straightforward reasons didn’t answer his question:  “I’m trying to figure out why we’re having this conversation.”  That’s a really good and a really deep question, and I’d like to think it’s one that will haunt us for a long time to come.

Look at the General Convention in Indianapolis, and ask that question.  When so much excitement is around the structure and process and decisions about the next triennial budget for the Episcopal Church, something’s going on.  I don’t disagree that we’re at a ripe time in our institutional church.  And I don’t disagree that conversations about budgets and committees and process and structure are not, in fact, moral, missional, and theological conversations.  I just wonder if we’re talking in ways and with such a trunkful of assumptions that we’re leaving countless people trying to figure out why, in the first place, we’re having this conversation, and what in the world we’re trying to say.  And I’m not just thinking about the people in our very last pew, but those who are sitting at home on Sunday morning, enjoying  a quiet cup of tea and the New York Times, reading about Episcopalians or Presbyterians or Methodists or Catholics talking about what we talk about.

I’m talking about what is discernably and actually alive and real, what 1 Tim. 6:19 calls “the life that is truly life.”  When are we going to get to have that conversation?