Category Archives: Formation

Not Quite A Manifesto

This isn’t quite a manifesto—but I get the feeling that it’s headed in that direction…

As I look around at the Episcopal Church, tune in to the chattering at the various levels, I’m feeling like we’re floating a bit. There are some key pieces of who we are that have been soft-pedaled into virtual non-existence.

It’s time for us to do a lot more writing and a lot more talking about core spirituality. For me, “spirituality” means practices that nurture our relationship with God (and with one another through our connection to God) and cultivate a direct experience of God and God’s relationship to the created order. By “core” I mean practices that have a direct and intrinsic relationship to the Anglican expression of Christianity. It doesn’t mean they have to be uniquely Anglican, but it does mean that it should have a deep and abiding connection with what makes us distinctive.

We are a prayer book people. And yet the techniques, strategies, and methods for getting the most spiritual value out of our prayer books have been neglected for quite some time. I honestly don’t recall the last time I heard a good Christian Ed (or other) presentation on the prayer book that dug into the spiritual fruit of the prayer book and how to get at it. In fact, most of the presentations I’ve heard—even from clergy who ought to know better—is about the historical development of the liturgy and how that had shaped what we have now. History is interesting (at least to me) but that’s not what people are hungry for! I believe that what the church needs to hear is how to access the spiritual riches of the Scriptures and the prayer book. In order for that to happen we need to start thinking about it and talking about it—and doing it, of course.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working through the Myroure of Oure Ladye, a part of the Middle English devotional literature connected to Langforde’s meditations and the anchorite traditions that sought to teach Latin-less lay women the use, meaning, and value of the Sarum liturgies: Mass, Office, and Prymer. These, then, are the precursors to understanding the environment that produced the works of Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich and the others. The Myroure not only offers translations, but devotes chapters to what kinds of edification might be found in devotional books and how to get at it, what sort of attitudes are necessary to get the most out of reciting the Offices, practical tips on keeping focused and so on. In short, it lays out for its time, place, and understanding of spirituality, how to get at the meat of the Mass and Office.

Fast-forward to the Victorian era. As ceremonial and a higher view of the liturgy were being re-introduced into Church of England services, a literature arose to explain and champion the spirituality inherent within it. It’s hard to take a dip into the Ritual ‘Reason Why’ without hitting material borrowed from the Myroure. Likewise, I find it interesting that one of the most formative commentaries on the BCP of the period—one still well received today—was written by John Henry Blunt . . . who in 1873 edited the text of the Myroure for the Early English Text Society.

What am I suggesting, then? That the Myroure of Oure Ladye is the fix for the Episcopal Church? Certainly not! Neither are Blunt nor Frere nor Dearmer or others who followed in that line.

No—we need our own books. We need our own thinkers. We need our own spiritualities grounded in our own liturgies that teach us strategies and techniques for what the Myroure did for the Sarum Office of the BVM and Blunt did for the English 1662 BCP. By all means the Myroure and the Ancrene Wisse and Blunt and the rest need to be conversation partners. Just because they don’t fit our tires doesn’t mean we need to reinvent the wheel.

One of the reasons why the Myroure and the Ritual ‘Reason Why’ don’t work any more is that their way of understanding the liturgy was thoroughly repudiated by Vatican II and the Liturgical Renewal Movement.  What the Myroure and RRW understood to be the point was seen by the Liturgical Renewal Movement as precisely the accretions from which the liturgy needed to be cleansed. Taking as normative the practical level of ritual and ceremonial motion, the sometimes overly spiritualized explanations of the Myroure were jetissoned in favor of the practical purpose and the ideal was described as “noble simplicity.”

An academic generation or more beyond the Liturgical Renewal Movement, we must take stock again. If the last fifty years of biblical scholarship have taught us only one thing it’s that the idea of a single objectively “correct” meaning of any given passage is a deeply flawed concept.  Liturgy is no different in this respect. Our attempts to make meaning from and with the liturgy are interpretive acts; we deal in false dichotomies when we force a choice between a spiritual and a practical interpretation. A biblical text can have an historical interpretation, a literary interpretation, a theological interpretation, a moral interpretation, and a wide variety of reader-response interpretations. Typically, one or two of these will take precedence over the others based on the purpose of the interpretive act; the others will remain in the background, offering amplification and/or critique to the dominant interpretation. Liturgical interpretations need to function in the same way. Discussions that suggest that liturgical acts have one meaning (often couched as “the real meaning”) are falling into the modern objectivist interpretive paradigm that sought to impose a single meaning on a single text.

