"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A New Chapter: Seminary

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.
We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. . . .
Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ . . .
~ from "A General Thanksgiving," The Book of Common Prayer pg. 836

Since August of this year, I have been enrolled as a Master of Divinity student at The School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee. This three-year degree program of education, training, and spiritual formation is part of the ordination process in the Episcopal Church.

I began this blog primarily as a place of discernment. It has been quite useful in that respect, providing me a place to take time to intentionally process some thoughts and reading reflections. It has also provided a way for me to learn more about the broader shape of the Episcopal Church. I have been able to correspond with new friends of varied opinions and experiences; they have helped me immensely over the past few years, as I have continued down the long and winding road of the ordination process. For their insight, counsel, and encouragement, I am most grateful. If you, dear reader, are one of these, I thank you and pray God bless you.

This post is not intended as a bookend, but more of a place marker. I will leave this blog active, and I hope to continue to post from time to time. But as is evident from the date of my previous post, I have not been devoting much time to this space lately. As a seminarian, I do not currently lack for intellectual and theological conversation, nor am I wanting opportunities for reading and writing (that's a bit of an understatement).

Peace of Christ.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Thornton: St. Anselm, a Guide for Anglicanism Today

    Come now, little man,
turn aside for a while from your daily employment,
escape for a moment from the tumult of your thoughts.
    Put aside your weighty cares,
    let your burdensome distractions wait,
    free yourself awhile for God
    and rest awhile in him.
Enter the inner chamber of your soul,
    shut out everything except God
    and that which can help you in seeking him,
    and when you have shut the door, seek him.
Now, my whole heart, say to God,
       'I seek your face,
    Lord, it is your face I seek.'


       O Lord my God,
    teach my heart where and how to seek you,
    where and how to find you ...


    I confess Lord, with thanksgiving,
    that you have made me in your image,
so that I can remember you, think of you, and love you.
But that image is so worn and blotted out by faults,
    so darkened by the smoke of sin,
    that it cannot do that for which it was made,
    unless you renew and refashion it.
Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height,
for my understanding is in no way equal to that,
but I do desire to understand a little of your truth
    which my heart already believes and loves.
I do not seek to understand so that I may believe,
    but I believe so that I may understand;
       and what is more,
I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.

~ excerpt from Chapter 1 of the Proslogion by St. Anselm of Canterbury

Saint Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 11th and early 12th centuries.  Among his writings is the Proslogion (meaning colloquy, or conversation, in this instance between Anselm and God).  The full title given to the work by Anselm himself is Faith in Search of Understanding.

Martin Thornton, in his book English Spirituality, identifies Anselm as the father-founder of the "English School" of Christianity.  In Anselm, we have the first great exemplar of the "affective-speculative synthesis" in theology.  By this, Thornton means that we find in Anselm's writings neither solely passionate, emotional, experiential religious devotion (the affective), nor a coldly logical, purely rational philosophic pursuit (the speculative); rather, we find a true synthesis of the two.  Thornton writes,
The affective-speculative synthesis does not mean an exact fifty-fifty balance, nor is it attained either by adding an occasional devout phrase to a theological work, or by interposing one or two quotations from the Fathers in an affective meditation.  It is a synthesis, not merely a mixture, and the true synthesis is possible to different temperaments.  Everyone has a natural bias to one side or the other, and spiritual health is attained by allowing this bias to be permeated by the other aspect through mental and emotional discipline. 
St. Anselm is often misunderstood precisely because his critics fail to grasp this synthesis, and instead want to peg him as a philosopher in a more post-Enlightenment sense.  For example, the famous, much debated and often criticized "ontological argument" (God is that than which nothing greater can be thought) comes from the Proslogion.  But it was not intended to be a proof of the existence of God in the modern, philosophical sense.  Rather, it was a spiritual-intellectual insight born out the experience of fervent prayer, a desire to know and love God better: faith seeking understanding.  As Thornton puts it, we may well imagine the affective theologian preaching to an audience with a desire to elicit an emotional response, while the speculative theologian is alone in his study, in company only with his books and the keenness of his mind, "but whatever one reads of Anselm, he can only be visualized on his knees, not trying to do anything but worship God.  Approached in this way, Anselm still has much to say to modern English spirituality."  

