Lenten Hiatus

Friends, this is just my yearly post to remind you all that I’ll be fasting from much of my usual computer usage during Lent, including this blog. I will have an article going up on Covenant on Thursday, and God and Comics will continue as scheduled, but otherwise you won’t hear from me until after Easter. I hope each and every one of you has a blessed and holy Lent!

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God and Comics has arrived


Hello friends, just a quick post today to point you towards a new podcast that I am appearing on called God and ComicsIn each episode, I’ll be joined by two other priests, Fr. Matt Stromberg and Fr. Kyle Tomlin, as we talk about our love of comic books and discuss the many things that the medium of comics brings to us: art, humor, drama; stories of love and sacrifice; storytelling that pushes boundaries and opens new ways of thinking and seeing the world. If you love comics too, then you’ll love the show, but even if you’re not a comic book reader, we think you’ll enjoy what the show has to offer.

The first episode is up now. You can download it here. Or, you can download it from iTunes where you can also subscribe to automatically download future episodes. If you like what you hear, we would be grateful if you could give us a good rating on our iTunes page and maybe even a short review. The more of those we get, the more people will be able to find the show in the future.

Thanks for your support! You guys are radder than rad.

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Biblical Catholicism: On Being a 39 Articles Catholic

39The phrase “Prayer Book Catholic” has come to characterize those Anglo-Catholics who not only use the Book of Common Prayer but believe it to be the liturgy par excellence for Catholic worship and teaching the Catholic faith. This is opposed to those Anglo-Catholics who only ever use the prayer book out of necessity but see it as at best incomplete and feel the need to gussy it up with affectations from the liturgies of Rome, the East, or wherever. Prayer Book Catholics believe that Anglicanism is Catholic by its very nature. In that respect, they are the inheritors of the old High Churchman tradition which stressed fidelity to the prayer book as a matter of faith, not simply discipline.

Prayer Book Catholics strenuously defend the catholicity of the prayer book liturgies, but what about the 39 Articles of Religion that are appended to the back of the book? Is it possible for Catholics to defend the Articles or are they simply a relic of the Church of England’s Protestant past that is better off discarded?

The Articles are Arti-Cool

For the Anglican reformers and early divines, the Articles were essential, not as a comprehensive confession of faith but as a clear articulation of the ways in which the post-Reformation Anglican Church sought to keep the Catholic faith from being poisoned by outside influences. Sixteenth century figures like John Jewel and Richard Hooker upheld the Articles as a clear expression of Anglican theology, but in the early decades of the seventeenth century there arose a concerted effort on the part of some disgruntled members of the Church of England to muddle their meaning, so much so that in 1628 King Charles I had a note appended to the Book of Common Prayer that the Articles were always to be understood in their “plain and grammatical sense.” Peter Heylyn explains why in a treatise from 1660:

Each of the parties in those curious points in which the present differences do most consist conceive the Articles of the Church to speak for them, exclusive wholly of the other, but with a notable difference in the application. The Calvinists, by which name they love to be called, endeavor to captivate the sense of the Article and bring it to the bent of their own understanding; but the true English Protestants (whom for distinction sake we may call Confessionists) accommodate, though they do not captivate, their own sense to the sense of the Church, according to the plain and full meaning of the Articles in the points disputed.

Like many seventeenth century divines, Heylyn was attempting to advocate a position of fidelity to the theological principles of Anglicanism that came prior to any other distinctions. Of course, his particularly strong critique of the Calvinist interpretation of the Articles may or may not be correct, but his fundamental point was that the Articles ought to be able to set the terms of theological debate, not Calvinism or any other foreign school of theology or philosophy. He went on to imply that we ought to read the Articles the same way we read the Scriptures, by seeking their meaning in the context of the historical teaching of the Church and plain reason. This follows the position of many of the best and brightest minds in the Church of England in the seventeenth century, including William Beveridge whose brilliant Ecclessia Anglicana Ecclesia Catholica systematically explained each of the 39 Articles using just such an approach.

Tract 90 Blows Up the World

Such an appeal to the primitive Church is consonant with Anglo-Catholic ideals as well, and yet the Articles are thoroughly rejected by many if not most Anglo-Catholics today who have come to accept the same Calvinist interpretation of the Articles that Heylyn attempted to debunk so many centuries ago. Historically, it is not hard to see how such a disregard and even disdain for the Articles developed. In 1841, John Henry Newman’s Tract 90 attempted to convince people of a Catholic interpretation of the Articles, but instead it set off such a firestorm within the Church and English society that Newman never quite recovered from the shock. It became the catalyst for his eventual conversion to Rome.

Admittedly, Tract 90 is a flawed document that sometimes works exactly the kind of magic upon the Articles that Heylyn accused the Calvinists in his day of supplying. Rather than starting with the plain sense of the Articles themselves, the tract starts with a desire to show that the Articles are not quite as unreceptive to Catholic ideas as they might appear. For this reason, both Newman’s supporters and critics have often conceded far too quickly that Newman did not really believe in the Articles, that he was simply trying to make them workable for his already established position. This, however, fails to account not only for Newman’s surprise and despair upon seeing how others reacted to his tract, but also his longstanding defense of the Articles prior to the tract’s writing. In 1834, when Dr. Renn Hampden began arguing that Oxford University ought to do away with its requirement that students subscribe to the 39 Articles, Newman wrote an excoriating fifty page essay called Elucidations in which he defended subscription to the Articles as a good and necessary part of living under the Church’s authority. Many other early Anglo-Catholics followed suit.

