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

CharlesSimeon

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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A Conversation with Philip Turner

The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner is a well known theologian and ethicist whose books include “Sex, Money, and Power” and “The Crisis in Moral Teaching in the Episcopal Church.” He is the former dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and he continues to serve as Vice President of the Anglican Communion Institute. I sat down for a brief interview with Dr. Turner in Dallas earlier this year. His insights are brilliant and straight to the point. I hope everyone will take a few minutes to hear what he has to say.

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From the Church, to You, With Love

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“The Church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” – Saint Augustine

Dear John,

I got the letters that you sent me. At first, I wasn’t sure that I would respond, because it seemed like you really just needed some space and some time alone. “Just sit in stillness with these words for a while,” you said, “because whether you believe they’re right or wrong, they’re real to us, and that’s the whole point.” I get it. I’m not writing this to you to try to make you feel any more pressure or awkwardness. And I’m not just trying to pick a fight. Really, I don’t want to fight you.

But John, I can’t just stay silent when you say things like that to me. I love you too much for that.

Here’s the thing, John, a lot of what you said to me is stuff I totally agree with. You said that worship shouldn’t be entertainment. I couldn’t agree more. You said that I shouldn’t just be waiting around, trying to get people to come to me, but that I should be out in the world, ministering to the needs of the poor and the oppressed. You’re totally right about that. But when you say these things to me, it makes me wonder if you really know who I am.

I don’t mean that in a snarky or glib way. I’m not trying to make you feel bad. You’ve spent a lot of time in a world that calls itself by my name but that doesn’t really have much in common with me. I don’t do light shows, John. I don’t have coffee bars and comfy couches. I don’t think you’re really angry at me. I think you’re angry at an impostor dressed in some of my clothes who is otherwise nothing like me at all.

So, let me tell you a little bit about who I am.

A very long time ago, I got engaged. I know, it’s exciting, right? I met the man of my dreams, and when he popped the question… Well, I’d like to say that I said yes right away, but that’s just not the case. For some of us, the path that leads to true love has to go through a lot of twists and turns before it sets us straight. I wasn’t very nice back then. He was amazing though. He promised to love me so deeply, so totally, that I freaked. I ran in the opposite direction. I mocked him. I told lies about him. I slept with anyone and everyone around me just to try to make him mad. Basically, I flipped out. Any normal guy, in his right mind, would have dumped me right then and there, and no one could have blamed him if he did. But instead, he came for me. He gave up everything that he had trying to find me. He didn’t care about all the evil things I’d done to him. He just wanted to love me. No matter how much I covered myself in dirt, he wanted only to be there to clean me up again. No matter how broken I was, he just wanted to heal me, even at the cost of his own life. And eventually, that’s exactly what it cost him. He died for me, cold and alone, nailed to a tree. I didn’t even go to him then. I spit on his rotting corpse. I couldn’t face what I had done to him.

I couldn’t face the truth.

But then, the most amazing thing happened. You know how in all the movies and the storybooks, they always say that love is stronger than death? Well, it turns out, they’re right.  All that trite stuff in fairytales and make believe, it’s actually true. He loved me so much that even death itself couldn’t stop him from coming for me. Once he’d defeated death, what was really left that could keep us apart? Not only did he come back from death, but he breathed life into me as well. And suddenly, I realized that I had been the one who was really dead the whole time. It was like waking up out of a bad dream that you didn’t even know you were in. The whole world suddenly looked different. I realized that he was the key to everything, not just being happy, but being whole. All that mattered then and all that matters now is his love for me. It’s still stronger than death. I agreed right then and there to marry him, and he’s been preparing me for our wedding day ever since, washing away layer after layer of dirt from my body, healing me in ways that are sometimes painful, but always out of love – real, genuine love. I didn’t know what it was before I knew him. And I couldn’t have found it on my own, even though I thought that’s exactly what I was doing when I walked away from him over and over again. I was dead.

Dead people can’t love. Love is only for the living. It’s only when I finally realized I was dead that he could give me life. It’s only when I knew that I had no love at all in me that I came to see that he was pouring more love than my heart could ever need out for me.