For St. Anslem, the journey begins with the gift of faith, and continues by and in that faith.  This point is fundamental (I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand).  But it is not a blind faith.  It is a faith that sincerely and fearlessly seeks understanding.  Truly, we are in need of the example of this saint now as much as ever.  Thornton concludes,
Thus Anselm speaks to modern Anglicanism: we are right to grapple with the deep mysteries of the faith; "blind faith" is not loyalty but sloth.  If doubts arise in the mind, they are to be calmly faced and resolved as the struggle continues, they are hurdles to be jumped as we progress toward understanding and love.  That is truly Anglican, for it is neither "free thought" in the sense that anyone has the right to believe what he likes, nor does it make dogma anything but dogmatic, but it does not impute sin to honest inquiry.
Thus the pastoral answer to intellectual doubt is not that it is wicked to doubt the dogmas of the Church, nor that it does not very much matter.  The answer is in the acceptance of a creative challenge.  So, to a spiritual guide, such difficulties should be neither shocking nor unimportant.  They should be seen as positive not negative, a call to further action: it should be "let us see how to use this" rather than "oh but you must trust the Church" or "try not to worry".  What Anselm is saying, in Sunday school language, is when in doubt go and tell God about it, and keep on arguing: the result could be another Proslogion.
The Anglican Church, therefore, is wise not to promulgate a series of new dogmas, to be held on pain of ecclesiastical censure.  It is very unwise to allow contrary opinions on fundamental doctrine.  Anglicanism needs no Index of prohibited books, not through lack of discipline but because of its Anselmic spirit.  But it is both foolish and unfair not to give positive pronouncements as to what Baptism, Confirmation, the Real Presence and the Virgin Conception really mean, because such dogmatic statements, rather than inhibiting reason and understanding, are the basis of them.  One cannot "believe in order to understand" when one does not know what to believe in the first place; one cannot even indulge in the creative process of doubting.

Peace of Christ.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mary in the Episcopal Church

I recently became a member of the Society of Mary, an Anglican devotional society.  The Society was founded with the following objects:

1. To love and honor Mary.
2. To spread devotion to her in reparation for past neglect and misunderstanding, and in the cause of Christian Unity.
3. To take Mary as a model in purity, personal relationships, and family life.

Members of the Society keep a simple Rule of Life, which includes devotions such as the Angelus and Anthems of Our Lady, praying for departed members of the Society, sharing in the Eucharist on principle feasts of Our Lady, and engaging in apostolic and pastoral work.

Over the last couple of years I have been increasingly drawn to greater appreciation and love for the Blessed Virgin Mary in my own devotional life.  I discovered the Society about a year ago, and it was primarily that discovery which inspired me to begin implementing some Marian devotions into my prayer life.  I pray the Angelus daily (it has been helpful that the Lutheran church behind our house rings its chimes at six o'clock every evening!) and usually end Evening Prayer with the seasonally appropriate Marian anthem.  I have only recently become a member because I did not initially realize that the Society, which was formed in the Church of England in 1931, has an American Region.  Incidentally, one of the things I noted in exploring their website was that the Society has cells and wards affiliated with both the Episcopal Church and various North American Anglican churches that have left TEC.  I'm interested to find out more, but such communion among these churches, on any level, is rare these days.  This seems to me an encouraging example, and a demonstration of the Blessed Virgin and devotion to her serving "in the cause of Christian Unity."

In keeping with the objects of the Society, I thought to publish a post about "Mary in the Episcopal Church".  I recently found a pamphlet by that name, published by Forward Movement, as I was looking for resources for a family member who is curious about what Episcopalians believe about the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Of course, stating what Episcopalians believe about anything has, unfortunately, become famously tricky in recent years (though, as I've noted in various previous posts, what Episcopalians believe can be most definitively expounded by reading The Book of Common Prayer, regardless of what idiosyncrasies or aberrations one may find in individuals and parishes).  Accordingly, attempting to explain Mary in the life of the Episcopal Church in a mere eight pages is rather ambitious, but as a brief, introductory pamphlet, I felt it was mostly satisfactory.

In the words of the introduction, the pamphlet "offers a guide to Episcopalians seeking a deeper understanding of Mary as mother, disciple, role model, and sister in Christ."  These roles of Mary provide the headings by which the text is organized.  There are also headings of The Annunciation, The Visitation, Mary and Salvation, Mary and Worship, Society of Mary (Anglican), and Prayers.  I do have two criticisms that I believe are significant: one concerning the section Mary as Mother, and one concerning a noticeable omission.