Pusey to the Rescue

After the controversy over Tract 90 had begun in earnest, Edward Bouverie Pusey wrote an extensive defense of the tract called The Articles Treated On in Tract 90 Reconsidered and Their Interpretation Vindicated. Despite the title, Pusey’s work does far more than simply defend Newman. In over two hundred pages, Pusey carefully and painstakingly goes through the same subset of the Articles that Newman treated, showing how a Catholic interpretation roots the Articles in both the Scriptures and the mind of the early Church. While Newman’s tract can be accused of working too hard at trying to harmonize the Articles with Roman Catholic teaching, even going so far as to suggest that there is no essential difference between the teaching of the Articles and the teaching of the Council of Trent, Pusey explicitly denies that the Articles have any “Romanism” within them and happily points out the various ways in which they are “anti-Romanist.” He insists, rather, that the Articles are to be understood in light of the universal witness of the early Church to the meaning of Holy Scripture. “This view,” wrote Pusey, “so far from relaxing the meaning of the Articles, gives them greater stringency, and lays us under a deeper obligation ; since now we are bound to receive them not only on the authority of our immediate mother, but of her, ‘the Jerusalem from above,’ who is the common ‘mother of us all.'” In other words, we do well to remember that whatever we teach in our small Anglican corner of the Catholic Church only has meaning if it is consonant with what the Church as a whole has always taught. Since the Articles reflect that very ancient teaching, Pusey believes they need to be not only upheld but given a full-throated proclamation.

The Articles and a Catholic Future

Alas, for far too many Anglo-Catholics today, Pusey’s words are forgotten. But for Pusey, Newman, F.D. Maurice, and many others in the early days of the Oxford Movement, the catholicity of the 39 Articles meant that upholding them was a non-negotiable. Just as we have Prayer Book Catholics today, it would surely be to the Church’s benefit if we also had 39 Articles Catholics today who do not assume that the discussion on how to interpret the Articles properly ended in 1841. Likewise, it would be good if Anglicans of all stripes today would begin to celebrate the place of the Articles within our tradition, not by figuring out how to bend them to our whims, but by approaching them on their own terms as a distillation of the teaching of the historic Catholic Church.

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Finding the One True Authority

30665661I woke to a very interesting article in my feed this morning by an Eastern Orthodox Christian named Mark Meador. It is long, but it is well worth the read, and I applaud Mr. Meador for it. Meador is trying to engage with a very difficult set of challenges about how we are to understand the authority of the Church. I hope he will see what follows as friendly engagement and not as a rejection of what is quite valuable in what he has said. He does a particularly fine job in the first two thirds of the article of detailing the problems of hyper rationalism which lead us in circles when, as Christians, we start asking questions like, “Who or what authority should I place myself under?”

You Can’t Know (Except Apparently You Can)

However, about two thirds of the way in, he changes course rather dramatically and tries to show why Eastern Orthodoxy’s claim to authority is the best and only option for someone who wants to reason his or her way into the One True Church. Albeit, he does so with the enormous caveat that the only way to really and truly ascertain the Church’s authority is to live within the Church and come to know Christ there. Nevertheless, Meador believes that a kind of rational answer to the question “Where is the one true Church” can be found. He suggests that there are two premises upon which to find the answer (the links are his):

The first is that the Apostolic Faith is unchanged. Jesus Christ is the Truth and He “is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The True Church must hold the same faith today that the Apostles preached at Pentecost. Second, the Apostolic Faith must have been continuously preserved without interruption. Christ promised the Church that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all truth” and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” God has not and will not ever abandon the Church, Christ’s own Body, and this includes not letting her fall into error. While individual Christians, whether lay or clerical, may teach heresy, the Church catholic will never espouse false doctrine.

Thus, in order to be considered to possess the Apostolic Faith, the church we are looking for must hold the same faith as the Apostles and must have continuously done so since Pentecost.

There is a certain inescapable irony in that Meador grounds both of his premises, without caveat or further explanation, upon two isolated verses of Scripture (using the NIV no less!). Given that his argument against Protestantism in general–which, as I’ve recently argued, is not actually a thing–is based on the notion that blanket appeals to Scripture do not hold up to scrutiny because they rely so strongly on the interpretive whims of individuals, why then should anyone trust his claim that these two verses do what he says they do?

Anglicanism vs. Eastern Orthodoxy: Old Church Smackdown!

Having offered a set of premises that he believes lead inevitably to Orthodoxy, he proceeds to knock down the straw man by showing how only the Eastern Orthodox Church can satisfy these two requirements. His brief paragraph on Anglicanism is fairly gracious in its assessment of why he believes we fail to meet the mark:

I don’t consider Anglicans to be Protestants, properly speaking. They have a plausible claim to tactile Apostolic Succession, being able to trace their ordinations back to the early church through the Roman Catholic Church. However, since the Reformation any claims to Apostolicity on their part have been undercut by a doctrinal and liturgical diversity that was unknown to the Apostles, the Church Fathers, and the early church. Even for those remnants of Anglicanism that hold to a faith closely resembling that of the early church, they still part ways when it comes to ecclesiology. They embrace an “invisible church” theology that was unthinkable to the Apostles and the early church.

Certainly, not all Eastern Orthodox apologists would be willing to grant that Anglicans have a legitimate claim to tactile succession, so I appreciate the gesture. And there is a part of his critique here that I think is totally valid. The “doctrinal and liturgical diversity” that he speaks of is a major flaw in the way that modern Anglican churches have been living out their faith. But Meador suggests that this is a problem that goes back to the Reformation, as if it is an inherent flaw in Anglicanism, when in fact it is a modern problem borne of Anglican churches ignoring classical Anglicanism, particularly when it comes to authorized liturgy, which has only begun to become increasingly diverse in the last forty years. (For an interesting recent reflection on some of how that came to be, see this article by Fr. Matthew Olver.) Yet, despite the liturgical diversity, by and large, the Anglican Communion still abides under a form of liturgy very much the same as it received in the Reformation, and even the sometimes dreaded 1979 Book of Common Prayer in America does not take us so far off the beaten path as to be utterly lost to any notion of connection with the early Church. In fact, the prayer book tradition as a whole is what has kept Anglicanism as a whole from losing touch with the doctrine and practices of the apostles, despite the rather severely disturbing eccentric practices and teachings that have sprung up in some places.