John, you said, “From what we know about Jesus, we think he looks like love. The unfortunate thing is, you don’t look much like him.” John, you may not like me very much sometimes, because I put up with an awful lot. I have been beaten, bruised, and abused more times and in more ways than I care to repeat. But I am always – always – His. And because I’m his, that means you can be his as well. My whole purpose, my whole reason for being, is so that you can be made one with him, so that you can have all that same love that he poured out for me. For two thousand years, that’s what I’ve been about. I don’t have any words or actions of my own. They’re all his. He invites you to come and be with him. He speaks his word to you and breathes life into you through it. He washes you clean at the baptismal font and feeds you his body and blood at the altar rail.

“Church, you talk and talk and talk, but you do so using a dead language,” you said. But the only language I know how to speak is the one that he gave me. I don’t have any of my own words, only his. And his words are life itself. The words he speaks through me are the only words that can raise the dead. And that’s exactly what I’m in the business of doing, raising the dead. You’re dead, John. Whether or not you realize it, you’re dead. I’m here to make you alive. And it won’t always be easy or fun. A lot of the things I have to say are difficult. Death is easy. Life is hard. I could just tell you whatever you want to hear, of course. I could tell you that being with Jesus won’t require anything of you, that it won’t change your heart and mind, that it has no challenge to issue to your politics or the way you live your life. I could say that kind of stuff to you, and maybe that would make you happy for a little while. But in the end, it would not do you a bit of good. That’s the kind of stuff that the impostor does, tickling your ears and ignoring the empty spot in your heart. I’m not here to get you to like me or vote for me or think I’m cool. I don’t give a damn whether you think what I’m saying is relevant to your life or whether it makes you happy. I love you, which means I want you to live, which sometimes means saying no to you.

Listen, John, I love you. I love you because He loves you. And I’ll never stop opening my arms to you. I’ll never withdraw my offer to wash you and feed you. But I’m not going to chase you, because what would be the point? I’ll be here when you’re ready. It’s not going to be easy. To be a part of me, you’re going to have to spend time with hypocrites and liars and every other kind of terrible person. That’s just part of the deal. That’s who he sent me to round up. You’re going to be confronted with a lot of discomfort if you want to hang out with me. You won’t always like the company you keep. And you’re going to learn some things about yourself that are going to make you want to turn around and run. But it’s worth it, John. It’s all worth it. Because he’s here, John. Everything he did for me, he did for you. Being alive may be a lot harder than staying dead, but it’s also a whole lot better. Come be alive with me.

Love,

The Church

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Ask an Anglican: Are Anglicans Schismatics?

The_Private_Life_of_Henry_VIII._1933

From the 1933 film “The Private Life of Henry VIII.”

Richard writes:

What would you say to the charge that the Anglican Church was born originally only out of Henry VIII’s desire to secure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and his decision to break from Rome was not over theological differences, but rather over his desire to be “the boss?”

I’m Henry the Eighth, I am…

In 1930, an American priest named Nelson R. Boss wrote a book called “The Prayer Book Reason Why.” It was set up like a catechism, in short question and answer format, with the intention being that it be used as a textbook for those seeking Confirmation in the Episcopal Church. Fr. Boss addresses the question of Henry VIII briefly and succinctly:

Is there any truth in the assertion, often made, that the Church of England was founded by Henry VIII?

None whatever. It is an assertion that could only be made by one ignorant of history or regardless of truth.

What part did Henry VIII take in the work of Reformation?

His part was purely political and selfish. After his quarrel with the Pope, who refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage which, uncanonical in itself, had been solemnized under a dispensation granted by a previous Pope, Henry did all he could to free the realm and Church of England from the Pope’s influence and control; but in all other respects he was a Roman Catholic and held the doctrines of that Church, to the day of his death.

Anglicans have never celebrated Henry, neither in his own time nor today. He is not honored on any church’s sanctoral calendar. He is almost never mentioned in our own internal discussions of Anglican history. In fact, outside of conversations like this with folks from the outside, I would daresay that most Anglicans never even give him a second thought.

The political circumstances surrounding the English Reformation are complicated. The actions of almost all the players were too often borne out of hunger for power and realpolitik, both for figures like Henry and for papal loyalists like Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, and especially for Pope Clement VII whose refusal to grant Henry an annulment was predicated as much on politics as Henry’s decision to challenge his ruling. Had Henry’s wife not been the aunt of Emperor Charles V, whose troops were dangerously close to the Roman border, the pope might have been more inclined to grant Henry’s request and perhaps the English Reformation would have progressed along a slightly different timetable. Nevertheless, as Fr. Boss points out, Henry was not the originator of Anglicanism. He never held Anglican beliefs. Much of what became the founding of Anglicanism happened long after his death. As Boss says in a later appendix, if we are to consider Henry VIII the founder of Anglicanism then we ought “to say that Constantine was the founder of Christianity because he gave it his royal recognition.”

We are all in schism

What lies behind the question about Henry VIII, however, is a much more interesting question: Is the Church of England a schismatic church? And if so, does that mean that all Anglicans around the world today are the children of schism, poisoned from the get go by our founding? And the answer that I would give to such a question is one that may surprise you. Yes, the Church of England is a schismatic church. But so is the Roman Catholic Church. And at this point, so is everyone else too.

My polemic is bigger than yours

Of course, Fr. Boss would not have said that. He characterizes the assertion in 1532 by King Henry of being the “supreme head of the Church of England” as “merely an assertion of the Church’s right to manage her own affairs without foreign interference.” According to Boss, this did not amount to a break in communion. That break came much later, in 1570, when Pope Pius V commanded “all the clergy and people of England who upheld the claims of the Papacy to withdraw from communion with the Reformers, and establish separate places of worship.” In Fr. Boss’ view, the entire split can be blamed on the obstinance of the pope whose own lust for power simply would not allow him to leave the Church of England in peace. Roman Catholics are the true schismatics. Our hands are clean.

There are versions of this kind of polemic that come up throughout the history of Anglicanism since the Reformation. Many of them were written to counteract similar works by Roman Catholic authors who sought to make the papacy and Roman loyalists out to be blameless. There is a certain value in that kind of writing. In their tenacity to defend a particular party line, such polemical treatises often helped to sharpen where the theological differences between our churches actually lie. The substance of what divides us was therein brought to the surface, which is why these works are still worth reading today. Nevertheless, the manner in which such documents were written betrays a sleight of hand when it comes to how history is portrayed. Very rarely is a conflict the size of the one that fomented the Reformation as simple as good guys versus bad guys.

History as a blunt object

It is a scandal of epic proportions that the Christian Church is as divided today as it is. Jesus prayed that all who believe in Him through the Word “may all be one” (John 17:20-21). We have not been so good at receiving that calling. Divisions began even in the New Testament period, but the real game changer was the Great Schism between east and west that took place in the eleventh century. While disputes and divisions had arisen before, it had never happened on such a grand scale. The east and the west became divided from one another, resulting in a separation that exists all the way down to the present day. So by the time of the Reformation, we were all already in schism. The events surrounding the Reformation made things worse though, as anathemas began to fly back and forth and martyrs were made on all sides.

None of this is to say that there was not then and is not still today a set of very important theological divisions that need to be addressed for us to be in harmony with one another. But how different might the landscape look today if we were able to find ways of working through those divisions  within our relationships instead of outside of them. When it comes to the division between the Church of Rome and the Church of England, we do no favors to history to pretend that what tore us apart did not have as much to do with the politics and the pride of various kings, queens, popes, and priests as it did with the reading of Scripture and the Fathers. At this point in our history, it does very little good for any of us to be constantly looking back through our own lenses and saying, “You come from people who were more terrible than the people I come from!”

The gift of unity

My favorite hymn in the Hymnal 1982 is “The Church’s One Foundation.” In that blessed hymn, we sing, “Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed / by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed / yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?” / and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.” It is a beautiful reminder that the oneness of the Church that we confess in the Nicene Creed is not ours to build but God’s to grant in His grace and mercy. When we pretend that we are the only blameless souls because we have joined the right tribe, what we are actually doing is attempting to rebuild the Tower of Babel. Schism is ultimately just another form of idolatry. We make our own rightness into a god. May we all eventually come to be cured of such foolishness, and may the day finally dawn when our prayer can be the same as that of Our Lord that we may all be one.

