‘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.

 

 

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.

HUMAN FLOURISHING IN A CONTEXT OF LOVE

The new Archbishop of Canterbury is giving a lesson in ethics.  What he’s actually talking about is changing the way the church functions.

ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY Justin Welby

Yesterday, the Archbishop didn’t zero in on the political mess the Church of England’s gotten itself into.  The pundits on the sidelines are striving to get him to say something about women bishops or gay marriage.  Welby mentioned several times his own “fear and trembling,” but I think he showed remarkable strength in not talking about those things – in not chattering on about the church in self-reflexive ways, focusing with profound insularity on theological method (as his predecessor did); in not taking a prophetic stance toward the issues of the world while ignoring the clutter of his own spiritual house (as our Episcopal Church, I’m afraid, too quickly does).  Archbishop Welby showed great steel in turning our textbooks back to Aristotle and Jesus, in focusing our attention on a simple message: the church must be in the business of human flourishing.

In his inaugural sermon, Welby argued that the goal of the Body of Christ should be to enable human persons to flourish: in his words, to “make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish.”  The church has taken prophetic stances over the years, Welby acknowledged, positions which became manifest in social campaigns – freeing slaves and ensuring the safety of factory workers, among others.

Similar issues confront human society in the 21st century, he noted, but his analysis, interestingly, didn’t go from cause to cause.  Rather, he quickly moved the conversation back to traditional Christian social thought.

Dissapointing media pundits and stumping secular critics, Welby’s message appeared, at first, to be about our work, our message, our cause and then, just as quickly, became a message of God. “Fear imprisons us and stops us being fully human,” he preached. “Uniquely in all of human history Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who as living love liberates holy courage. …Courage is released in a society that is under the authority of God, so that we may become the fully human community of which we all dream.”

Early Christians adopted from Plato and Aristotle the concept that there is an end to which all human striving should be directed, a goal which is good for its own sake.  The Greek word is eudaimonia, often translated as happiness or flourishing.  In the Aristotelian worldview, eudaimonia is entirely egoistic: an individual’s self interest is to flourish, so a particular individual’s good is to flourish for the sake of her own good.  That obviously wouldn’t do for the early Christian community whose Lord commanded them to love one another, so the Christianized concept of eudaimonia also had to do with mercy, justice, forgiveness, and community.  Human flourishing from a Christian point of view is to strive towards the only goal which is good unto itself.  That we call the Kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God involves people, but what’s good for people is not necessarily a good unto itself.  That’s not an ultimate good.  The kingdom of God has a church but what’s good for the church isn’t necessarily a good in and of itself.  Better not chatter on about the church with incessant insularity.  The kingdom of God is expressed, from time to time, in our social campaigns to make this world a more just and equitable and liveable place, but those causes are not necessarily the same as the reign of God.  Best not confuse our social politics and theology.  If we want to understand what it means to flourish, we’ve got to understand what it is to be of God, firstly, and to have our actions and words speak Him.

Although this is deep within our tradition, it’s also a new teaching for the church.  It’s hard for many to understand, let alone embrace it.  We, the church, allowed secular society to put us in the center of their world – first it was Constantine, then Charlemagne, then in America our own interpretation of the Bill of Rights.  For centuries, we thought Christendom spoke for itself.  Even when it’s been waning these past several decades we tried to bolster the buttresses, talking on and on about ourselves and our self-proclaimed mission and our business.

That’s all falling apart.  Not the Way of Jesus, mind you.  Not Christianity.  Just the force of the predominately institutionalized shell.

And that’s why Justin Welby is the right man for the job, the right man, that is, at this moment.  While bishop of Durham, he seemed uniquely able to speak the truth plainly.  In an address in April 2012 to the Anglican Alliance for Development, Bishop Welby pointedly said, “The question that faces the church is that of what is human flourishing, good news, amidst the deep poverty…and utter spiritual bankruptcy and increasing material poverty?”

In that address, Welby named a profound truth: “Our good news,” he argued, “must be unique, because the radicality of the gospel call[s] us to a sense of what we are doing and saying utterly different from all other groups.”  This can be unsettling.  For those who have grown accustomed to Christendom this is a difficult teaching to bear.  Yet almost automatically, Welby’s mind readily goes beyond insular theological methodology – a threat to those hiding inside the church – and criticizes the way of the world from nothing more, nothing less than the Gospel of Christ.  To his credit, he already knows that world.  When he mentioned “suspicion of the NGO industry, its thousands of employees and the tendency to be as donor dependant as the recipients of aid, with whom one is drawn in a grim dance,” Welby quickly added: “I know, I ran one.”