Moreover, Anglicanism has never had an “invisible church” theology. It is one of the great points of contention between Anglicans and many of our Protestant brothers and sisters who we have great agreement with in other areas. We explicitly confess a visible Church. “The visible Church of Christ,” says Article XIX of the 39 Articles, “is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same,” which includes, among other things, the proper elements, proper order, bishops and priests properly ordained, and a  liturgical action that is grounded in an ongoing community of faith. Everyone, of course, acknowledges the invisibility of how faith is at work in the heart of the individual believer, but Anglicans agree with the Eastern Orthodox that the Church is visible, tangible, and grounded in the Sacraments, in the ongoing life of the community, and in history. There is no such thing as invisible communion. Anglicans confidently affirm the teaching of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

And Then There Were Two

So does that mean that Anglicanism should be considered a viable source of authority under the premises that Meador establishes? Well, it depends a bit on how one understands those premises, which is the problem with such an exercise in the first place, but at least by our own self-understanding, Anglicans would not have a problem meeting the bar he sets. At the time of the Reformation, the Church of England held and kept the faith once delivered to the saints. The Reformation removed some false teachings that had crept into the life of the Church and dusted off some old teachings that had become obscured because of those same false teachings. Nevertheless, the reformers and early Anglican divines were not attempting to establish a new, purer Church in England because the old one had disappeared but rather to rehabilitate the Church that was already there, to cure the sick not raise the dead.

Splitting Hair(esies)

biggestObviously, we have to admit that there were problems in the Church of England at the time of the Reformation because otherwise no reformation would have been necessary, but does the existence of problems and course corrections really indicate that there is no continuity in the life of the Church? If that is so, then Eastern Orthodoxy would fail to meet these standards just as surely as Anglicanism would. Why ROCOR? Why the Old Calendarists versus the new? Why the Chalcedonian split which many Orthodox today perceive to be a matter that need not divide the Church any longer going forward? Of course, one could simply say that in each of these cases, the matter under discussion is not about the heart of the faith, but rather about something of a lesser order, but nevertheless, these divisions were and are important enough that Orthodox Christians were willing to divide over them. Plus, saying that these divisions are less or more important than the types of division that have happened in the west forces us to wade once again into the waters of determining what is and what is not a true authority based on little more than our own personal beliefs.

Unquestionably, the Anglican Communion has an authority problem. A major authority problem. We acknowledge this and own it for all its sinfulness, just as many Orthodox are willing to acknowledge and own the sinfulness of the divided state of Orthodox jurisdictions in America and western Europe. And there are many ways in which Eastern Orthodoxy has been better able to preserve traditional Christian faith than Anglicanism has, in part because Orthodoxy has better structures of maintaining community than we do and in part because, for various historical reasons, Eastern Orthodoxy is only just now starting to face the same kind of secularism that western Christianity has come up against since the enlightenment. That being said, as I argued a few years ago, the Eastern Orthodox apologetic is weakened rather than strengthened by the notion that nothing ever changes in Orthodoxy and therefore the Church has never needed to reform. The premises that Meador offers for seeking out the authority of the One True Church are good premises, as far as they go, but they are incomplete in the way that he explains them. Yes, the faith has been once delivered to the saints and may not be added to or subtracted from. Yes, there must be continuity between the Church of the apostles and the Church of today if the Church of today is to claim to be the early Church’s legitimate heir. But there is no such thing as a church that never has to reform. That can only be achieved if we live in a vacuum, or if the Church becomes populated by something other than sinners. Scripture, reason, and the teaching of the Church over time are things that keep the Church grounded, but they also correct us over time when we go off course. The Eastern Orthodox Churches are not immune from this, and there are some things in their practice, even now, that a return to the sources of authority would help to correct. The Anglican Churches can and must do the same.

Ancient Authority vs. Postmodern Apologetics

So where is true Christian authority to be found? Not in any particular apologetic tactic, but in the Scripture first where God speaks plainly, then in the teaching of the Church about how Scripture is to be read and received, then in plain reason about how both Scripture and the natural world point unmistakably to the glory of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ. People come up with all sorts of strange things when they go off on their own with their Bibles, but that does not negate the fact that the Bible is a beacon of truth through which God speaks with a clear authority. Not because the Bible is magic, but because it contains the apostolic witness which lived in the earliest Christian communities even before the New Testament was written down. Yes, the community of faith is necessary to receive God’s Word and hear it properly, in its fulness, but that Word speaks to the Church, not the other way around.

There is something strangely postmodern about the notion that words on a page do not have real meaning, or that it is impossible for the Holy Spirit to speak to us through them. Yet both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists seem to resort to this sort of postmodern critique over and over again in order to try to persuade Christians that another authority is necessary. As an Anglican, I do believe that another authority is necessary, but not because the Scripture is incomplete or incapable of holding that prime place of authority all on its own. Rather, it is because the Scripture itself directs us to the Church as the means by which the Holy Spirit comes to us, and the great saints of both the east and the west have always been willing to look to the Bible as their primary authority, even and especially when controversies have been tearing the Church apart. The Anglican critique of WeAreTheOneTrueChurchism ™ is not that the true Church is invisible and only in our hearts, but that the true Church is visible and visibly broken despite the oneness that Scripture assures us has been given to us by the Holy Spirit. And every minute we spend trying to convince the world that we are the One True Church in her entirety, rather than trying to reconcile the broken pieces of the Church into the one body that Jesus commands us to be, is a minute spent in sin rather than in building up the Body of Christ for the sake of the world.