First, while affirming Mary as mother of Jesus, the pamphlet states that "for Episcopalians, 'Virgin Birth' is not necessarily a term describing a medical condition.  The Bible is the story of God's presence in human history, not a scientific manual."  It then refers to scholarly debate about the meaning of the word "virgin" as it is used in various passages in Scripture.  The text continues: "Whatever one concludes, for the authors of Matthew's and Luke's gospels, portraying Jesus' birth as unique is a way of proclaiming that in Jesus God has done something unprecedented: God has entered human life in an extraordinary way and created a new relationship with us."  While I don't technically disagree with any of the preceding assertions, I find it strange and a bit troubling that the author(s) felt it appropriate to cast doubt on the traditional understanding of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth in a pamphlet of this size and scope.  It seems to me quite outside the realm of the parameters and context that the pamphlet sets for itself.  And while it is true that "virgin" can be a fairly ambiguous term in some Scriptural passages, the same cannot be said for the gospel accounts (e.g. 'How will this be,' Mary asked the angel, 'since I am a virgin?' Luke 1: 34).  I think it is misleading to imply that the gospel writers meant to leave this issue vague or open to various, symbolic interpretations.  And it is undeniably true that the Church, from the earliest centuries down to the present, has affirmed in its official teaching what the gospel writers make unambiguous: that Jesus did not have a human father, but was conceived in (Mary) from the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:21).

The second criticism is not unrelated to the first.  I was surprised that nowhere in the pamphlet was there reference to Mary as Theotokos (the God-bearer, or "Mother of God").  This title is important.  Indeed, it is this understanding of Mary that truly sets her apart from all other saints (and, not incidentally, helps prevent what I would consider a 'low view,' or potentially even unorthodox understanding, of the Incarnation, such as I have just criticized).  It helps us understand that though she is indeed a model as mother, disciple, and sister in Christ, Mary is also much more: she is the one through whom the eternal God chose to be born as truly human, the one through whom the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).  This Incarnation is an astounding thing which, once believed and pondered, makes it all but impossible to view the Blessed Virgin Mary as simply one among many saintly examples.  She is not divine, of course, but she is wholly unique as the true mother of our Lord.  And to acknowledge Mary as Theotokos is to confess that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly Man.  In the early Church, there were a number of competing theories that challenged this orthodox understanding of who Jesus was (e.g. that Jesus was simply a great exemplary man, or was more than human but less than God, or was a man "adopted" by God's Spirit at some point in his earthly life, or was not truly human but merely appeared to be so, etc.).  It was in response to these heresies that the great Fourth Ecumenical Council, at Chalcedon in 451 A.D., issued the most definitive confession regarding the person of Christ.  In powerful and wonderful language (an excerpt of which is contained in The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 864) the Council declared:
"Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man ... as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer (Theotokos)."
In summary, I am glad that I was able to find a pamphlet to introduce Episcopalians and curious others to the place of Mary in the Episcopal Church.  Overall, taking it for what it is, I found it to be a good and helpful publication.  I am pleased that it provides information about the Society of Mary; hopefully some interested readers of the pamphlet will be encouraged to seek out the Society, which would prove to be a helpful resource for clarifying or correcting any issues that could arise from what I consider to be the pamphlet's shortcomings.  In truth, though, those shortcomings can be adequately addressed by simply turning to the Catechism of the Episcopal Church (BCP pg. 849) wherein we find this beautifully succinct explication of the mystery we confess in the Creed:
Q.  What do we mean when we say that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary?
A.  We mean that by God's own act, his divine Son received our human nature from the Virgin Mary, his mother.

Peace of Christ.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Liturgy Matters: Reflection on a Conversation, and a Plea

The following is an excerpt from "Episcopal Liturgy: A Conversation" published in the Spring 2014 issue of "From the Mountain", the biannual journal-newsletter of The School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN.  Seminarian Joe Woodfin interviewed the Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander and the Rev. Canon James Turrell, both of the School of Theology, and the Rev. Dr. Louis Weil, of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

What do you think is the most interesting emerging trend in the liturgical life of The Episcopal Church today? 
Alexander: There are two trends that appear to be from different sides.  One is a very clear visible movement to get back to the basics: more traditional structures, approaches, and ways of worship.  This trend is primarily being driven by the youth and young adults.  On the other hand, the generation before them is interested in refreshing, renewing, and reshaping parts of some rites, while still being based in a liturgical tradition.  Both are operating, though, from a common root: a desire for worshipers to participate more deeply in the liturgical and sacramental life of the church. 
Turrell: I think it is people pushing the envelope, making structural alterations and not using the Prayer Book liturgy in the name of ministering to postmodern millennials.  There is a tension there between the need for room for liturgical creativity and the fact that the BCP is what we've agreed on as a church.  It's not clear that some of the creative liturgies have the same kind of historical roots as those that drove the 1979 BCP, nor do they have the same kind of trial use and scrutiny. 
Weil: A trend that particularly concerns me is an attitude toward the BCP that sees it as simply one option among many as a basis for public worship.  A phrase that particularly concerns me is, "We need to move outside the box."  Behind this phrase is the image of the BCP as hopelessly restrictive, a limit to "creativity."  I value creativity, and we need genuinely creative liturgical movement.  But to use an image that was shared with me years ago by the late Bishop of Louisiana -- Bishop Noland -- talking about a different issue, he said, "It seems to me that we need to know the melody before we try to do the variations."