Bottom line—it’s time to go back. It’s time to re-enact Matthew 13:52 and re-examine our old treasure to see how it can be re-purposed for our new environment.

We’re a church, folks. This core spirituality stuff ought to be right in our wheelhouse. The fact that it’s not, the fact that many clergy are at a loss for explaining our liturgies and their implications to our people is a clear sign that we’ve lost focus of what ought to be fundamental.

A network, a forum, a site—something like that is essential to provide a space to think through these issues and to provide a place for people to ask questions and receive answers (or better questions…). I’d rather see something arise organically than try to force it into existence. What are your thoughts?


I’ve been thinking a bit about the whole Spiritual-But-Not-Religious (SBNR) classification. Folks tell us it’s growing; anecdotally, I’ve got a number of Facebook friends who identify this way. As the Church writ broadly looks at mission/evangelism/formation, this is the group that looms largest. Have we done a decent job of asking who they are, what they want, and what will be necessary to communicate the gospel to them?

Since some exchanges at the Cafe a few days ago, I’ve been pondering exactly what the relevant subcategories are of this rather amorphous mass, because I think that we’ll make some serious mistakes if we try to treat “them” as uniform. I’ve come up with a few, but I’m sure there are quite a number to be identified. Here are some that I can think of personally (and these are cartoony caricatures, not nuanced psychologically informed portraits):

Spiritual-But-Not-Disciplined (SBND)

In my experience, this is the most common sort. The SBND are those who are attracted to spiritual things but hate the idea of someone telling them what to do. These are the folks who like to make it up as they go along—then change it all (or drop it all together) on a monthly basis. Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they think spiritual things are good; the “not religious” part affirms that neither a community or tradition can have authority over what they want to do and when they want to do it.

Spiritual-But-Not-Integrated (SBNI)

These are folks who may be highly spiritual but tend to experience spiritual practice as a “collect-’em-all” kind of enterprise. Yoga on Mondays, Kabbalah on Tuesdays, Centering Prayer on Wednesdays, Drum Circle on Thursdays…you get the picture. Related—maybe even overlapping—with the SBNDs, the differentiation here is not necessarily on a level of discipline or follow-through, but a lack of a big-picture framework that makes sense of the individual pieces. Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they think spiritual things are good; the “not religious” part affirms that they don’t see a single religious tradition that enables them to hold all the things together that they want to embrace.

Spiritual-But-Not-Bigoted (SBNB)

These are folks who tend to have a high regard for ideological purity. They may or may not be inclined towards spiritual practices, but they’re certainly not going to affiliate with a religious institution with nasty baggage. These are the people who like to remind everyone about the Crusades, the Phelpses, and abortion clinic bombings whenever the topic of religion comes up. They couldn’t possibly be part of something that promotes so much hatred. Their default stance tends to be that all religion is unreasoning fundamentalist religion and that therefore only unreasoning fundamentalists would be interested in religion. (Interestingly, I’ve seen this stance preached in some sci-fi books that my SBNR brother-in-law has loaned me recently…; a new missionary method for the New Atheism?) Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they may accept that there’s more to life than the flatly material; the “not religious” part affirms that they won’t have anything to do with a religious tradition that doesn’t pass their purity requirements.

Spiritual-But-Not-Committed (SBNC)

These are the folks who tend to affiliate with particular lines of thought and may even self-identify with a religious group but for whatever reason just don’t get there. It may be a plea of busyness on account of the kids and their activities or it may be that they prefer bagels & the Times on a Sunday morning than dragging themselves to church. Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they think spiritual things are good and they may even connect with a tradition; the “not religious” part affirms that they don’t or can’t commit to the actual obligations of a religious community.

Spiritual-But-Not-Satisfied (SBNS)

These are folks who also self-identify with a religion, maybe even a specific denomination, but are not satisfied with any of the local communities. They’re too high or too low or too stiff or too loose or whatever… In some cases, a lack of “fit” is a genuine reason, in others it may be an excuse–to others or even to themselves–that hides a more genuine reason. Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they think spiritual things are good and they may even connect with a tradition; the “not religious” part affirms that the religious communities on offer don’t meet their needs on the points they want meeting.

I see here that I’ve floated into the “‘Religious’ But Not Attending” realm as well, but I think that there’s sufficient relation between them that it makes sense to include them as well.

Looking across these groups (and imagining that there are more that I haven’t identified here) I can’t imagine that one strategy fits all. My hunch is that the SBNI are the ones who are most willing to have contact with a religious community or who would be most open to having a friend invite them to a religious “thing.” But trying to appeal to the SBNB the same way as the SBNI doesn’t strike me as likely to be effective…

I don’t know—what are your thoughts?

Much Weariness…

Things have been crazy all around. Lent and all of its accompanying programs have hit hard especially as I promised M to do some teaching at her church. Actually, some of you would probably be interested in last Sunday’s course… The overall topic for Lent is life and politics in the time of Jesus with an eye to better understanding the Passion Narratives/Holy Week. I kicked it off with a big-picture overview: 1,000 years of Jewish history in just under 45 minutes. We went from David and the foundation of the United Kingdom down through the destruction of the Second Temple with repeated glances back at how David was a constant touchstone for understanding and constructing Israel’s political and religious  identity. Great fun… I’ve also been working on other writings and projects that are massively overdue.

Hence, no blogging.

Hopefully this’ll change soon. In any case, I couldn’t not say something about the latest post at the Daily Episcopalian. Yes, it’s hard to find a good church, and modern parenting isn’t easy, but “home-churching” seems like a simplistic appeal to cafeteria religion (just take the parts you like, feel free to leave the rest) that falls short of the mark that we promised our children in Baptism.

AKMA on Faith

In lieu of actual content on this blog (which is forthcoming—I’m just really busy now…), you need to read AKMA’s post on faith. I quite agree with what he says here; of course, my intellectual roots in this discussion are functionally the same as his—Lindbeck by way of the Yale School that produced the four mentors who have had the most influence on me through my academic journey.

Go read it.

Rising Spiritual Honesty?

Fr. Bryan Owen comments on a USA Today news story that’s been making its way around the religion blogs. It’s on what appears to be rising spiritual apathy among the young.

What struck me in this post was a quote from a guy who had written a book on the topic named Kinnaman:

Kinnaman himself says this: “‘Spiritual’ is the hipster way of saying they’re concerned with social injustice. But if you strip away the hipster factor, I’d estimate seven in ten young adults would say they don’t see much influence of God or religion in their lives at all.”

I think that what he says here is probably true for a certain segment of that group. But an even more important point is that we don’t all mean the same thing when we say “spiritual.”

But here’s the thing: I think it’s always been that way. I don’t think this is a new phenomenon. Rather, I think society is more permissive about people expressing what they think on these matters. Church is no longer one of the main social glues in American life. You won’t be missing out or harming yourself socially or professionally if you don’t go to church. Without church being one of required elements of conformist culture, there’s a new freedom to just say what you truly think on these things and to act on it.

I believe that people come hardwired with differing levels of religiosity. Some people seem to be just fine with the hour a week on Sunday morning thing. Others seem to be ok with even less than that. Questions about meaning, purpose, what it’s all about are just on different places on their radar screen. Some, like myself, think that these are some of the most important questions that we can ask and are continually wrestling with them.

On the other hand, I think that our culture is also getting better at dulling us to the import and impact of these questions. My evidence would be the tremendous growth of the entertainment and mass media industries over the past century. Humans have always had news, sports, music, entertainment—but never at levels like this before, and never so closely aligned and coordinated around a global consumer culture.

Fr. Owen is right; the church has a hard row to hoe. But these are my take-aways:

  • Just know that different people are looking to satisfy different levels of apparent religious need. Not everybody is going to be hardcore church people (We sometimes forget that.)
  • However, there can be a real difference between perceived religious need and actual religious need. Crises—whether societal or personal—are often the great drivers that make people sit up and take notice and realize that there actually is a gap between their perception and their true reality (but crises usually only provide a short window after which they go back to sleep).
  • We need to be providing a clear understanding of what “spiritual” really means (or “religious” for that matter) and encourage people to figure out what they think they mean when they say it. That’s an important part of developing an honest and authentic spirituality.