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Jesus Wants You to Eat Him

San_Leocadio_Christ_with_the_HostAs someone who likes to eat–and someone who has developed stomach problems over the years which limit what I can eat–I find it fascinating the way in which both the fall of man and our salvation are wrapped up in eating. Mysterious as parts of the creation account may be, there is something completely, blatantly obvious about the idea that the world was plunged into sin and darkness by the eating of forbidden fruit. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden, which was fine with our first human parents, right up until the moment that the serpent convinced Eve that if she ate that fruit she would be like God. That must have been the same line she used on Adam, who seemed to think that eating was a much better idea than obeying. They wanted to be like God, so they ate something which they thought would give them a piece of God’s power. They ate the fruit because they wanted to become God. They wanted to take God into themselves, to have His knowledge, to steal His mojo.

In many ways, this is still how we approach the world. In our day and age, we no longer believe in the One True God, or even in the idea that there could be a One True God, but we have many gods to take His place — gods of entertainment, power, politics, sex, you name it. We worship them because we want to be them. We attempt to consume them, to take them into ourselves so that we might have what they have so that we can then be done with them. This consumption takes many forms, of course, not all of them literal. We consume ideas and products just as adeptly as we consume pastries and pasta. We get outraged at the stuff we’re supposed to get outraged at, depending on which set of gods we wish to ingest that day. We buy whatever has been endorsed by our favorite celebrities, because if we use his toothpaste or her lip gloss, we might just become the gods we’ve always aspired to be.

And then the One True God comes along and spoils the fun by becoming incarnate of the flesh of the Virgin Mary. While we are busy consuming in order to become gods, God is busy self-emptying in order to become us. All this time, we’ve been trying to eat our way to the top, and then Jesus stands before us, God in human flesh, and offers us Himself to eat, His own flesh and blood. And we don’t want to eat Him. We turn our noses up like children presented with vegetables.

Jesus fed the multitudes bread that they could consume. When He did that, they followed Him because they wanted to see what else they could get out of Him. But He rejected their consumerism. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves,” says Jesus (John 6:26). The kind of eating that we want to do and the kind that Jesus wants to give us are totally different. We want to have Him as a possession, to keep Him handy like a genie in a bottle, to use Him and then spit Him out. We want Him to do whatever it is we need Him to do–to comfort us, to make us happy, to entertain us, to give us a “spiritual charge,” to give us a sense of identity, to tell us that we’re just fine the way we are–and then we want Him to be gone until we need Him again. We want Him to be our comfort food, totally filling, totally designed to make us feel good, totally disposable and forgettable. We want to rot our teeth on Him, but that is not what He is offering. He wants us to eat Him, but in a totally different way and for a totally different purpose:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. (John 6:53-57)

Eating is not simply consuming. It is also joining. We are what we eat. We become what we eat, and what we eat becomes us. The consuming of food does not just fulfill a desire for us, it actually transforms us and builds us into who we are. If we eat good food, our bodies become healthy and whole. If we eat junk, we become junk. Either way, eating is never just a utilitarian exercise. It is what makes us human, what binds us to the earth. We do not simply take possession of that which we eat. We merge with it. And when we eat God, we merge with Him. When we eat the very source of life, we become life. We do not possess God, nor do we possess life. We become it. Jesus gives Himself up, even to death, so that we may eat Him and thereby become a part of Him, just as He thereby becomes a part of us. Every Holy Communion is salvation in miniature.

In our modern quest for spiritual awakening, it is popular for pastors and new age hipsters alike to say, “Do whatever feeds you.” While this is a dangerous prescription for many reasons, it does reveal an important truth. Whatever we feed will grow. Whatever we starve will die. If you go blindly searching for something that tastes good, you will eat a lot of bad meals and feed a lot of bad appetites until they grow out of control and swallow you whole. But Jesus wants you to eat Him. The Lord kept the fruit away from you in the garden not because He wanted to deprive you but because it would not have been good for you to have it. Jesus wants you to eat Him because He wants you to grow. He wants you to eat Him because He wants you to live.

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There is No Such Thing as Protestantism


From the Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, Illinois. Photo by Robert Lawton.

Death is still segregated in American society. You may be surrounded by diversity in your school or your workplace, but when you die, you stick with your own. There are black and white funeral homes, Jewish funeral homes, Irish and Italian funeral homes, etc. It may not be like that all over the country, but it is certainly that way in the three states that I have lived in. And the biggest divide amongst the funeral homes is not racial or ethnic or even inter-faith but inter-Christian. There are Catholic funeral homes and there are Protestant funeral homes. Which means, though you may define yourself however you want–call yourself an Evangelical, or a Lutheran, or a Reformed Calvinist, or a Baptist, or a Quaker, or even an Anglo-Catholic–but at the end of the day, you will die a Protestant. That is your only option, and for America, that is considered good enough.

Generic Protestantism

It is considered good enough because America is a Protestant nation. This is more deeply true for us than it has ever been true that Sweden is Lutheran or that England is Anglican. I daresay it may be more true than it is that Ireland is Catholic or that Greece is Orthodox. For Americans, Protestantism is in our bones. It is in our DNA. Jefferson and Adams and Washington were not exactly Christians, but they were most certainly Protestants. We live and breathe Protestantism. By that, I mean that we are so completely attuned to the idea that Christianity is something we choose how to live for ourselves, based on our personal criteria about what seems right, that we never question that assumption. That is simply what Christianity is: personal, free, and uninhibited by tradition. This is not the classical or historical definition of Protestantism, but it is the one that American Protestants have adopted over time. Even those Americans who choose highly traditional forms of Christianity like Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are operating out of a kind of Protestantism. The tradition we choose for ourselves is no tradition at all, and yet we affirm our right to choose it all the same.

And we are never more Protestant then when we are using the word Protestant as a substitute for the word generic. This is where the idea of the Protestant funeral home becomes particularly absurd. What is it that makes a funeral home Protestant? They do not seem to have statements of belief, nor any particular practices in caring for the dead that make them any different from their Catholic counterparts. What makes them Protestant is that they exist to serve those who have subscribed to any variety of Christian faith, no matter how passionate or nominal, so long as it is not Roman Catholic. They exist to affirm your right to choose your own Christianity by blending all forms of Christianity together into a thin soup of platitudes.