Authenticity is the litmus test these days, which is both an opportunity and challenge.  We live in a time in which our message is heard only so long as the audience knows, already, the depth and quality of its source.  It’s no longer sufficient to make grand speeches without mobilizing the People of God.  Nor can we shirk from the obligation to speak a word of life in the public square; now, however, it requires the harder work of turning the hearts and minds and lives of those already among the body to influence those not yet.  The new Archbishop put it as a question:  “As Christians,” he asked, “are we simply a spiritual bit of the same tribe or, as self-proclaimed disciples of Christ, how is what we bring good news?”  Reading Micah 6:8 (“do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God…”) and Romans 12:1-2 (“…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”), Welby reminded:

“the language of our good news is not GDP, output and so forth, though they are part of the means. It is human flourishing in a context of love. The tools of our good news [are] the unique ones of reconciliation and peace, with its fellow travellers of generosity, community and self-giving love. All aid outside the context of the grace of God leads to the abuse of power and the creation of dependency. So we are called not merely to do, but to be. The inner motivation matters as much as the outer.”

These days anyone and everyone can see directly inside, beyond the stuff we’ve projected in order to protect us – our beautiful churches and stately liturgy, our pomp and circumstance, our cathedrals and order, our tradition and customs.  Real human flourishing is an inside job, and that matters a great deal.

TRANSFORMED BY THE RENEWING OF YOUR MINDS

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.  Romans 12:2

………………..

SIR TONY BALDRY
Second Church Estates Commissioner addresses
House of Commons Nov. 22, 2012

Watching Britain’s House of Commons have a lively chat about their church’s recent disapproval of women bishops, I had at first a feeling of ‘Bravo!’ as well as ‘Uh oh!’  As is often the case, it was a spirited chamber on Nov. 22 when Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, rose to field an urgent question as the Member of Parliament who is the liaison between that body and the group responsible for the oversight of the church’s vast property assets.

I heard smatterings of Jesus in the thoughtful generosity of the MPs — their eagerness to move established institutional structures, no less than their own, to embrace a society in which gender distinctions and previous social mores are giving way to greater egalitarianism and justice.  The Labour Party’s Diana Johnson, who tabled the question, said it well: “…there should be no stained glass ceiling for women in our church.  The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, looking outdated, irrelevant, and frankly eccentric by this decision.  It appears that a broad church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds.”

They could easily get away with this conversation, of course.  Sir Baldry reminded them that he himself couldn’t possibly justify the odd parliamentary procedures which enabled the General Synod of the Church of England to strike down a measure which was clearly supported by the vast majority of the church:  42 out of 44 dioceses expressed support for women bishops; counting the number of total votes cast, 324 voted for and 122 against; 94% of the bishops and 77% of the clergy voted for the measure; but it failed to achieve a 2/3 majority in the House of Laity, even though a significant majority, 64%, of them voted in favor of the measure.

It’s an odd thing when the State appears more inclusive and egalitarian than does the Church, the Body of Christ.  A Canadian friend told me a few years ago that this was perhaps the one issue most besetting the Anglican Church there: how could they appeal to others to follow the teachings of Jesus when, in practice, they are less welcoming than their secular government?  I’m aware we’re mixing issues here — church and state (fairly modern concepts) with Jesus and Empire (more ancient and biblical ones) — but it’s more than clear that Jesus himself and, certainly, a dominant strand in New Testament Christianity fostered profoundly egalitarian communities, gatherings which were radical in the eyes of their contemporary, stratified secular society and which were, therefore, incredibly attractive.  Followers of Jesus have always had a difficult struggle with the ruling powers and principalities, such that 20 centuries after Jesus (and 17 or so after Christianity was perverted into a state religion) H. Richard Neibuhr contributed to the conversation in his now-classic text, Christ and Culture, helping people identify with integrity their position with regard to the relationship between the Way of Jesus and the ways of the world.

