"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, March 30, 2014

A Book Review and Reflection: "Those Episkopols"

I read Those Episkopols, by the Rev. Dr. Dennis Maynard, as part of an on-going adult Sunday school class at my parish church.  For the most part I enjoyed it.  The author presents a short, informal, and readable introduction to the Episcopal Church, based on his own experience as a priest in the Church over the last four decades.  He writes that “This book is written out of a profound love and appreciation for the Episcopal Church” (pg. 6) and that “the preceding chapters are dedicated to answering some of the most frequently asked questions this priest has received from inquirers.  This is not intended to be a comprehensive study of Anglicanism or The Episcopal Church.” (pg. 87) 

Recognizing the book for what it is and what it is not, I felt the author did a fairly commendable job, though there were a few typos that I found annoying, and at times the organization and content of the chapters seemed a bit haphazard.  The author’s writing style was sometimes overly repetitive, in my opinion.  My greatest criticism, however, concerns the perceived demeanor in which the content is presented.  Perhaps it is inevitable that a book of this nature will rely heavily on generalizations and stereotypes, but I was bothered by the extent to which the author contrasted the Episcopal Church with other churches, stating essentially that “we are not like those other Christians, thank God”.  A prominent example is his mention on more than one occasion of the Episcopal Church as “the thinking person’s religion”, thereby implying that all other branches of the Church discourage their people from approaching their faith intelligently, curiously, and rigorously.  I understand why people say this, but the broader implication is ludicrous, and this kind of caricature is not accurate, charitable, or becoming of a church which prides itself on resisting the urge to give simplistic answers to complex questions (as Rev. Dr. Maynard asserts elsewhere).

That said, there was much that I did enjoy in the book.  The author does a fine job presenting a compelling view of the life and culture of the Episcopal Church, and there were plenty of phrases and paragraphs that eloquently and succinctly expressed the reasons why I also love this church.  For example, I loved what the author had to say about The Book of Common Prayer:

When we come together for common prayer we are very intentional about the utilization of this book.  It contains the wisdom of the ages.  Some of these prayers are thousands of years of age.  Some of them were familiar to the lips of Jesus.  These prayers are most appropriate for public worship because these are the prayers that we have all agreed on.  We hold these prayers in common. When we pray these words we are verbalizing words that we have all agreed on.  We all believe these prayers so we can pray them without hesitation and in one voice … Basically, The Book of Common Prayer protects us from one another’s creativity, political leanings, prejudices, bad theology and current passion. (pg. 46)


The Book of Common Prayer solidly ties us to the historic Catholic understanding of worship.  The Prayer Book is not an alternative service book.  If you’re going to be an Episcopalian you will use the words of The Book of Common Prayer in the services of worship.  The Book of Common Prayer, not doctrines and dogmas, is the most visible unifying symbol in the Episcopal Church. (pg. 54)

I can stand up and shout amen to that!

There were also passages in which I heartily agree with Rev. Dr. Maynard, even as I remain skeptical about the extent to which his assertions are in fact accurate.  Indeed, the preceding excerpt about the BCP could be considered an example; though I think it is correct to say his observations here are true generally, the use of alternative liturgical resources (e.g. Enriching Our Worship) and even shameless disregard for the rubrics of the BCP seem to have become more frequent in TEC today, a trend I personally find troubling.  Another example:

Because the Holy Eucharist is a great mystery Episcopalians resist any effort to introduce sentimentalism into the service.  We even become hostile to any effort to make the service of Holy Communion faddish or cute.  Our English heritage becomes very apparent when it comes to diminishing this great mystery.  Anglicans steadfastly believe that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper must be done with decency and order. (pg. 55)

In reading that, unfortunately, I couldn’t help but think of the appearance a few years ago of various “themed Eucharists” (e.g. Seuss-charist, Clown-charist, Pirate-charist, and any other of which I am mercifully unaware).  Of course, it’s true that these travesties are not reflective of the whole of TEC, but rather got attention and some much deserved criticism for their astounding irreverence and incomprehensibly bad taste.  But the fact that enough Episcopalians somewhere though this was a good idea is still disconcerting.  Thankfully, it seems that fad was short-lived and very limited.