Choose Your Own Adventure

There are so many layers of irony to the American Protestant experience that it is difficult to peal them all back at once. The American Protestant chooses his Christianity because he believes that Christianity can only be chosen, yet he inherits that belief as a kind of tradition from those who came before him and he believes it almost subconsciously, without really questioning where it came from. He believes it every bit as blindly as the uneducated Roman Catholic who thinks that holy water and saint medals are magic and that you will only be able to sell your house if you bury a statue of Saint Joseph in the back yard. Nevertheless, the more strongly the American Protestant believes that each person must choose his own Christianity, the more generic his options become. Try going to a “Protestant” service some time at a campground or a private school function, anywhere in which all Protestants are supposed to be Protestant together. Suddenly, there is no difference at all between Methodists and Mennonites, Calvinists and Arminians, Lutherans and Baptists. We shave off the hard edges for the sake of momentary unity. We give up our distinctions and distinctiveness for the sake of upholding what we have in common. And once all manner of diversity of thought and practice has been sanitized away, all we are left with in common is our choice to be Protestant in the first place. We are unified by our disunity that we have freely chosen for ourselves together. (Try saying that three times fast.)

Autonomous Prime

But the greatest irony of all is that there never really was a thing called Protestantism to begin with. To be sure, there are many Protestantisms. There are many Christian traditions that have evolved separately from one another since the Reformation. And there are things that these traditions hold in common with one another, though the areas of overlap vary drastically depending on which two groups of Reformation Christians you are trying to compare. But the differences are real and they are important. I have a great deal in common with my Baptist friends and neighbors, indeed much more than I have in common with those who do not profess the Christian faith at all. But my Baptist friends and neighbors, regardless of which Baptist confession they affirm, believe that Baptism is something we do for God, not something that God does for us, and so it can only be validly entered into by an adult or at least by a child past a certain age of maturity. On the other hand, I believe that Baptism is God’s work, not ours, that it is the application of His promise of salvation, and that to refuse to baptize infants is not only wrong but a grave sin that denies the children in question real grace. That is not a small difference. That is, quite literally, everything. But in the American conception of Protestantism, the heart of our faith is not unity in essentials but unity for unity’s sake. To point out the truth that Baptists and Anglicans are not yet unified in Christ is to be intolerant of our individual right to have Christianity our own way. It is to commit the cardinal sin of American Protestantism, to suggest that truth is more important than autonomy.

Protestantism vs. the Reformation

None of this is meant to be an affront to the Reformation or our inheritance of its riches as Anglicans. Indeed, one of the great gifts of Anglicanism is that we are permitted to receive and consider the great lights of all Christian traditions. We need not read only Anglican reformers or Anglican thinkers (though it would do us some good on the whole if more of us would include at least a few early Anglican thinkers in our repertoire). I am grateful to the Reformation for the recovery of the doctrines of grace and sola fide. Moreover, I do not think there is anything wrong with using the term Protestant as a descriptive in certain instances. I have no trouble, for instance, with the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America,” because Protestant Episcopal is a way of describing our church as being in the historic apostolic succession but not through the Roman hierarchy. I am also aware, though somewhat skeptical, of the claim that Protestant as a term is less about protesting against Rome than it is about protesting in the older sense of the word, which means to confess and bear witness. If that is how you want to use the term, fine. But what are we confessing? Why do we have multiple “denominations” from which we confess if not for the fact that the confessions themselves are divergent? I have heard many people argue that the advent of multiple denominations is merely about giving Christians different flavors of Christianity from which to choose. Nothing could possibly be more American than that.

Reformational Christianity is quite real and quite rich. And we who are inheritors of the Reformation, in our various traditions, are much in need of serious ecumenical work so that we may, as divided Christians, repent of the sin of our divisions and seek together unity in the truth of the Gospel. But Protestantism is an invention. Calling ourselves Protestants as a way of ignoring our differences only serves to hang our faith on something less real and less solid than the cross. Generic Protestantism is a darkened room built to keep us from looking in the mirror and really seeing ourselves or our brothers and sisters in Christ. The sooner we dispense with the fiction that we are already unified through our affirmation of personal choice, the sooner the real quest for Christian unity can actually begin.

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If I Were the Next Presiding Bishop

Several of you have asked what I would do if I got elected the next Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 2015. Since I was not shy about what I would do if I became Archbishop of Canterbury, I figured I would not be shy about this either. Apologies for any technical issues with the production. I am still trying to get used to the newest version of iMovie.

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We Need an Evangelical Wake-Up Call

406px-FlaggWakeUpAmericaEvangelical is a cultural buzzword in America today. For many people, the term implies a certain kind of politics. It also implies a whole range of socio-cultural phenomena from home schooling to Christian rock concerts and everything in between. None of this, however, has much to do with the word’s theological meaning. Evangelical comes from the Greek word euangelion from which we get the English word Gospel. An Evangelical is a person whose life is centered on the Good News about Jesus Christ. For early Protestants, being called Evangelical was a way of identifying with the Sacrifice of the cross. In later centuries, as the Evangelical movement emerged across denominational lines, being an Evangelical meant being committed to the teaching that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, accepting the Bible as the divinely inspired Word of God, and sharing the faith far and wide.

The Evangelical movement in Anglicanism began in the eighteenth century. While it quickly evolved in a number of different directions, it was essentially a renewal movement. During the preceding century, the Church of England had become lax and set in its ways. Evangelical Anglicans sought to remind the Church that the Gospel is the true center of our life, not anything else, and that the Gospel is something worth being excited about. As you might imagine, this stirred up a hornet’s nest amidst those who felt just fine about the sleepy status quo. The cries that followed against the dangers of “enthusiasm” are hard not to snicker at today. A parishioner of mine once told me that upon a visit to a parish church in England, he saw a plaque on the wall commemorating a long dead vicar of the past “who served this parish faithfully for forty years without enthusiasm.”

Charles in Charge


The Rev. Charles Simeon (1759 – 1836)

At its best, the early Evangelical movement in Anglicanism sought not to undermine or replace the Anglican formularies but to embrace the Evangelical spirit that was already at the heart of them. Among the great Evangelical lights of this period, Charles Simeon holds a special place. In addition to being a great preacher and evangelist, Simeon was deeply devoted to the Book of Common Prayer. In a famous series of sermons called The Excellency of the Liturgy, Simeon explains the biblical roots of liturgy in general and of the prayer book’s liturgies in particular. While he acknowledges that pastors in every church body may appeal to the Scriptures, he says that Anglican priests have a distinct “advantage” because “in addition to the Scriptures, they have other authorities to which they may refer in confirmation of the truths they utter.” Those “other authorities” are the formularies. “The Articles, Homilies, and Liturgy of the Church of England are an authorized exposition of the sense in which all her members profess to understand the Scriptures. To these therefore we appeal as well as to the sacred Records.” Amongst the formularies, the Book of Common Prayer holds place of privilege for Simeon. He argued that each piece of the liturgy for Holy Communion in particular confirms and rightly lays out the biblical teachings of grace and the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, all Anglican priests ought to conform their teaching to the prayer book’s authority:

As Members of the Church of England, we have a right to expect that the discourses of Ministers shall correspond with the Liturgy of our Church. Certainly, in the first instance, the holy Scriptures are to be our guide: but, as all profess to have the Scriptures on their side, let us bring to our aid that excellent compendium of religion which we have been considering.

Because the prayer book is in the language of the people and can be in the hands and homes of the people, Simeon believed the people ought to make use of it as a measuring stick upon which to determine the fidelity of their pastors to the Christian faith as Anglicans have received it.

Evangelical Fullness

Simeon was quite right to call on us to embrace the prayer book as a sure guide to Scriptural truth. A lot of young Evangelicals in Simeon’s day had little patience for the prayer book, or for authority of any kind beyond their own personal interpretations of the Scripture. Many second generation Evangelicals left the Church of England in hopes of creating new, purer churches or joining one of the “free churches.” Simeon argued passionately not only that his fellow Evangelicals need not leave but that they should not leave. It is not simply that an Evangelical can find what he wants in the prayer book tradition. It is that in the prayer book tradition, he finds the fullness of what it means to be Evangelical. This is not because the prayer book is a magical document handed down from on high, but because it contains a distilling of centuries of the Church’s teaching, honed and shaped by the best minds of each generation and the movement of the Holy Spirit. The prayer book contains the fruit of Ecumenical Councils and the scriptural teaching of the Fathers, freed from any undue burdens added by the accretions of later ages. Moreover, it is itself some eighty percent Scripture, repurposed into prayer. The prayer book is a gem of unimaginable value. It allows us to hear God’s words of grace and forgiveness to us and it gives us God’s own words to offer back to Him in worship.

The Tangible Gospel

At the heart of the prayer book is the liturgy of the Holy Eucharist in which Christ draws us to Himself. Simeon’s own conversion was intimately tied to this liturgy. As a young man in college, preparing to receive Holy Communion for the first time, he had been terrified by the realization of his own sinfulness. But after reading Bishop Thomas Wilson’s A Short and Plain Instruction for the Lord’s Supper, his eyes were opened to the beauty of grace and the fact that in the Sacrament, Jesus gives Himself freely to us even in our sin. The next time he went to receive, on Easter Sunday, 1779, Simeon heard in the words of the liturgy the “peace that passeth all understanding.” He found there the comfort that he had yearned for his whole life. Suddenly, the Sacrament was no longer a judgment but the very way in which Christ Himself had come to set him free.

To be truly Anglican is to be truly Evangelical. And as Simeon shows us, to be truly Evangelical is to be truly liturgical and sacramental. The other accoutrements of popular Evangelicalism, the music, the culture–all of that is really secondary to the freedom and comfort of God’s grace poured out for us in the preaching of the Word and the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood. If the liturgy bores us, it can only be because we have forgotten what it really is, just as they had in Simeon’s day. We need men and women like Simeon today who can bring that fire back to us, reigniting in us a love for the treasures that we have inherited. It is time for the sleepy status quo to be knocked once more out of complacency. It is time to wake up.

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Ask an Anglican: Sunday School and Praying with our Kids

Pierre-Édouard_Frère_-_Child_Praying_at_Mother's_Knee_-_Walters_371330Jill writes:

What are the best prayers for my children to say? My daughter is 2 years old, and my son is 5 months old.  My daughter says “Amen” and “Jesus,” and I want to show her the right direction. We pray “God is great, God is good…” for grace before dinner and “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (new version)” before bed as well as sing “Jesus Loves Me.” The Christian education for children at our local Episcopal church looks very much like the children’s ministries at the consumerist, Evangelical churches down the street. How do I reconcile this? I want my kids to connect with God in the ways that he intended. Thank you.

This is a fantastic question and one that I am interested in both as a priest and as a parent. We want to raise our children to know Christ and be known by Him. We want them to be both educated and engaged by their faith. Yet far too often we underestimate our children and attempt to entertain them rather than giving them the life giving Gospel that they so deeply need.

The History of Sunday School

Believe it or not, there has not always been Sunday School. The very first Sunday Schools began in the Church of England in the late eighteenth century and they were viewed with tremendous skepticism at the time. In ages prior, children were simply expected to be a part of the worshipping community. From the Reformation onward, Confirmation was a time of special preparation for children. The Catechism in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and all subsequent BCPs in America (until 1979) is geared towards teaching the faith to children who were baptized as infants. The content is minimal – the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and a bit about the Sacraments – but the Catechism itself is in plain and surprisingly adult language. Children were expected to rise to their potential.

The first Sunday Schools began in the Church of England in the late eighteenth century, and they were more than just an effort to educate children in the faith. They were part of an effort to educate children in general. This was part of what made them controversial. The class system in Britain  made the idea of teaching poor children to read anathema to those in the upper echelons of society. But that was exactly what Sunday Schools did. They became the basis of church schools. They met on Sundays because children were expected to work during the rest of the week just like the adults. Evangelical Anglicans like Robert Raikes were among the pioneers of the Sunday School movement. The Evangelical movement within Anglicanism focused on a return to the basics of Christian faith for each individual believer, which meant that greater literacy and a far better knowledge of Holy Scripture was essential to the Christian life. Later, in the nineteenth century, Anglo-Catholics also became involved in the Sunday School movement as they began to take up residence in long forgotten slum parishes. It is one of the few areas prior to modern times in which Evangelical Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics had a common mission, even though they approached it separately.

There Used to Be No Such Thing as “Teenagers”

The first youth groups did not begin to appear in churches until the 1940s. It was in that generation that the distinctive notion of “teenagers” as a separate stage of development between childhood and adulthood began to emerge. This led eventually to the setting up of Sunday School programs that met during church services, offering particularly older children, but eventually younger ones as well, the opportunity to have their own age-appropriate worship instead of being stuck with the adults. Meanwhile, in post industrialized nations where children were no longer expected to work, adolescents suddenly had a lot more free time on their hands. Youth groups helped keep young people plugged into the Church socially. The rise of youth groups dramatically changed the look and feel of Sunday School, even as they have also reshaped worship in many churches.

Today the Church no longer serves as a social hub in most parts of America and other western nations. There is rampant decline in the Church, and one of the responses from Christians has been a frantic effort to make Church “relevant” to young people. In the process, we have lost a lot of the basics. Our Evangelical forbears would not be pleased. Sunday School curriculums have become moralistic, often more concerned with making kids happy than with teaching them Christian truth. In a lot of places, youth group has replaced Church for young people, and as those young people have aged, the few who stick around into adulthood have sought to make Church more like youth group since that is all they have ever known. Of course, most do not stick around, and no amount of hipster music or emotional pandering will change that. What children and teenagers need more than anything else are churches that will tell it to them straight, where the emphasis is on Christian truth and Christ’s love rather than on us.

If You Build It, They Will Come

So how do we get there? I wish I had the answer. Having better Sunday School curricula would help, particularly if we can find ways of connecting the curriculum to core doctrine rather than just to whatever is happening that day. Lectionary based curriculums, while they may have some merits, are largely not going to be able to do this because the three-year lectionary that most churches now use is not centered on doctrine in a systematic way. I firmly believe that it is possible to have curriculums that teach the faith in a straight-forward, age appropriate manner, but they largely do not exist yet. Creating them will require a concentrated effort. No individual parish is going to be able to do it themselves. Dioceses and other larger Christian bodies need to come together to develop resources. And that will only happen if there are lay people willing to champion it. Lay leaders who are willing to work across parish, diocesan, and even jurisdictional lines could change the focus of the whole Church on this. Supportive clergy can and should be looking for lay leaders whom they can raise up and equip for such an effort. We have a lot of work to do.

God Already Loves Our Kids

But in the mean time, how can Jill and others in her position ensure that their children are getting what they need? Well, from Jill’s description, it sounds like she is doing the right things already. When our children are small, we ought to talk to them about Jesus in an age appropriate way. Saying simple prayers like the ones Jill mentions, singing songs, and having pictures or icons or crosses in the home is a good idea. Talking about Jesus first thing in the morning, before meals, and before bed is also important. As they get older, they should learn first the Lord’s Prayer and then other prayers as appropriate. The old Catechism may not be the easiest for someone today to use with their kids, but the stuff in that Catechism is still what is best for them to learn: The Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, a little something about the Sacraments. I am currently working with a group across the Episcopal Church that is trying to develop a catechism for families that will center around just these things.

By and large, though, the best thing we can do to encourage the development of our children’s faith is to be faithful ourselves. The more faithful we are, and the more transparent we are about our faith in what we say and how we live our lives, the more our children will see and understand. Our example of faithfulness will stay with them long after Sunday School lessons fade away from their memories.

Moreover, we need to trust God to do His work of creating faith in our children. As the father of a child with autism, I take great comfort in the fact that God reaches out to my children through His Word and through their receiving of the Sacraments, even when they cannot fully grasp what is happening intellectually. After all, none of us really fully understands the mystery of God. And thankfully, our salvation is not dependent on us understanding. Faith is not about our intellects. It is about our hearts. Having your children in a good Sunday School program, in a church that teaches Christian truth and that values the presence of children, is very important. But if your children have been baptized into Christ, and if they are receiving His Body and Blood (or being prepared to receive it) and they are hearing His Word on a regular basis, then you can be at peace. God is far more faithful than we are. He made a promise to your children on the day of their baptisms, a promise that through the blood of Jesus they would be healed and made whole. Take comfort in that promise. God will never forget it.

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Biblical Catholicism: Battling Newman’s Ghost

Image via http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/3ob7e2Last week, I had the privilege of visiting Nashotah House Seminary for the first time. While there, I was told that there is a coffeehouse on campus that has an old Anglo-Catholic joke worked into its menu. If you want to order a cup of coffee to drink inside the coffeehouse, it is called a Pusey, after the great Oxford Movement Father Edward Bouverie Pusey, but if you want to leave with that same cup of coffee in a to-go cup, it is called a Newman, after that other great Oxford Movement Father John Henry Newman who famously left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church in 1845. I snickered when I heard about this, though I also very quickly thought of some of my friends who have made the same journey that Newman made and how they would not care for the joke. It implies that Newman left the Church, when in fact, my friends would argue, what he did was to wake up from the dream of a Church that never was and join the only true Church that has ever existed. The funny thing is though, from a classical Anglican perspective, neither one of these ideas is quite correct. Newman left the Church of England, but not the Church of Christ, because from our perspective, the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church is to be found in both the Roman and Anglican Communions.

The Newman Effect

Ever since Newman’s conversion, Anglican Catholics have been in a state of perpetual embarrassment. We criticize Newman’s motives for leaving (or at least some of us do), but at the same time we worry incessantly that he might have been right. “I saw my face in that mirror and I was a monophysite,” Newman famously wrote in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, giving the reasons for his conversion. Newman came to believe that if there is only one Church, then the Roman Catholic Church is really the only contender. While the Church of England was a mess, the Roman Catholic Church offered the surety of unbroken history and unassailably clear lines of authority. Anglicanism has many treasures to offer, but absolute certainty is not among them.

Absolutely Fabulous

Of course, if absolute certainty is what you crave, Roman Catholicism is not the only game in town. The exodus of Anglicans to Eastern Orthodoxy in the last half century is well documented and includes many of Orthodoxy’s leading lights in the English speaking world, from Kallistos Ware to Frederica Mathewes-Green and many more. Plenty of Protestant confessions also have their own “one true church” seal of approval, but Rome and the East have always been the places that have attracted the most attention from nervous Anglo-Catholics. It is not hard to see why. All three of our traditions share a common ecclesial structure, a common view of history and the importance of continuity in the Church, a common emphasis on the Sacraments as central to the Christian life, and an awareness of the importance of the Church herself as the locus of salvation that is absent from many (though not all) forms of Protestantism. To put the matter plainly, if you want to be a Catholic with anything approaching authenticity, you really only have three options, and when two of those options claim with absolute certainty to be the Catholic Church in her fulness, staying in the one theoretically Catholic body that cannot make the same claim can feel awfully uncomfortable.

Ignoring the Obvious

Yet the very fact that Anglican Catholics are able to bear witness to the brokenness of the Church may in fact be our greatest asset and our most holy charism. I realize even as I say this that there is a danger here of either seeming like I am trying to make a virtue out of a vice or painting a caricature of Rome and the East, neither of which I wish to do. The brokenness of the Christian Church is not something to be celebrated, but rather something to be lamented. It is a crisis that continues to weaken the witness of Christians around the world and thereby to give the enemy comfort in his quest to keep souls from finding their true rest in Christ. But while Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox join us in that lament, their apologetic claims place certain limitations on their ability to see the scope of the problem. There is a cognitive dissonance that comes with acknowledging that the Church is one even though Christians are massively divided. The solution for most Christians has been to tell a story that erases the dissonance. For Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, that story is that they represent the true Church in its entirety, and that the unfortunate reality of other Christians – “separated brethren” – in no way diminishes the Church’s oneness, tragic though the separation may be. For many Protestants, the answer is an invisible Church that unites all of us who hold true faith even if we are divided by denomination or jurisdiction.

Come on, come on, do the Institution with me

The Anglican understanding of the brokenness of the Church is at the same time both painful and beautiful. Unlike many other Protestants, we have no invisible Church to fall back on. “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same” (Article XIX). We believe that the Church is by necessity and design one, and that this oneness cannot be reduced to an abstract idea or a feeling of connection. Many people lay the charge against Catholics of all sorts that we are too institutional. I will not disagree that there are times when Catholics have made our institutions into idols, but strictly speaking, there is no other way for the Church to be than institutional. The Church is an institute, as Calvin himself so famously pointed out. The Church is alive. She has structures. There is meat on the bones. We move away from that reality at our own peril.

Yet, at the same time, unlike other Catholics, Anglicans are able to acknowledge, with a heavy heart, that the Church is broken, that in fact Anglicanism itself would have no need to exist if it were not so. I do not suggest that this is by design. In fact, it is quite by accident of history, though such an accident as has proven to be providential. Anglicanism was meant to be a temporary refuge for the historic Church of England until such time as the Church in Europe was prepared to repair herself. Cranmer and Jewel and Hooker could never have dreamed that a global Communion would arise, or that the missionary efforts of the English Church would bring millions to know Christ. All the same, even as they defended the catholicity of the Church of England and her settlement of doctrine and practice, they recognized with great distress just how deeply the Church has been wounded by division. They also recognized a calling for Anglicans to seek unity, not on a false or platitudinous basis, but on the basis of humility and, if necessary, at the cost of our own continued existence. It is one of the reasons why, though most of the great Anglican figures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries affirmed that episcopacy was given by God as necessary for the life of the Church as a whole, they never denied that the Protestant churches on the continent were truly churches but rather held out the hope that some day episcopacy would become a gift that the Church of England could give back to them. It is also why the Elizabethan prayer book does not contain the condemnations of the pope as antichrist that can be found in some Protestant confessions, and why Hooker insists that the Roman Church is wrong about justification but that this does not invalidate their existence as a true Church.

Anglicanism of the Gaps

It is not easy to live in the dissonance of a broken Church. But there is a kind of holiness that is imparted through honest suffering. The Anglican Catholic accepts both that the Church is one and visible, and that the Church is currently messy and wrought with divisions. That truth is painful to bear, but it also spurs us to work for the healing of the Church, to rise above mere polemics and truly seek to engage our brothers and sisters in Christ, to learn over and over again to see Jesus. When Newman looked in the mirror, he saw a monophysite staring back at him, and it haunted him. When I look in the mirror, I see a broken sinner who has been covered by the blood of Jesus and made whole in spite of himself. The charism of Anglican Catholicism is to carry the cross of a broken Church, all the while remembering with hope and joy that it is the same cross upon which our freedom was obtained on Calvary. We are to stand in the middle of the breaches and fissures between Christians and allow ourselves to be crucified there with Jesus for the sake of the world.

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