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You Can Confess to an Anglican Priest – But Don’t Take My Word For It

622px-Исповедь_берн_соборFr. George Conger has stirred up a hornet’s nest today with his latest article for Get Religion. As with all Get Religion articles, Conger’s central purpose is not to write theology but to take stock of the way that journalists cover religion. He attempts to criticize an article in the Adelaide Advertiser about a recent move in the Anglican Church of Australia to change the rules regarding priests hearing confessions. His criticism is that the journalist in question confuses Roman Catholic doctrine about Sacramental Confession with Anglican doctrine about Sacramental Confession. Yet, in the process, Fr. Conger articulates a theological position that is very different that the one that many Anglicans would recognize as their own:

Private confession in the Anglican world is not a sacrament, and was denounced as one of the abuses practiced by the Medieval church and was dropped by the English Church following the Reformation… The Book of Common Prayer, the Homilies, the Articles of Religion and other sources of Anglican doctrine do not teach the doctrine that the priest acts in persona Christi or in persona Christi capitis. The traditional Anglican view is closer to the Orthodox understanding of in persona Ecclesiae… This understanding that the priest is not acting in the person of Christ, coupled with the view of the Reformers that confession to a priest has no more merit or imparts no greater grace than to a layman, helps explain what is happening in Adelaide. What we are seeing is a swing of the Anglican pendulum away from Anglo-Catholicism towards the Low Church or Evangelical wing.

The number of assumptions that Fr. Conger makes here is staggering, and many of his assertions are just plain inaccurate. He says that Confession is not a Sacrament, though he does not offer a defense for that position. Many Anglicans do consider it a Sacrament, albeit not on the same level as the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. He also says that it was dropped after the Reformation as an abuse that is somehow related to the notion of the priest acting in persona Christi. In fact, private Confession was retained in the prayer book in the liturgy of the Visitation of the Sick. The prayer book and the articles tell us nothing explicitly about the priest standing in the place of Christ or in the place of the Church. But the prayer book is explicit that the authority to absolve penitents is held by bishops and priests alone by virtue of their office. This comes not only in the language of the absolution (“By [Our Lord’s] authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins…”) but also in the ordination rite where John 20:22-23 is invoked (“Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and  work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained…”). While Conger may be right that there are differences in how Anglicans and Roman Catholics understand Sacramental Confession, he is wrong in what he articulates those differences to be.

Says Who?

Of course, I can say that until I am blue in the face, and many people will never be convinced. After all, why take my word for it over that of Fr. Conger? We are both priests in the American Episcopal Church. Neither of us has been granted any special role as the Grand Poobah of All Things Anglican. So who is to say which one of us is right and which one is wrong? Isn’t it just my word and my interpretation against his?

This is, in a nutshell, the crisis in world Anglicanism today. Whether the topic under discussion is something that draws lots of media attention like gay marriage and the ordination of women, or something that is less interesting to the wider world but no less divisive in the Church like prayer book revision or lay presidency at the Eucharist, the questions that we always come back to are these: Who has the authority to speak for the Anglican Church? Where is our official doctrine to be found? When competing voices speak for the Anglican tradition, is there any way to sort them out besides simply picking the one we like best and going with it?

Anglicanism is not static. It is a rich tradition that includes a great deal of evolution and growth over the last five hundred years. It is extremely helpful, when discussing these matters, to turn to the voices of the past and hear what they have to say. But doing that is not enough. Fr. Conger offers quotations from the past to bolster his case. I could do the same. It would get tedious. And we would still be left at square one, trying to determine who has the authority to speak definitively.

Truth, Justice, and the Anglican Way

However they differed in their opinions on various topics, what united the early Anglican reformers and divines was the notion that our ultimate authority is God’s Word in the Holy Scriptures, as it has been received by the Church through the Fathers and the Councils. It is this conviction, vigorously and sometimes violently defended, that led to the crafting of our Anglican formularies. They are living documents that work together to give us the mind of the Church. Though they are open to amendment, they are nevertheless meant to serve as an authority over us, rather than we over them. Among them, the Book of Common Prayer is primary, containing within it not only the structure of our liturgies but the enactment and embodiment of our faith as it has been handed down to us. Following closely behind are the Catechism and the Thirty-Nine Articles, each serving a separate but invaluable catechetical purpose in interpreting for us the teaching of the Prayer Book and the way that such teaching differs from that of other bodies. Lastly, the Books of Homilies “contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine,” from which we can learn to apply our faith, bearing in mind that their insights are meant to be received as homilies and not as dogmatic texts.

The Formularies are not meant to answer every question. They are purposely limited in how much they settle for us. But they do place a fence around the yard of our theological wanderings. It is a wide playing field, but there are walls. And that means that competing claims actually can be tested when they touch upon foundational issues.