Toward the end the book, the Rev. Dr. Maynard offers some thoughts about the Episcopal Church’s focus on welcome: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you”. It’s a mantra that can be controversial, in that we run the risk of turning our church into an organization of bland, purposeless gatherings if we go so far as to subject everything (including the revealed truths of the very faith we proclaim) beneath a generic “welcome”. Such a welcome offers no transformation of life or hope of heaven. While the author acknowledges as much when he writes “there is a need in the world for the Church to hold up the plumb line of God … standards against which we must measure our behavior” (pg. 84) he nevertheless affirms this attitude of radical welcome.

If God is calling the Episcopal Church to be the branch of His Body that places love above judgment and proclamation above prophecy, than it may well be the role that we need to embrace with enthusiasm. The voices reminding us of our sinfulness and the need to condemn sin are indeed plentiful … Perhaps God is calling the Episcopal Church to bid welcome to those who would not feel welcome any place else. (pg. 85)

I have begun to feel more at peace about the Episcopal Church and her future, despite my disagreements and disappointments with much of the current leadership and their vision (or lack thereof). Because, like the author, I am suspecting that who we are now as a church may indeed be a reflection of God’s calling, to be a church that errs on the side of generosity and openness. Undoubtedly, sometimes we’ll get it wrong, perhaps go too far in our attempts to accommodate or incorporate; accordingly, we must always move humbly, with fear and trembling. But if the Episcopal Church sometimes speaks too little about sin or fails to proclaim her doctrine with sufficient clarity, there are plenty of other churches that have and will continue to more than compensate in that regard. So perhaps the generosity of TEC is a needed corrective. I do believe that the whole of the Church (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox) is needed if we are to more fully apprehend and enter into the life of God. Each branch of the Church Catholic possesses its own unique strengths and insights, and we all must learn from one another as we embrace each other in love. The openness of the Episcopal Church can indeed be a source of frustration and difficulty, because it means we are willing to live with questions, to entertain variant ideas about God and the faith of the Church, etc., while still seeking to maintain communion with one another. We are in the midst of an era in TEC and in the Anglican Communion when those bonds of communion are being severely tried amidst many disagreements. Many have felt called to leave TEC or the Anglican family altogether. I know there are those who feel that they have finally “come home to Orthodoxy” or at last found “the fullness of the faith” in Rome (while not willing to concede the point, I am, in good Anglican fashion, willing to entertain the idea that these may be correct). But I also believe and have heard testimony that many of those who have journeyed thus would probably never have entered the Church at all had they not first found a sincere welcome in the Episcopal Church. I think it is indeed true that no small number “who would not feel welcome any place else” have been welcomed into the Episcopal Church, and have there encountered God in His people and the Lord Jesus Christ, and have there been born anew into the family of the Church and introduced to the riches of her tradition.

Lastly, the Rev. Dr. Maynard closes with a heartfelt testimony of his love for the Episcopal Church, despite her recent trials and schisms.  I close with his words now, because I feel like they could just as truly be my own:

I love this Church’s determination to balance scripture, tradition, and reason.  I love her majestic worship, the mystery of her sacraments, and the emphasis on God’s love and forgiveness.  I love her courage to stand up to the forces of bigotry and to fight for the equality of all people.  I love her sensitivity to the poor, the sick, and the needy.  I love her great hymns that have outlived the catchy jingles and campfire songs of every generation …

Oh, I do get angry with this Church of ours.  I often wonder if those in authority have lost touch with reality.  I have come to fear the religion section of the newspaper lest there be another article on my beloved Church that puts us in a most unfavorable light.  I pray hardest when the bishops gather, and pray harder still when the General Convention meets.  I fear which special interest group shall prevail, and I wonder just how many more storms this old ship can endure before she does, in fact, fragment. 
I do not like all that she does.  I do not agree with all who attempt to speak for her.  There are many times I feel out of step with the rest of the band.  On occasion I do resist the newest step of marching orders.  But leave her?  Leave the Episcopal Church?  Leave the Church of my conversion, confirmation, and ordination?  No, as far afield as she may go on occasion, I could not leave her.  I love this wonderful Church.  I want to spend the rest of my life in her bosom, die in her arms, and have the faithful remember me in their prayers. (pg. 82)