Thus my ‘Uh oh!’ moment.  Jesus and the world, church and state have always been uneasy bedfellows.  That’s a good thing, if you ask me, because the tension within that relationship is what has the potential to give rise to a profound, meaningful faith in God.  The principle of moving the church along with the world — to make the church relevant or hip or up with the times — is therefore a dangerous principle, no matter the issue.  It’s not inclusivity versus exclusivity, liberal against conservative, outdated giving way to modern.  And if we, the Body of Christ, let secular politicians and pundits remain on the forefront of this conversation it will be stuck in those divisive, neatly categorized, but meaningless concepts.  Look again at the Nov. 22 conversation in Parliament.   The Conservative Party’s Eleanor Lang declared that “when the decision making body of the established church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society which it represents then its position as the established church must be called into question.”  And the Church Commissioner agreed, adding that “if the Church of England wishes to be a national church, reflecting the nation, then it has to reflect the values of the nation.”  Some people may put an exclamation point at the end of his statement because it’s boldly open-minded.  I’d put an exclamation point because the principle it expresses is as frightening as hell!  (And if you think it’s just talk, the Episcopal Cafe reports that there is scheduled a Jan. 18, 2013 Parliamentary vote on making it illegal “to discriminate against women in the Church of England.”)

Over on these shores, then, give thanks we don’t have an established church and, in fact, have a clause in our Constitution that prevents that sort of thing — the one, by the way, which doesn’t “separate church and state” (it drives me nuts when people use that phrase, taken from an 1802 letter of Jefferson’s talking about “…a wall of separation between Church & State”).  Our First Amendment makes way for a vibrant church and a free state by not marrying the two: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

So let’s talk about a vibrant church.  A vibrant church is one which does precisely what early Christian communities tried to do — build community of disparate folks, indeed, make family out of people who aren’t blood relatives and wouldn’t even socialize with one another.  That’s the one and only way the New Testament shows how we’re supposed to reconcile all things to God in Christ.  A vibrant church, then, is other-worldly and necessarily so because its organizing principle is in contradiction to the ways we would put things together.  A vibrant church gives ordinary women and men a taste, albeit fleeting, that their lives are caught up in and wedded to the life of God, the creator and lover of all.  A vibrant church is not easily described, and has few smatterings of worldly concepts.  It’s neither conservative nor liberal, and it’s sometimes both.  It’s neither stuffy nor outdated, and it delights in its eccentricity while it doesn’t take itself, at least its structures, too seriously.  It has no problem putting random people together, sometimes people who would otherwise disagree, and it’s bold enough to referee those contests and call its members, all of them, to confess their pride and arrogance.

A vibrant church is one agent in God’s mission of reconciling all things through Christ, and I’d say it’s a pretty important agent.  But in order to be vibrant, the church needs a large, disparate, somewhat disorganized, diverse, random collective of ordinary women and men, a sizeable group of people representing a significant cross-section of human experience and, especially, who this world would never, ever put together in a social club or institution of human construction.  The institutional Christian church in the western world is hardly that body any longer.  And Parliament hit that nail on the head this week, taking note that a big issue raised by General Synod — see Labour MP Diana Johnson’s quote, cited above — is that the established church has done a poor job of bringing the nation into the Body of Christ or, we should say, bringing the Body of Christ to the whole of the people.  Affirming that fact, however, is decidedly not the same as saying what Conservative MP Eleanor Lang said, also quoted above; namely, that the church must get on with the times and reflect society.  Doing so would only confirm for the increasing percentage of people, in Great Britain and the United States and everywhere else, that the church has become such a human institution that there’s no reason to participate in something so small and worldly and so devoid of its much more attractive, deeply spiritual commission.

This is not a problem reserved exclusively for an established church in a foreign land.  We have abandoned our voice and public theologizing, yes, even we in America.  And the “we” is not the state — not the politicians and the pundits, nor the marketers nor the secular institutions nor the school systems which stopped enforcing prayer long ago.  It was never their job to enforce faith or, for that matter, even be Christian.  It was our job, ours as the Body of Christ.  It was our job to be counter-cultural, not the place to see and be seen. It is our job to do the things which this world says cannot be done, and that includes creating a safe space for diversity of all kinds, and that diversity must and should include theological diversity as well.  The longer we fail to do this in our congregations and communities — and, add to that, the longer we let our own Episcopal Church be ruled by worldly institutional structures, determinining via legislation and policy who is in and who is out, even if the majority agrees — the more irrelevant we will become, not because the world is looking for another, better human construct but because it’s yearning for the opposite.

At least a group of people who call themselves “little Christs” and act like it, being at peace with disagreement and disorder because they go about practicing hospitality and seeking God’s blessing on the whole, messed up thing.