New Cafe Post: Christ Church Posters

I have a new post up at the Café. It’s on the Christ Church posters that have been floating around Facebook. The creator is a friend of mine, Fr. Robert Hendrickson, who was part of the team who got the American branch of the Society of Catholic Priests up and going. He graciously allowed me to showcase his work because–as I say in the piece–I think they do such a good job of encapsulating a parish ethos.

And, as I see it, this is the kind of ethos that the SCP is trying to foster and that the Episcopal Church needs more of.

Robert has a blog as well and reflects on the posters in these two posts: Worship like it’s 1099 and Christ Church Posters.

Further Morning Musing

Picking up on the theme from yesterday morning

In my almost two decades of academic training in the interpretation of Scripture, I’ve met quite a lot of methods and techniques for doing so. Not all methods are equal. That’s fairly obvious and nowhere moreso than when trying to teach students how to preach.

The fundamental goal of interpreting the Scriptures is forming Christian habits within the community of the faithful. Not all interpretive methods tend towards this goal.

As I reflect on the matter, I believe that:

  • some methods are edifying: that is, they are good and efficacious ways to nurture Christian habits within congregations.
  • some methods are stultifying: that is, they become a comfortable means of ignoring the text to maintain a status quo. (I think of parish Bible studies that seem to consist purely of “This is how this text makes me feel” coupled with hearty wallops of “everyone’s entitled to their opinion”…)
  • some methods are pointless: that is, their aims and abilities are so removed from the goal of forming mature Christian communities that it’s a waste of time of attempt to engage them with parish realities.
  • some methods are destructive: that is, they are fundamentally incapable of contributing to Christian maturity in any way, shape, or form.
  • some methods are corrosive: that is, in small doses they may be helpful, but when used habitually and with out adequate safeguards they become destructive.
  • some methods are complementary: that is, some methods need to be paired with one or more other methods in order to be edifying—some methods work well in combination that would function poorly are negatively in isolation.

Having said that, we get to the truly hard part and the place where I find myself pondering the most. To what degree can various interpretive methods be assigned to these categories flatly and to what degree does the assignment depend on the character and composition of the congregation?

I think there are a certain number that can be classed absolutely (i.e., structuralism moves straight to “pointless”), there are some that can be classed conditionally, and yet others that require judicious classification and application.

Like I said, I’m still pondering… What do you think?

Seminaries in Jeopardy

Word has been coming to me through both public and private channels that things are in a very bad way at General Theological Seminary. As most readers know, I have a special place in my heart for General as M did her Anglican Year there; ever since then, I’ve hoped to some day return there to teach in some capacity. How long the seminary will be in operation, though, seems to be a live issue.

Between events at Seabury-Western, the unfolding events at General, and similar situations at other places, we can no longer pretend that the twentieth-century models for clergy education will remain stable and static through the twenty-first. Free-standing denominational seminaries are becoming endangered species.

The very real—and realistic—discussion that needs to happen throughout our church needs to center around clergy formation. This is related to, but is a different beast from, clergy education. There are certain academic competencies that clergy must have beyond a typical four year degree. However, I don’t believe that the core competencies that clergy require can be met solely through academic instruction. Formation rooted in our distinctive spiritual practices are essential for the production of clergy who are both effective and Episcopal.

So Nice…

M and I really haven’t been thrilled with the Lenten midweek programs in our area (see below on the “Celtic” thing…). Admittedly, we qualify as a Tough Crowd. We’re aware of that; we have high standards when it comes to Christian formation.

I tried another area mid-week program last night at the Church of the Advent—this one turned out to be “how to do a close reading of the Gospels.” I loved it! The evening started with Stations of the Cross and Solemn Benediction, then a great dinner (where I had the opportunity to chat with John) and a solid non-fluffy presentation on attending to the text of the New Testament. It was such a delight to see clergy so familiar with and passionate about the Gospels. Too, their whole line-up of sessions is a back-to-basics set of topics that look closely at the bedrock of Anglican spiritual practice: the Daily Office, Confession, the catechism, etc. Take note, local clergy, this is what a Lenten program ought to look like!

I’ll definitely be back for more…