Peace of Christ.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Pilgrimage to Hillspeak

Hillspeak, Eureka Springs, AR
Perhaps to call it a pilgrimage is a bit much.  It was only slightly out of the way on our route to Petit Jean Mountain State Park, our destination for the spring break family vacation.  So, we decided to make an extended rest stop there on our way down (with four young children, we take frequent rest stops on our family road trips).  But if I may define a pilgrimage as simply an intentional journey to a holy place, then it is entirely appropriate to view our visit there as a pilgrimage.

Hillspeak, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is the headquarters of SPEAK, the Society for Promoting and Encouraging Arts and Knowledge (of the Church).  SPEAK publishes the Anglican Digest, a quarterly publication founded in 1960 with a mission "to reflect the words and work of the faithful throughout the Anglican Communion."  Hillspeak is also a research center, the home of the Howard Lane Foland Library, which houses over 15,000 volumes, including many out of print works.  Guest houses are available for those who wish to spend a retreat on the beautiful, secluded grounds.  The simple and peaceful St. Mark's Chapel offers a holy space for any traveller who wishes to stop in, rest, and pray.  And then there is Operation Pass Along.  This ministry provides used books (and vestments) at no charge to individuals and parishes.  Individuals may request books and have them shipped, paying only a modest shipping rate, or they may come any weekday and simply peruse the shelves; the staff even provides boxes for carting off the books.  I would estimate that Hillspeak has currently about 10,000 books on the Pass Along shelves.  I was told that, on average, they take in about 1,000 books in a month, and see around 700 go out.  It is an incredible ministry and gift to the Church.

St. Mark's Chapel

We arrived mid-afternoon.  After prayer in the chapel, we took coffee with the staff during their break, and learned more about Hillspeak.  The kids then wanted to go exploring, so we headed out to the short trail that circles the property.  By the time my wife and I turned our focus to the bookshelves, there was only about an hour until closing time.  The situation held the potential to be overwhelming; a book lover and Church history and theology nerd could get lost in those shelves for days, and I had only one hour!  In addition, because the books move in and out so frequently, they are in no particular order on the shelves.  Under the circumstances, I was fairly impressed with myself.  I came away with a score of welcome additions to my personal library.  Of course, I only scratched the surface of their inventory, and I'm sure I'll be returning again.

Hanging lamp and statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, in St. Mark's Chapel

The kids stop at the Hillspeak Memorial Cross before our hike

Finally, as an unapologetic bibliophile, I can't close this post without showing off my new acquisitions:

Biblical, liturgical, and educational: The New English Bible with Apocrypha, Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Luke by Fredrick Schmidt (from the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars), The Liturgy Explained by Thomas Howard, Enriching Our Worship 1, Christian Believing by Urban T. Holmes III and John H. Westerhoff III, part of The Church's Teaching Series, and a couple of volumes from The New Church's Teaching Series: The Practice of Prayer, by Margaret Guenther, and Ethics After Easter, by Stephen Holmgren.

More good resources and historical material: Documents of the Christian Church edited by Henry Bettenson, Creeds in the Making: A Short Introduction to the History of Christian Doctrine by Alan Richardson, A History of Christian Spirituality: An Analytical Introduction, by Urban T. Holmes, Three Anglican Divines on Prayer: Jewel, Andrewes, and Hooker by John Booty, and Stephen Neil's classic Anglicanism.

Theological miscellany, including some writings and analysis of "modern theologians", an area in which I and my library are deficient: Thinking About God by John Macquarrie, Christian Faith and Life by William Temple, What Christ Thinks of the Church by John R. W. Stott, H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, and a couple of slim volumes from a series on modern theology, with selections from Karl Barth and Paul Tillich.