 On the one hand, these observations are disheartening, as they represent voices much more experienced and knowledgeable than my own confirming my own worries about current liturgical trends in TEC.  I view the Prayer Book as "a treasure trove that most of our parishes have only begun to mine" (to borrow a phrase of Dean Alexander's from elsewhere in the interview) and as the most distinctive, solid, and unifying feature of a church that often seems to be all over the place.  The BCP grounds us in the catholic faith, saturates us in the Scriptures, shapes us in a way that is authentically Anglican, and is the clearest explication of "the doctrine and discipline" of the Episcopal Church.  If you want to know what Episcopalians believe, spend some time with the Book of Common Prayer.  So, it deeply concerns me to see a significant proportion of our church "pushing the envelope" by disregarding rubrics, and criticizing the Prayer Book as "a limit to 'creativity'" and "simply one option among many."

On the other hand, it is encouraging to hear that these concerns are shared by influential leaders in TEC.  That these are men who are very directly involved in forming the clergy of the church of tomorrow is even more hopeful.  And I also am particularly heartened by Dean Alexander's assertion that the trend for more structure and tradition in reaffirming the essentials of the faith "is primarily being driven by the youth and young adults."  I've had numerous conversations about this very topic, and it does indeed seem to be true (it certainly is for me, and seems to be so for many of my peers in TEC).  Regarding the trends being advocated by "the generation before," even if I may find them unattractive, I would agree that they spring from a sincere desire to see people more meaningfully encounter God in the Church.  So, if a parish full of boomers who came of age in an era when all tradition and authority was viewed with suspicion (or hostility) finds that a folk mass with gender inclusive language and experimental liturgy speaks to their souls and helps them to experience the risen Christ, I'm not going to cry out against it.  Just please don't justify it "in the name of ministering to postmodern millennials."  Or, as Fr. Robert Hendrickson put it a while back when discussing potential hymnal revision, "don't do it for the kids."  And it may sound harsh, but please, please, don't saddle the Episcopal Church of tomorrow with entrenched liturgical reforms (e.g. Prayer Book revision) that divorce us from centuries of the traditions of the faithful and even may (unwittingly) obscure or blunt the transforming power of the gospel itself.  Some of this "refreshing, renewing, and reshaping" seems dated already, and may be found to be almost useless in another twenty or thirty years.  At that time, the torch of leadership will have been passed on by the advocates of such change, but the rest of the Church will have to live with their legacy, for better or worse.

Peace of Christ.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Williams: Mary, Type of the Holy

Father in heaven, by your grace the virgin mother of your incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping your word:  Grant us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
~ Collect for the Feast of The Visitation (BCP pg. 240)

The LORD is high above all nations,
     and his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the LORD our God, who sits enthroned on high,
    but stoops to behold the heavens and the earth?
~Psalm 113:4-5

Rowan Williams, from Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin:

“What we call holy in the world – a person, a place, a set of words or pictures – is so because it is a transitional place, a borderland, where the completely foreign is brought together with the familiar.  Here is somewhere that looks as if it belongs within the world we are at home in, but in fact it leads directly into strangeness … most importantly, there is the person who stands on the frontier between promise and fulfillment, between earth and heaven, between the two Testaments: Mary.  That she can be represented in so many ways, thought about and imagined in so many forms, is an indication of how deeply she speaks to us about the hope for the world’s transfiguration through Jesus; how she stands for the making strange of what is familiar and the homeliness of what is strange.  After all, it is she who literally makes a home for the Creator of all things, the strangest reality we can conceive, in her own body and in her own house, she whom we meet again and again in the Gospels struggling with the strangeness of her son, from the finding in the Temple to the station at the cross.”