Fr. Conger is wrong about Anglican doctrine regarding Sacramental Confession, but not because I say so or because I represent a competing camp within the panoply of Anglican parties. He is wrong because the prayer book plainly shows him to be wrong. There is no sense in complaining about the way the secular press covers us as Anglicans until we get this ourselves. There may be multiple emphases and approaches in Anglican theology, but there are not multiple Anglicanisms. There is the religion of the prayer book, which is the religion of the Scriptures and the Fathers, and then there is everything else.

(Photo above from Wikimedia Commons here.)

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Biblical Catholicism: Reading the Bible with Catholic Eyes

ICONS,_Sinai,_Christ_Pantocrator,_6th_centuryOne of my literature professors when I was an undergrad once dramatically suggested that the lyrics of the Rolling Stones should inform how we read Chaucer. Even in my post-modernist, granola, college artiste haze, I found that suggestion to be bizarre. Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales seven centuries ago. The Rolling Stones are old, but they aren’t that old. Why would we need to turn to something so recent to fully grasp something so old?

Rationalism and the Birth of the Boring Bible

The Word of God does not change from era to era, but we do, and as we do, the way we read that same Word changes with us. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura was one of the hallmarks of the continental Reformation, but the split between Protestants and Roman Catholics on the question of Scripture was not merely about the relationship between Scripture and other sources of divine authority. It was largely a matter of determining how Scripture is to be read. Scholasticism had a major impact on the medieval Church and the reading of Scripture by both Protestants and Catholics was affected by it. Scripture was read scientifically in the sixteenth century, broken into its constituent parts and used to deduce things. On the Roman Catholic side, this included a great deal of philosophy. Scripture was a tool with which to validate and expand upon the deductive reasoning of Plato and Aristotle. The reformers rejected the philosophical mode in favor of what they called the perspicacity of Scripture, its inherent clarity and understandability. If we read the Bible without making exterior demands on it, it will reveal to us the will of God in the plainest possible fashion. Despite their differences, both of these methods of reading Scripture flow from the same set of underlying assumptions. Both approaches are built on a foundation of rationalism. In the use of either of these models, we read Scripture largely to solve problems of logic. Scripture is an explanatory tool. It is a device by which we can ascertain the plan of God for the world in a way that makes sense to us.

The Seeds of Something More

Early Anglicans followed much of the same path in terms of the rationalistic approach to Scripture. It was inevitable that they would. They swam in the same cultural waters which governed the era. Nevertheless, inherent in the Anglican synthesis are the seeds of a different kind of reading. While quotes from the Fathers of the early Church made for great fodder between Roman Catholics and Protestants on the European continent, there was a special reverence held for the Fathers in the Church of England. Cranmer, Jewel, Hooker, Andrewes, Beveridge–all of them describe the Fathers as the interpreters sin qua non. These same Anglican reformers and divines advanced arguments for the clarity of Scripture and for its special place of authority above all else, but the caveat that we read Scripture in light of the tradition of the Church was never far behind. The preservation of liturgy and the episcopate are signs of how this approach to reading the Scriptures affected the life of the Anglican Church. The Fathers were viewed as unimpeachable because of their closeness in proximity to both the time and culture of the apostles. And yet, the deductive rationalism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was still liberally applied by early Anglican thinkers. Early Anglicans quoted the Fathers, out of order and often out of context, to support arguments that the Fathers themselves would not have been able to understand, let alone offer an opinion upon. This is not because early Anglicans did not understand the Fathers but because they rarely approached the Fathers on their own terms. Anglicanism offered a promise of great patristic revival, but for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, that revival was difficult to make a reality.

Enter the early Anglo-Catholics. The pioneers of the Oxford Movement and their immediate successors were desperate to find a vision of Christian discipleship that was older and more authentic than what they found in the cowed and deflated nineteenth century Church of England. They were voracious readers of the seventeenth century Anglican divines and champions of early Anglican theology, particularly the works of Richard Hooker which had languished in popularity over time. John Keble’s editing of Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity remains a standard version of the text today. The early Anglo-Catholics yearned to understand the place of the Church of England within the larger context of the history of the Church as a whole. Reading Hooker and the later divines led them back to the early Church Fathers. First generation Anglo-Catholics imbibed from their early Anglican heroes the desire to affirm a special place for the Fathers. But unlike their heroes, the early Anglo-Catholics managed to capture far more of the idiom and approach to reading Scripture that is found in the writing of the early Church. For Anglo-Catholics, the reading of Scripture was for mystical as well as practical purposes. Scripture was not simply a tool for solving problems. Scripture was a way of entering a great tradition of knowing and being known by God.

Reclaiming a Conciliar Anglicanism (See what I did there?)

ou_chch_17_largeIn his Eirenicon, Edward Bouverie Pusey attempted to ground the reading of Scripture in the authority of the Church as expressed in the continuity of the great Councils. He did so not by evading Anglican sources but by defending them:

The statement in the Articles, “The Church hath authority in controversies of faith,” in itself implies a Divine authority; for none but a Divine authority can have any power to decide in matters of faith. It also implies a necessary preservation of the Church, as a whole, from error (according to our Lord’s true promise, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against her,” “Lo, I am with you alway, until to the end of the world”), because it would be sinful to say that the Church has authority to declare what is untrue… The Church of England would not have said, that certain things are “not to be required of any man that they should be believed,” unless it held that other things, which are read in Holy Scripture, and which may be proved thereby, may be so required. So that the Article which sets forth the sufficiency of Holy Scripture, agrees with that which declares, that “the Church hath authority in matters of faith.” It implies the authority of the Church, while it lays down certain limits to it. Nor is this limitation other than what the old Catholic fathers, to whom in the homilies she so often appeals, have from the first so often and emphatically said. There was no contrast between Tradition and Holy Scripture. “We willingly acknowledge,” says Bp. Usher too, “that the word of God, which by some of the Apostles was set down in writing, was both by themselves and others of their fellow- labourers delivered by word of mouth; and that the Church in succeeding ages was bound, not only to preserve those Sacred Writings committed to her trust, but also to deliver unto her children viva voce the form of wholesome words contained therein…”

Pusey goes on to quote from Bishop Hall and other seventeenth century sources, underscoring that what he is doing is merely receiving the wisdom of the Anglican tradition on these matters, not inventing something new to Anglican practice. Throughout his work, Pusey always invokes the continuous voice of the Church in laying out Scriptural arguments. His lengthy book on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is essentially nothing but this, a prolonged set of patristic quotations based on the Scriptural evidence that show the Church’s continuous and unbroken proclamation that Our Lord’s Body and Blood are truly given and received in the Sacrament of the Altar. Continuity, in fact, is a value unto itself for Pusey. “The Fathers of the later General Councils began their office by expressing their assent to the earlier,” he says, “and [they] considered their own work as only expanding what was contained in the earlier, with a view to meet the new heresy which had emerged. So neither is it any undue limitation of the authority of the Church to lay down another limit, that the Church may not require ‘as necessary to salvation’ what is not read in Holy Scripture, or may be proved by it…'”

Measured Mysticism vs. Modern Mush

The purpose of this continuity, though, is not merely to build up a case for why one Scripturally based argument is more valid than another, but to provide a way for the reading of Scripture to become a shared experience of God within the life of the Church. In Tract 89, Keble argues for the recovery of the mystical reading of Scripture found in the Fathers. What Keble calls mysticism is nothing less and nothing more than the shared experience of God’s presence that comes through the receiving of the Word which prompted many of the Fathers to find allegorical and typological meanings in the Scripture. For Keble, the deposit of faith is not just a set of facts but a way of identifying and knowing God’s voice. Reading the Scriptures with the Fathers unites us with their experience of God, which in turn unites us with the experience of the apostles. The Scriptures, much like the Sacraments, give us the reality of God every bit as much as they tell us information about that reality.

This approach to Scripture stands in eloquent contrast with the hermeneutics of our own time which assert a theory of progressive revelation. The assumption in much of the western Church today is that we cannot rely on biblical texts to give us the Word of God. Rather, we have to rely on our own subjective experiences to show us what is and is not useful in the Bible. As with modern atheism, the hermeneutical approach of progressive revelation begins with deep skepticism about the reliability of the text of Scripture. Progressive revelationists and atheists alike proceed from that place of skepticism to attempt to systematically dismantle the credibility of large swaths of Scripture. We don’t need to read 1 Timothy, for example, because Paul almost certainly didn’t write it anyway. For the atheist, this sort of deconstruction is merely a prelude to the dismissal of all religion as superstition. But for the pastor or the academic who remains in the Church and maintains at least some form of theism, the next step is to assert that the real purpose of the Scriptures is not to objectively reveal God’s Word to us, but rather to give us a way of articulating our own experience. The Bible becomes a resource book of poetic inspiration in which God is hiding behind all the uncomfortable bits, just waiting to pop out and affirm whatever our evolving experience of him has shown to be true. And since that experience of God is progressing over time, so that we are far more enlightened about God’s will and purposes today than we were a generation ago, the need for any sort of continuity in biblical interpretation evaporates. Much like reading Chaucer through the lens of the Rolling Stones, we are free to reinterpret Scripture through the lens of our own cultural context, interests, and flights of fancy.

The Catholic approach to reading Scripture works in the exact opposite way. It avoids both the error of assuming that our experience of God does not matter and the error of utilizing our experience to wipe away Scripture’s objectivity. Instead, the Catholic approach uses the objective truth of Scripture to connect our experience of God with that of the Church throughout time. It interprets our experiences through the Scripture, rather than interpreting the Scripture through our experiences. As Keble reminds us, the Fathers were only able to engage in mystical reading because their chief rule of interpretation was “to reserve in every mystical comment the foundation of historical and literal truth.” This is the thread that Pusey traces when he talks about continuity with the Fathers and the Councils. The Anglican principle for the interpretation of Scripture is not that we fossilize our reading in our romantic notions of some by-gone era, but that we receive the continuous stream of the Church’s teaching from the time of the Fathers forward, allowing the rule of faith to open up for us the great riches that Scripture has to offer. As we change, from era to era, the consistent witness of the Church anchors us in our reading of Scripture, so that even when we come to God’s Word with new questions and new experiences, we find that in the Bible God has provided us with everything we need to know the heart and mind of Christ. The reading of Scripture with Catholic eyes sets us free from the tyranny of our individual whims and draws us into a far deeper, sacramental experience of God’s Word.

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The Measure of Successful Ministry

6a00e552e3404e883301543322c1f7970cModern American life is built upon the twin pillars of productivity and consumption. We are all consumers and producers. In our role as consumers, we make decisions all day long about what we want to consume, and how much, and in what color or size or quantity. In our role as producers, we try our best to produce things that others will want to consume. This applies not only to economics and the workplace, but to every aspect of our lives. We have become consumers of education and therefore we evaluate our teachers based on the kinds of grades and test results that the children are producing. We are consumers of news, and thus the news industry has emerged in which journalists are evaluated not only on journalistic grounds but on the salability of the news they report. Absolutely everything we do in our society is evaluated on the basis of how broadly and consistently it is consumed.

The Church Growth Carnival

It should be no surprise then that American Christians look at ministry the same way. The church growth movement exemplifies this at its most grotesque, wherein absolutely everything about a congregation’s life is weighed against the number of people being served and the number of dollars in the bank. The absurdity of this is well documented: Churches that sell lattes in the lobby, extremely popular self-help preachers who barely ever mention Jesus and never mention the cross, worship services that are built to look like popular entertainment, and a revolving door where people exit these churches almost as fast as they join them. It takes only a passing knowledge of the Scriptures to see why this purpose driven, Gospel starved sideshow is inconsistent with the Church’s calling to worship God and set sinners free through the proclamation of His grace.

The Almighty ASA

But even if we reject the Church Growth movement model, parishes and pastors still yearn for some way of evaluating the success of their ministries. Study after study has shown that the Church is in decline across the board. In the Episcopal Church, that decline is more of a free fall. So priests and lay leaders who are out in the trenches, focused on their individual parishes and pushing hard for them not only to survive but to thrive, are hungry for some measuring stick for determining success, some way of knowing if their parishes are on track to survive into the next generation or if all they are doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Rectors in particular are sensitive to this. As a full time rector myself, I can attest to that fact. Pastoring is incredibly hard work. A whole lot of energy goes in, and yet it is often very hard to tell whether what you are doing is making any difference at all.

At one time, the number of members a church had was an instructive figure for measuring success, but in the Episcopal Church today, many rectors have turned to the Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) as the mark of greatest interest. ASA, it is argued, measures not only how many people are officially a part of your church, but how many are engaging with your church on a regular basis, receiving what it has to offer. In other words, ASA is a measure of consumption. Every Sunday, we rectors work with the other worship leaders in our parish to produce something called the Holy Eucharist. ASA tells us how many people, on a regular basis, are consuming what we produce. If ASA is up, we must be doing a good job as rectors since people are responding. If ASA is down, we must not be doing much of anything, or perhaps we are doing the wrong things and need to change course.

Many priests who follow this particular bouncing ball would argue that it is nothing like the excesses of the Church Growth movement. They are not trying to tailor make a church to fit people’s whims, but merely trying to ascertain what state the parish is in. It is true that ASA tells a story, which is why it is something worthwhile to track, but the problem is that the story is not immediately apparent in the raw numbers. A parish with a spike upward or downward in ASA has had some sort of change, but there is no evidence in the raw numbers that the change has anything to do with the rector. It could be that the demographics have changed in the neighborhood, or that there have been a large number of deaths or births, or that an affair has been discovered or covered up, or that a new church has opened up across the street, or that the local little league has changed its game schedule, or a hundred thousand other things. The ASA only points to the existence of a story. It doesn’t tell it.

Selling Salvation

But the bigger, deeper problem is that when we become obsessed with ASA, we commodify and thereby drain the lifeblood out of our proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Living and dying by the ASA is simply another form of the unending hamster wheel of production and consumption that has become a substitute for the Gospel in the modern American story. Priests who fall into this trap start to think of themselves as producers of religious goods rather than as heralds of the Kingdom. Sooner or later, this translates into thinking of our mission as one of keeping the consumers happy so that they will continue to consume, rather than as one of proclaiming the truth to a world mortally wounded by its love of lies. If we are not careful, we begin to think not only that ASA determines our success, but that we actually deserve the credit for what God is doing in our parishes. If the ASA is up, we rejoice because we are so very good at what we do. If the ASA is down, we lament and try to find other factors to blame for our obvious failure. What we never seem willing to do is to allow God to be the one in charge of whether our parishes grow or shrink. Good or bad, up or down, it has to be us, not Him.

The Biblical Model for Success

Does this mean that there can be no measuring stick? No way at all to judge our success or failure? A very clear model exists, but it is not one that is likely to satisfy our consumerist impulses. The roadmap to successful ministry is laid out by Paul in the pastoral epistles. He gives Timothy and Titus clear instructions on how they are to find, ordain, and train up elders (IE, presbyters, priests). And the measure of success for these priests has precious little to do with anything that can be produced or consumed:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season;reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

This is Paul’s constant concern for pastors. When Paul says “be an evangelist,” he doesn’t mean go door to door handing out tracts. He means that if you are a priest who has been entrusted with a parish (or for that matter a bishop who has been entrusted with a diocese), your job is to share the Good News, the evangelium, with the people under your pastoral care. You are to constantly, persistently speak the truth that has been entrusted to you, regardless of the consequences:

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. (2 Timothy 1:13-15)

If you are truly preaching God’s Word, God may choose to use your ministry to build up the Church and bring many souls to salvation in your midst. But He may also choose to use your ministry as an instrument by which to shame the wicked, force out the false prophets, and cause the institutions of the Church to collapse around your head. Either one is a holy calling if it comes from God. Your concern as a pastor is not with which outcome God chooses to bring out of your faithful preaching of the Word. Your concern is only faithfulness to what has been handed down to you. This certainly requires you to consider how your words and actions may affect the ability of the faithful to hear the truth. Paul repeatedly commends priests and bishops to cultivate godliness in themselves and to avoid controversies that have no bearing on the Gospel. But when it comes to the pastor’s mission, the mark of success is to hold firm upon “the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).

Success cannot be measured in terms of outcomes. It can only be measured in terms of faithfulness. For that kind of measurement to work, priests and bishops must come together, under the Scriptures, and give honest leading to one another as to how faithful they are being. Lay people in leadership who wish to understand what is happening in their parishes ought to do the same. This requires a profound commitment to moving beyond the confines of our individual settings and embracing the unity of the whole Church. We can no longer afford to be comfortable with trying to prop up our own congregations or dioceses while ignoring what is happening to the people of God around us. Our task is faithfulness. Our evaluation of our ministries ought to be a discernment process in which we seek to learn how God might be using our faithfulness for the sake of the Kingdom. It is brutally honest and it requires a complete shedding of ego on the part of clergy, but it really is the only way forward. We need to stop pretending that a consumerist model can fix a spiritual problem. Faithfulness may not be sexy, but it is the only thing that can deliver us from our addiction to outcomes.

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