Lastly, in a more contemplative, devotional, and artistic vein: Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman: An Anthology of Betjeman's Religious Verse edited by Kevin J. Gardner, Worship by Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, and Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin by Rowan Williams.

Peace of Christ.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saint Patrick, Devoted to Christ "at the Margins"

Glorious Lord, I give you greeting!
Let the church and the chancel praise you,
Let the chancel and the church praise you,
Let the plain and the hillside praise you,
Let the world's three well-springs praise you,
Two above wind and one above land,
Let the dark and the daylight praise you.
Abraham, founder of the faith, praised you:
Let the life everlasting praise you,
Let the birds and honeybees praise you,
Let the shorn stems and the shoots praise you.
Both Aaron and Moses praised you:
Let the male and the female praise you,
Let the seven days and the stars praise you,
Let the air and the ether praise you,
Let the books and the letters praise you,
Let the fish in the swift streams praise you,
Let the thought and the action praise you,
Let the sand-grains and the earth-clods praise you,
Let all the good that's performed praise you.
And I shall praise you, Lord of glory:
Glorious Lord, I give you greeting!
           ~ Welsh poem, eleventh century, as found in the compilation 
      Daily Readings from Prayers and Praises in the Celtic Tradition, edited by Allchin and de Waal

The above is a hymn of praise that is not from the time of Saint Patrick, nor is it Irish (of course, neither was Patrick himself originally; he was born a Roman Briton in what is today Wales).  Nonetheless, I think it well reflects the spiritually of the patron saint of Ireland, a spirituality that is broad and embracing, knowing God as both intimate daily companion and Lord of Creation, praised by all that is.

The success of Thomas Cahill's book How the Irish Saved Civilization, is well deserved.  It is a wonderful little book, beautifully written in a way that makes scholarship accessible to a broad audience.  The excerpts below are from the chapter in that book entitled, "Good News from Far Off: The First Missionary".
Patrick really was a first -- the first missionary to barbarians beyond the reach of Roman law.  The step he took was as bold as Columbus's, and a thousand times more humane.  He himself was aware of its radical nature.  "The Gospel," he reminded his accusers late in his life, "has been preached to the point beyond which there is no one" -- nothing but the ocean.  Nor was he blind to his dangers, for even in his last years, "every day I am ready to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved -- whatever may come my way.  But I am not afraid of any of these things, because of the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty."
According to Cahill, Patrick was not only the first true missionary beyond the borders of the Roman Empire,  he was also "the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery."  Surely, Patrick's own experience as a slave in Ireland played a part in his unmitigated condemnation of slavery.  That experience during his formative years, which also occasioned his conversion, wrought in Patrick an unswerving devotion to Christ and a "core of decency" that was to serve him well in his mission to the Irish.  For, says Cahill, Patrick was at heart "a good and brave man, one of humanity's natural noblemen."  As with all such men and women, he stands out as one who did not conform to many of the conventions of the day, especially if they were an offense to justice and humanity.
His love for his adopted people shines through his writings, and it is not just a generalized "Christian" benevolence, but a love for individuals as they are.  He tells us of a "blessed woman, Irish by birth, noble, extraordinarily beautiful (pulcherrima) -- a true adult -- whom I baptized."  Who could imagine such frank admiration of a woman from the pen of Augustine?  Who could imagine such particularity of observation from most of those listed in the calendar of saints?
He worries constantly for his people, not just for their spiritual but for their physical welfare.  The horror of slavery was never lost on him: "But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most -- and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure.  The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone."  Patrick has become an Irishman, a man who can give far more credibility to a woman's strength and fortitude than could any classically educated man.
In his last years, he could probably look out over an Ireland transformed by his teaching.  According to tradition, at least, he established bishops throughout northern, central, and eastern Ireland: he is primatial bishop at Ard Macha (modern Armagh), a hill away from Emain Macha, seat of the Ulster kings ... By placing his bishops next door to the kings, Patrick hoped to keep an eye on the most powerful raiders and rustlers and limit their depredations.
With the Irish -- even with the kings -- he succeeded beyond measure.  Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare, decreased.  In reforming Irish sexual mores, he was rather less successful, though he established indigenous monasteries and convents, whose inmates by their way of life reminded the Irish that the virtues of lifelong faithfulness, courage, and generosity were actually attainable by ordinary human beings and that the sword was not the only instrument for structuring a society.
Though Patrick's immense influence on his adopted homeland is widely recognized today, Cahill writes that, "In his own time, only the Irish appreciated him for who he was."  In fact, when the tables turned later in the century and the kings on the western coasts of Britain began slave-raiding into Ireland, Patrick's attempts to halt the practice by appealing to his Briton brethren's Christian faith went largely ignored.  Patrick laments, "Can it be that they do not believe that we have received one baptism or that we have one God and Father?  Is it a shameful thing in their eyes that we have been born in Ireland?"   In fact, the British eventually respond to Patrick's "meddling" by seeking to discredit him through a smear campaign.  It is in this context that Patrick writes his Confession, the primary source of our information about him.  In assessing Patrick's confrontations with the people of the land of his birth, Cahill writes:
Patrick, whose awkward foreignness on his return to Britain had been the cause of numerous rebuffs,  knows in his bones the snobbery of the educated Roman, who by the mid-fifth century had every right to assume that Roman and Christian were interchangeable identities.  Patrick, operating at the margins of European geography and human consciousness, has travelled even further from his birthright than we might expect.  He is no longer British or Roman, at all.  When he cries out in his pain, "Is it a shameful thing ... that we have been born in Ireland?" we know that he has left the old civilization behind forever and has identified himself completely with the Irish.
In Saint Patrick, we have more than mere legend.  We have a life lived honestly, faithfully, compassionately, and sacrificially.  It is a life that stands out, both in the Church and in human history, such that it rightly becomes legendary.  Cahill concludes,
In becoming an Irishman, Patrick wedded his world to theirs, his faith to their life.  For Augustine and the Roman church of the first five centuries, baptism, the mystical water ceremony in which the naked catechumen dies to sin, was the foundation of a Christian life.  Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination -- making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish.  No longer would baptismal water be the only effective sign of a new life in God.  New life was everywhere in rank abundance, and all of God's creation was good.  The druids, the pagan Irish priests who claimed to be able to control the elements, felt threatened by Patrick, who knew that a humble prayer could even make food materialize in a barren desert -- because all the world was the work of his Creator-God. 

Almighty God, whose will it is to be glorified in your saints, and who raised up your servant Patrick to be a light in the world:  Shine, we pray, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth your praise, who called us out of darkness into your marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.
~ The Book of Common Prayer, from the Common of Saints, Of a Missionary


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lent Madness: meh, maybe, actually ... no

So, Lent Madness.  I was introduced to it last year, about halfway through the Lenten season.  Since I love history and learning about the saints, I kind of got into it, though I don’t even follow the actual NCAA March Madness (that’s right, I am a certified heretic here in Kansas).  I also really like Scott Gunn and the things put out by Forward Movement.  I never did jump in with both feet though.  I know it is meant to be both fun and educational, an innovative way of introducing or reintroducing the heroes of the faith, but the whole concept of voting for saints in a competitive bracket sat uneasily with me from the start.  And, I’ll confess, after Frances Perkins won the “golden halo” last year, I was one of those who was like, “Wait – what?”

So, I’ve been kind of ambivalent about it, and I wasn’t planning on taking part this year.  But, as mentioned, I’ve got great respect for the guys behind this idea ( I was also pleased to see that Fr. Robert Hendrickson is going to be one of the "celebrity bloggers" this year), and there has also been some gentle encouragement from my own rector for our parish to get involved.  We even have the bracket posted in our parish hall.  So, I decided rather last minute to give Lent Madness a second chance.  I voted in the first two or three rounds, and was generally enjoying it.  Then I read this post by the Crusty Old Dean, and it reminded me of (or helped me to clarify) all the reasons why I really don’t care for Lent Madness.  (His post is much more informative than this one of mine, so if you're pressed for time, tarry not here.)  So, I decided to sit on the sidelines for a bit.  I would still follow the posts about the saints from day to day, but would refrain from voting. 

Well, after yesterday’s matchup, I’m not even sure I want to continue to follow the posts.  The bout was between Antony of Egypt and Mary of Egypt.  It turned into something of a riot in the comments section.  Commenters had no shortage of fodder for their fast and furious input.  We had two ascetic desert hermits from the North Africa of the third and fourth centuries. Hard to imagine a more far removed time, place, and culture. Now throw in a bunch of 21st century American Christians, some of whom are being introduced to these saints for the first time via a three paragraph introduction on an admittedly snarky website that casts saints in competitive head-to-head matches – what could possibly go wrong?

Some were suspicious of Antony’s motives in giving away all his worldly possessions.  Some found Mary’s whole hagiography problematic, either viewing her as the victim of patriarchal misrepresentation or seemingly dismissing the very idea of sexual sin (one commenter criticized Mary for engaging in “self slut shaming”).  The most frequent topic of discussion, however, concerned Antony’s sister.  According to the “celebrity blogger” who introduced Antony for this round, after Antony “heard the gospel command to not worry about tomorrow, he promptly gave away what remained of his money, put his sister in a house of virgins, and took up a life of solitude.” As soon as I read that, I knew there would be comments a-plenty, but holy cats, even I was taken aback. The resounding cries of condemnation ran the gamut, describing Antony as “a very off-putting figure”, an “unfeeling brother”, and a “loser”. The one that took the cake, and which I must believe was intentionally inflammatory was: “Antony was a crazy jackass who treated his sister abominably. Boo.”  Quite a few people declared that they were choosing not to vote this round, apparently as a kind of protest against being expected to choose between two equally unworthy candidates.  Incidentally, I found it puzzling that nowhere in the introductory blog was there mention of Antony as the father of monasticism.  I would think that’s a pretty significant detail.
Unlike the Crusty Old Dean, I would stop well short of identifying myself as a Lent Madness hater.  In fairness, there was no small number of commenters who very ably made the case for seeking to understand Antony and Mary on their own terms, not through a modern lens, for doing further research rather than jumping to conclusions based on such scanty information, and for being open and humble enough to recognize Christ in the other, even and especially when that other seems incomprehensible (this seemed to be the primary challenge to these saints’ detractors; they simply could not or would not see beyond their own modern assumptions).  In conclusion, I don’t expect to be jumping on the Lent Madness bandwagon this year.  Primarily, it’s a matter of personal taste, so I don’t want to make too much of this.  But there is also an element of my distaste that is based on principle.  I absolutely believe that we should be encouraging people (and taking the opportunity ourselves) to learn about and reflect over the lives of the saints.  I’m not sure Lent Madness is the best way to do it.  It’s a venue that seems, by its very organizational structure, to encourage simplistic thinking and polarization.  This corresponds with my more general and increasing skepticism about the potential of any social media for fostering meaningful community.  Sometimes it seems to happen, but the potential for misunderstanding and damage seems so much greater that I wonder if it’s worth it.  Maybe I’m being too negative; I pray that those who take part in Lent Madness are strengthened and inspired in their faith as they learn about the great broadness of the communion of saints.  It seems that many would claim this has indeed been true in their experience.  But not in mine.  So, maybe I’ll give up following Lent Madness for Lent.

Peace of Christ.            

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"That the love wherewith Thou didst love Me may be in them"

"And I have made Thy name known to them, and will make it known; that the love wherewith Thou didst love Me may be in them, and I in them."
~ John 17:26

From today's Daily Office reading, the closing verse of the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John, our Lord's "High Priestly Prayer".  Jesus has revealed the Father to us, and will continue to reveal Him more and more, according as the Spirit of Jesus is within us.  Both the means and the end of this revelation is nothing less than invitation into the love that is the very life and substance of the Triune God.

Peace of Christ.