Alleluia.  The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us: Come let us adore him.  Alleluia.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wm. Temple: The Self-Assertive Christ of the Fourth Gospel

O Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know thy Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leadeth to eternal life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
~ Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (BCP pg. 173)

William Temple’s Readings in St. John’s Gospel is a wonderful commentary on the Fourth Gospel.  The short introduction is itself worthwhile.  I freely admit that I have a great love for this gospel.  It is a preference I share with Temple: “Let the Synoptists repeat for us as closely as they can the very words He spoke; but let St. John tune our ears to hear them.”  However, for all its beautiful imagery, spiritual comfort, and theological profundity, St. John’s Gospel has in the modern era been a book that has caused no small amount of squirming discomfort and even antipathy for some.  There are various “problems”: the long stretches of dialogue can be repetitive, Jesus often seems cryptic, the unflattering language about “the Jews” has been used as justification for anti-Semitism, etc.  Perhaps most problematic are the exclusive claims of Jesus as recorded in this gospel.  There are numerous examples, but probably the most significant is John 14:6: I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes unto the Father, but by me.  It’s not hard to see why such an exclusive claim would make us modern Christians uncomfortable.  The last thing we want is to be seen as narrow-minded and intolerant.  Intolerance is, of course, the one thing modern, secular society will not tolerate.  I remember several years ago seeing a priest on television say that she believed Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life for her personally, “but that doesn’t mean he is for everybody.”  More recently, none other than the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has been criticized for hedging on the question of whether Jesus is really the only way to God.  It just doesn’t sound nice! 

Be that as it may, from the perspective of Christian doctrine, these exclusive claims are undeniable.  It is not just St. John’s Gospel, but the whole of the New Testament that asserts the utter uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the God-Man.  The Incarnation, the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is the central event in the story of humanity, the hinge of history, “the culmination of the ages” and “the fullness of time”, to borrow St. Paul’s language.  Accordingly, as St. Peter preached at Pentecost, “there is no other name under heaven whereby men can be saved.”  This does not mean, however, that Christians should be narrow-minded or arrogant; quite the contrary.  Neither should we feel obligated to dismiss all other claims to wisdom and truth, for all truth is God’s truth.  Concerning John 1:9, There was the light, the true light, which enlighteneth every man – coming into the world, Temple comments:

“From the beginning the divine light has shone.  Always it was coming into the world; always it enlightened every man alive in his reason and conscience … and this is what is fully and perfectly expressed in Christ.  So it may be truly said that the conscience of the heathen man is the voice of Christ within him – though muffled by his ignorance.  All that is noble in the non-Christian systems of thought, or conduct, or worship is the work of Christ upon them and within them.  By the Word of God – that is to say, by Jesus Christ – Isaiah, and Plato, and Zoroaster, and Buddha, and Confucius conceived and uttered such truths as they declared.  There is only one divine light; and every man in his measure is enlightened by it.”

And so we may believe that others may come to God in ways we would not immediately recognize or acknowledge as “Christian”, and yet to the extent that anyone comes to God, it is by and through Christ, the Word of God, the “one divine light.”  To claim otherwise, that Christ is just one option among many paths to God, is a clear rejection of the gospel as presented in the New Testament and the whole of the Christian tradition. 

In summary, as Temple ably states in the introduction:

“We may meet the complaint that in this Gospel the Lord is presented as self-assertive.  Certainly we must admit that if the claims which He here makes are not true they are intolerably arrogant.  If He is a very good man completely surrendered to the Spirit of God, He cannot, without offence, speak as the Johannine Christ speaks.  But if He is God come in the flesh He not only may, He must proclaim Himself as the fount of salvation.  Love, not self-concern, demands that He should call men to Himself as alone the revelation of the Father.  At the same time, it is appropriate that He should do this either when He is expressly challenged, as the religious leaders at Jerusalem challenged Him, or in conversation with His intimate disciples; and it is precisely in these circumstances that the Fourth Gospel presents Him as making these claims … If, when all is said, any still feel a trace of self-assertion in the sense which involves moral defect, it may be held that the Evangelist has imported into his record of what the Lord said some of his own devoted eagerness.  But I find no reason for recourse to such a plea.  Those who admit, and wish to proclaim, all that the Lord is here represented as saying about Himself, will feel gratitude, not resentment, that the words are recorded; those who do not admit their truth are bound to resent, or at least to regret, their presence in this profoundly sympathetic presentation of the Lord.”

Peace of Christ.   

Friday, May 2, 2014

Poem for Eastertide

Easter Victory

The kingdom of the iron bars,
Shut fast on all, the great and small,
Sought to receive One whose descent
Was like a host vast as the stars
Upon some low, unseemly foe
Whose futile counter soon is spent,
And lies defeated, and unmourned.

So vain was the attempted grip
Upon the Son of Man, that One
Who in His dying trampled Hell.
Th’ Eternal in a Man, who ripped
Apart the gates of Death, a quake
That shook the cosmos.  Th’ ancient spell
Undone, in a moment, upturned.

Happy Eastertide!

Alleluia.  Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia.