Category Archives: Theology

Sacramental Ecclesiology

If you haven’t read this piece on Children and the Eucharist, you should.

The writer has accurately identified the next big theological crisis facing the Episcopal Church. All of the questions around communing children, the place of Confirmation, if/whether/how “First Communion” is “a thing,” and the communing of the unbaptized are simply different ways of entering a larger complicated inter-related question.

The 1979 American Book of Common Prayer placed recovery of a baptismal ecclesiology at its center. This was a good and correct move. The problem, however, is that a baptismal ecclesiology functions properly within a broader sacramental ecclesiology. What I mean by that is this:

Church is fundamentally about a sacramental path to discipleship.

Everything from how we comprehend the coherence between the local church and the mystical Church, how we enter the church, how the church frames and provides its rites and sacraments, how the church frames and understands its saints must proceed from an understanding of the church as a mystical vehicle for the grace of God given, received, and expressed normatively in her sacraments.

Baptismal ecclesiology is a very important piece of this complete vision—necessary but not sufficient!

What we need to do now is to flesh out the rest of our sacramental ecclesiology in a clear and coherent way that reflects deep continuity with the Scriptures and the Apostolic faith and is true to our current experience and context. Until this has occurred, we will find ourselves running around with incoherent band-aid fixes…

Theses on Sanctity

Looking back at my previous post and assorted comments and at COD’s thoughts on Lent Madness, one of the core problems confronting Holy Women, Holy Men and the efforts to fix it is a lack of an explicit Episcopal theology of sanctity. Of course, there are very few widely recognized “Episcopal theologies of” anything which is simultaneously a bug and a feature.

I once tried to go through the BCP catechism and do for death/sanctity/eschatology what I did for the Sacraments, but found that there was so little reference to these topics that it wasn’t worth the effort. I think that there is a theology of sanctity that can be drawn from prayer book as a whole, but I had neither the time nor energy for that endeavor at that point.

Nonetheless, here are some fundamental theses on an Episcopal theology on sanctity that I believe do proceed from the prayer book and the classic Anglican devotional life. (And, yes, Rdr. Morgan, these may address some of your questions…)

1. A theology of saints and sanctity exists at the intersection of Christology, Ecclesiology, and Sacramental Theology.

As I’ve said before and no doubt will say again, one of the great issues of the modern church is our tendency to compartmentalize and categorize and to treat theological matters as if they existed in their own little glass boxes disconnected from anything else. Theology doesn’t work that way. Inter-relation is the name of the game.

In order to speak meaningfully about the saints, we have to talk about Christ. The Incarnation is central here. Christ is both an exemplar and the one who transforms us. He is the first-fruits of the resurrection. He is the one who did teach us, is teaching, and will teach us in thought, word, and deed. He connects us to himself and transforms us according to his own likeness.

But to speak of this connection and transformation is to speak also of Sacramental Theology—of grace and the means of grace that bind us into the Body of Christ and nourish us towards the Mind of Christ. Baptism and the Eucharist and the sacramental actions by which ordinary material reality is bound within the community to the powerful promises of Christ to be means of grace for the community and beyond mirrors the alchemy of sanctity that transforms our earthen vessels into something more substantial.

To speak of the sacramental and eschatological Body of Christ leads us to Ecclesiology, the theology of the Church, the persistence of Christ in his Church and the character and mission of the Bride of Christ. Where are the boundaries of the Church? What is the character of the Church? What is our fundamental mission?

A coherent theology of sanctity is incomplete with these pieces being integral parts of the answer. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that there is no explicit Anglican or Episcopal theology of sanctity—there are so many disagreements in these other areas that there is not enough common ground on which to construct one!

2. Sanctity can be simply defined as the aim and completion of a sacramental life of discipleship.

We are a sacramental Church. The sacraments are ecclesially dispensed ordinary channels of grace that bind us into the life of God. The reality of this binding is expressed in a cruciform life of discipleship. Sanctity is the standard against which progress into this cruciform life is measured; sanctity is the incarnate expression of relaxing our humanity into the person of Christ.

We talk quite a lot about the Baptismal Covenant. If things are properly aligned, then sanctity is related to a keeping of the promises taken on in this covenant.

3. We are missing part of the picture if we do not recognize there there are several key facets of who the saints are and who they are for us: they are a) elder siblings on the way of the cross, b) mirrors of the light of Christ, c) present intercessors, and d) pillars for the Church.

I use the word “facets” deliberately. Facets are different faces and aspects of a single thing—not different things that may or may not be grouped together… At the Reformation, protestant reactions against the abuses seen in popular devotion to the saints led to a myopic reduction of the role and identity of the saints. That is to say, I believe that there were legitimate theological problems with the way that devotion to the saints was expressed in late medieval Europe. I believe that some of these issues still persist. And, to touch on a point raised by a comment on the previous post, I think that much Anglican anxiety around Our Lady is because Marian devotion past and present sits uncomfortable near, on, or over the line between veneration (which is appropriate) and worship (which is not). (This is my main statement on Mary from a while back.)

The end result is that the protestant reformers tended to cut things back severely to the degree that they tended to give (a) their grudging assent and preferred to ignore the others. This is what’s in the Augsburg Confession; the 39 Articles don’t even go that far. In doing so, they violated the tradition of the Church and the teaching of Scripture. (I won’t say clear teaching as the most obvious pieces regarding this appear in Revelation and, due to its nature, it’s rather best to avoid the “clear” word.)

What I tend to see in the current Episcopal Church—perhaps as exemplified in some of the Lent Madness discussions—is a similar reduction of the saints to facet (a). As a result, some clarity on the scope of these facets is essential.

A. The Saints are Elder Siblings on the Way of the Cross.

The saints are exemplars for us in that they give us a picture of what faithful lives look like in a multitude of societies and situations. How they acted inspires us and gives us models. In this facet, we tend to cleave closest to saints with whom we share points of identification whether that be gender, race, class, profession, or situation. This is a lot of what we see going on in Lent Madness comments.

This is the “particularity” piece that helps us work through how we live the Gospel in our particularity—by learning about the particularity of others. However, an over-emphasis on this facet can be a danger when we come to believe that our goal is following the direct example of the saint. After all, no matter how closely connected we seem to be, their particularity is not our particularity. Yes, we should imitate them, but we also must be fully cognizant of what it is that we are imitating! And that leads us directly to our next facet…

B. The Saints are Mirrors of the Light of Christ.

Saints are mirrors, not light-sources. They don’t generate their own glow; rather they glow from reflecting the light of Christ. The saints cleave to Christ, and—in so doing—they cultivate the virtues of Christ. The praiseworthy deeds done by the saints are to be followed and imitated because of the way in which they embody the virtues of Christ. For instance, the marches organized by Martin Luther King Jr. reflect a creative combination of the virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance (specifically in resisting the many temptations to violence). To simply say, “Let’s march!” without grasping these internal principles is not imitating the saint; it is failing to discern the universal—the aspect of Christ—that is bound into the particular.

I can’t help but think of Cassian’s citation of St. Antony in his description of how monks are to learn virtue from their elders:

For it is an ancient and admirable saying of the blessed Antony to the effect that when a monk, after having opted for the cenobium, is striving to the heights of a still loftier perfection, has seized upon the consideration of discretion and is already able to rely on his own judgment and to come to the pinnacle of the anchorite life, he must not seek all the kinds of virtue from one person, however outstanding he may be. For there is one adorned with the flowers of knowledge, another who is more strongly fortified by the practice of discretion, another who is solidly founded in patience, one who excels in the virtue of humility and another in that of abstinence, while still another is decked with the grace of simplicity, this one surpasses the others by his zeal for magnanimity, that one by mercy, another one by vigils, yet another by silence, and still another by toil. Therefore the monk who, like a most prudent bee, is desirous of storing up spiritual honey must suck the flower of a particular virtue from those who possess it most intimately, and he must lay it up carefully in the vessel of his heart. He must not begrudge a person for what he has less of, but he must contemplate and eagerly gather up only the virtuousness that he possesses. For if we want to obtain all of them from a single individual, either examples will be hard to find, or, indeed, there will be none that would be suitable for us to imitate. The reason for this is that, although we see that Christ has not yet been made ―all in all‖ (to cite the words of the Apostle), we can nonetheless in this fashion find him partly in all. For it is said of him that ―by God‘s doing he was made for us wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Inasmuch, therefore, as there is wisdom in one, righteousness in another, holiness in another, meekness in another, chastity in another, and humility in another, Christ is now divided among each of the holy ones, member by member. But when we are all assembled together in the unity of faith and virtue, he appears as ―the perfect man,‖ completing the fullness of his body in the joining together and in the characteristics of the individual members. (John Cassian, Institutes 5.4)

For Cassian, the practice of virtue is not fundamentally the cultivation of self-improvement. Rather, as monks grow in virtue they grow into the fullness of Christ and as constituent members of the Body of Christ, they contribute to the eschatological consummation when Christ will be all in all. The quest for virtue is the quest to more fully and completely participate in the life and redemptive work of the Risen Lord.

This is the very same work in which we engage when we study the saints and seek to model their virtues in our lives. Their virtues are theirs only on loan; the heart of their virtue flows from Christ. Therefore, the saints—in congruence with Mary to the servants at the wedding of Cana—always point us back to Christ: “do whatever he tells you.” If we focus too hard on the saints, we end up staring at the finger—not the moon to which it points; yet without their finger we stumble for lack of guidance.

C. The Saints are Present Intercessors.

In Baptism, we are joined into the Body of Christ in all the fullness of meaning that the phrase contains. We share in his resurrection life; we are part of his Church. As members of that Church, one of our fundamental rights and responsibilities is intercession: to pray for one another. As partakers of his resurrection life, at death “life is changed, not ended” (proper preface for the commemoration of the dead, BCP 382). If the saints remain faithful to their baptized identity in this changed life, then intercession  is an inevitable part of it. I’ve written on how I see this functioning in such a way to help anxious Anglicans understand it in this piece so I won’t rehash it all here.

D. The Saints are the Pillars of the Church.

I’m using a metaphor here that I think is helpful because it incorporates aspects of both stasis and visibility. In identifying saints, the Church says something about who it is and how it understands itself by way of the individuals singled out. That is, all responsible theologies of sanctity agree that we on this side of the veil do not and will never know who were and were not saints. There are some presently enjoying the eschatological intimacy with God that would surprise and shock us—of this I have no doubt. As a result, the ecclesial act of recognizing individuals really does say as much about us as it does about them. This is that whole “social memory” thing that I’ve brought up from time to time. In identifying saints we claim them and their history as part of our present identity. Hence the drive mentioned in the previous comments for “how well the saint in question agrees with our own theological politics.”

By including non-Anglican saints we are displaying our greatness-of-spirit by showing that we don’t believe that the holy is restricted to our church. (Did that “greatness-of-spirit” thing sound tongue-in-cheek? Good—it was supposed to…) However, by including Anglican saints we are displaying a conviction that the Anglican path is a true path to holiness (amongst others). Indeed, this was the articulated rationale for only including Anglicans in the post-Reformation period in Prayer Book Studies IX.

So—the individuals we select say something about our identity now. But a pillar doesn’t define a structure; a structure, a Church, is defined by the selection and arrangement of pillars. Likewise, it’s not enough to be selective and intentional about picking individuals; we must be cognizant of how our individual choices shape the Calendar that we offer to the Church. Do the individuals reflect a balanced sense of what we mean by life in Christ or does it get weighted or tilted or skewed in certain directions to the exclusion of others? I think this is one of the big fights around HWHM. It’s not enough to work with the individuals; the structure offered by the whole of the Calendar matters just as much—maybe more.

Ok. There are more theses to theorize, more thoughts to think, and likely more bombs to throw. But they’ll have to wait for another time.

Whatever Happened to Sin?

I spent almost an hour this morning hearing about sin and salvation, fall and redemption. I wasn’t at a church service; I was cleaning the kitchen. The girls are at an age where they clamor for “pop” radio in the car and on account of that I’d downloaded Adele’s album 21 and was giving it a full listen-through as I worked. For those not familiar, I’d describe Adele as a soul/blues singer in the classic mold; 21 is a break-up album. Though Jesus was notably absent, religious language and concepts—Christian, in particular—were an integral part of the lyrics. One could theorize that this prevalence of religious language is due to the genre—Blues and Soul have deep roots in the Black Church tradition and that certainly accounts for some of it.

On the other hand, on the way to and from the gym earlier this morning I was listening to Tom Shear’s latest effort, Bruise.  Tom’s Assemblage 23 is EBM/Industrial in the vein of VNV Nation—solid beats and electronica accompanying dark, introspective, philosophical lyrics. Again—sin, redemption, existence, eternality, and the presence/absence of God were explicit themes.

This is not the first time I’ve observed this. Christian language and thought structures form part of our cultural vernacular. Pop music and culture are familiar with notions of sin, fall, and redemption. Of course, the “redeemer/redemption” in question tends to shade somewhere from moralistic therapeutic deism to some vague moralism (about being “good”) to the power of love/positive thinking/whatever to some form of gross individualism.

You know where I’ve not heard much about sin? The Episcopal Church. Well, I take that back… The preaching at my church does tend to mention sin at least a few times each month—and that’s one of the reasons I go there. To clarify, I don’t hear much about sin in the public discourse of the Episcopal Church. Ok, fine, I’ll go ahead and say it: when I read things like this post on CWOB up at the Cafe, I cannot see if or where sin even fits into the theological structure from which the argument proceeds. It’s as if there’s an inverse relationship between language of/about “inclusivity” and language of/about “sin”. And it doesn’t have to be that way. My parish is inclusive; our preachers are openly gay—and yet we still hear about sin and our need to be redeemed from it by the saving action of God through Christ.

True, some of these public-speaking folks may talk about “structural sin” and use that as a short-hand for governmental systems and theories to the right of them, but there is an absence of personal sin apart from “exclusivity.”

They seem to insist that talk about sin is exclusive, it turns people off, it turns people away. People don’t want to hear about sin! Stuff like that just doesn’t make sense to people today! If that’s so, why is language of and about it so common and understandable in our broader culture? If today’s youth don’t understand it, why is it so endemic in pop music? Even those artists who bring up sin in order to advocate an enthusiastic embrace of it do so with the recognition that part of the thrill is the transgressive nature of the behavior. Which means they’re *still* operating out of a classic understanding of sin…

People—even young people—do have a concept of sin and redemption. The cultural view is fuzzy and, I’d suggest, often wrong because it lacks Jesus and accompanying concepts of virtue and sanctification, but to say that people don’t “get” sin is factually incorrect.

You can’t do church without reference to sin. This is wrong. This leads to a distortion of the Gospel.

The practice of spirituality is, to my mind, the inculcation of habits that maintain a proper relationship with God, our neighbors, and the rest of creation. To try and maintain these relationships without a healthy awareness of sin—our own and that of those around us—is folly. You cannot be in a “right relationship” if you have no sense of “wrong” or what can distort the shape or nature of the relationship.

My fear is that in the name of a misguided attempt at inclusivity and through the means of a flawed evangelism, we will succumb to the temptation to preach a watered-down message of moralistic therapeutic deism instead of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yes, MTD really is and will be more popular and more favorably received than the Gospel, but it is not our message!

I’m not, on the other hand, calling for a heavy-handed monomania on sin exemplified in those who delight in ceaselessly pointing it out in others or who swell with pride in excessive penitentialism. We need clarity. We were created good by a good God. We currently exist in a state of separation from that original intention. God reaches out—through Christ, his church and its sacraments—to reconcile us to himself even in our sin and invites us to cooperate in the cleansing of that original image and its decoration with the colors of the virtues (to steal an image from Didymus the Blind…).  The church needs the balls to both say it and mean it. Yes, some liturgical language can get overly wrapped up in sin and go overboard—I don’t think that’s an issue in the current prayer-book. Yes, we were created good—but a simple look around at the state of the world should be sufficient to remind us that we’ve deviated quite a bit from the original plan. Yes, some language  about sin and theories around Original Sin get too bogged down in sex and its nuts and bolts—it’s really easy to target in on sex and sin and thereby (intentionally?) miss all of the other ways that sin infects our lives and relationships.

One note to end on:

“There was at that time a meeting in Scetis about a brother who had sinned. The Fathers spoke, but Abba Pior kept silence. Later, he got up and went out; he took a sack, filled it with sand and carried it on his shoulder. He put a little sand also into a small bag which he carried in front of him. When the Fathers asked him what this meant he said, ‘In this sack which contains much sand are my sins which are many; I have put them behind me so as not to be troubled about them and so as not to weep; and see here are the little sins of my brother which are in front of me and I spend my time judging them. This is not right, I ought rather to carry my sins in front of me and concern myself with them, begging God to forgive me for them.’ The Fathers stood up and said, ‘Truly, this is the way of salvation.’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 199-200)

When we no longer understand this, we no longer understand the Gospel.

Briefly on Confirmation

Too many irons in the fire to write anything comprehensive at the moment, but I just need to connect some dots on the whole Confirmation thing. Yes, Confirmation is under attack now too… For one of the angles, check out Scott Gunn’s bit on the Life-long Christian Formation resolutions and Chris Arnold’s thoughts on those.

One more time, folks: Baptism is full initiation into the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is, among other important senses, the “company of all faithful people” who are heirs of God’s promises in Christ as our Rite I post-communion prayer says. Got that?

One of the things that the Episcopal Church is quite serious about is that the boundaries of the ecclesial Body of Christ do not end at our borders. We recognize that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox—heck, even Lutherans!—are part of the Body of Christ. Baptism joins us into this mystical communion.

As a specific socially-incarnate part of the Body of Christ, we Episcopalians gather together in specific ways and have specific beliefs about how and why we do what we do to live into the life of God and learn to love God and neighbor. This organization is structured around our bishops and our sacramental understanding is that the sacraments flow from the bishops who have received the laying on of hands and who stand in apostolic succession.

[Bishops are an essential part of the Episcopal polity (hence our name), are fully biblical, and—since the days of at least the Apostolic Fathers if not the Pastoral Epistles if not the missionary efforts to which Saint Paul joined himself—are the visible teachers and sacramental actors of the church. Bishops are connected to dioceses but are bishops of the whole church. Or, at least, the parts of the church that recognize them and that’s where things start breaking up and getting fuzzy. Nevertheless, bishops are the chief structural elements of the visible Church which is the outward form of the invisible Body of Christ.]

Note this well: to be a priest in the Episcopal Church, you need to have the bishop’s hands laid on you. This is what binds you into the structure of the Episcopal Church and connects you to our sacramental understanding. This is called Ordination (it’s in the prayer book).

Alright—one little step from there: to be a lay person in the Episcopal Church, you need to have the bishop’s hands laid on you.  This is what binds you into the structure of the Episcopal Church and connects you to our sacramental understanding. This is called Confirmation (it’s in the prayer book).

Baptism is full initiation into the Body of Christ; Confirmation is full initiation into the Episcopal Church.

[…More importantly it is incorporation into the visible Church of which the Episcopal Church stand as as a particular instantiation. However, the difficulty of speaking of it as incorporation into the visible Church simpliciter is the broader lack of agreement about the nature and boundaries of the visible Church.]

On Forgiveness

I received an email the other day from the local On Faith editor of the Washington Post asking if I’d be willing to write a piece on forgiveness in the wake of the shootings at St. Peter’s and the diocesan response to them. It’s posted now on their website here. (And can I tell you how challenging it can be to write something appropriate, substantive, and edifying in just 400-600 words!)

A Time for Weeping

They say that deaths come in threes and they seem to be right.

Last week we had the funeral of M’s grandfather, the family patriarch. He was a saintly man who exemplified Christian fortitude in the face of some very difficult situations in life facing them with courage and a surprising quiet joy. He passed at the age of 93, still active and in control of his faculties. It was the inevitable end of a life well lived.

On the day of his funeral, we got word that one of the arch-deacons of the diocese had lost her fight to pancreatic cancer. She and M had worked together at M’s previous parish and they were pretty close. At the Holy Week Chrism Mass, M had made plans to get together with her next week. Heading into the viewing two nights ago, we passed a small knot of women clergy who were also M’s friends; we exchanged pleasantries as we passed them on our way into the parish house.

Late last night my blackberry started going crazy; the Cafe news team wanted to know if the family was ok. Googling to find out what had happened I quickly understood their concern: two women had been shot, one fatally, at a local historically Anglo-Catholic parish. One of the victims was the co-rector who is currently on life-support and not expected to make it.

I had just said hello to her the previous night going into the viewing. Now she lies at the point of death. [Update: I have received word that she has died from her wounds.]

Two things are fixed in my mind. The first is thinking about M. How often has she been alone in the church–or with just the parish admin beside her? Far too many. Just a slight shift of location and this story could have been one about her.

The second is resolve about our proclamation. Too often I see people in and from our church willing to soft-pedal or water down our teachings in order to appear more appealing and palatable to the “cultured despisers of religion.” We want them to know that we shouldn’t be lumped in with Young Earth Creationists and the like. I get that—I don’t want to be lumped in with those people either. On the other hand, we do proclaim some damn important things that we have no business being apologetic about.

Death is a reality. In a culture that wants to hide from it and disguise it as much as possible, it’s got to be said. I look at Grand-daddy’s death and I see the inevitable result of the natural process of life. We will (and do) miss him terribly, but his was a good death that respected the arc of the natural cycles of life and death in which our incarnate bodies are bound. I find it harder to see the arch-deacon’s passing in the same way. Yes, the cancer that took her was “natural” but I cannot help but see her arc sadly fore-shortened. There is nothing good or natural in the shooting. This is death as the enemy, death not as a completion of life but a mockery of it. And that leads to a crucial second point.

Sin is a reality. While we have no details around the crime, there is no doubt in my mind that at its root is the sin and evil that seeks to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. The church must stand as an implacable enemy of this sin and its virulence. We dither about mission and budgets and lose sight of teaching the basic vocabulary of habits and grammar of virtue that form Christian character. For it is the formation of the character of the Body of Christ according to the Mind of Christ that is our best work against evil.

Lastly, resurrection is a reality. It’s not just a theory. It’s not something that we debate in salons to then set aside quietly when our skeptical friends look down on us with pity for our attachment to superstition. It’s something that we live and live with most perfectly in the face of both death and sin. Resurrection doesn’t mean pretending that death doesn’t exist. Resurrection is a hope that we proclaim as a fitting and natural correlary to a life like Grand-daddy’s; resurrection is a challenge and a defiance we cast into the face of sin and evil.

The secular modern worldview grounded in materialistic empiricism leads to nihilism at its worst and a sensible humanism at its best. Materialistic empiricism is a great way to explore the world but is insufficient for explaining it and making meaning from it. It is utterly tone-deaf to the deeper poetry of the life-in-God proclaimed in the catholic sacramental worldview that we have inherited. Our proclamation of resurrection in the face of sin and death is a witness to the truth of the greater poetry that love and life have the last word in the face of evil, death, and sin. Why would we willingly apologize the poetry away?

Please pray for the departed—those known to us and those unknown—and for us who remain.

Stuff Like What I Would Be Writing

As I have all too many other things going on to draft blog content, I’d like to point you to some good stuff from folks who have more blog time than I do but who are writing the kind of stuff I wish I’d written.

One of my favorite topics where is ascetic theology which examines the place of spiritual practices and the cultivation of virtue within the Christian journey that is best described as living into the life of God. In that vein, check out Robb Beck’s take on McCabe’s On Aquinas and the discussion there of the relationship between cultivation of the virtues and divinization.

On the Bible front, if your interesting in a neo-patristic alternative which takes modern investigation of the Scriptures seriously yet still retains a primary focus on the life and practice of faith, you need to keep an eye on the project—I think Fr. Thomas is going in some similar directions.

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.

bls: Liturgy, Anglo-Catholics, and the Episcopal Situation

bls has a nice rant up at her place that strikes some real chords with me. Here are a few things that jump out at me and how I’d address them:

The Episcopal Church is mad for “liturgy.”  Over the top, really – that’s all we ever hear about, in fact.  “Liturgy” this and “liturgy” that – everything seems to be about the parade and the pageantry.

Now, listen:  I, like every Episcopalian, love a parade, and I do like pageantry.  I love incense and chant and the whole drama.  But I think in many ways this focus on “liturgy” is just a way of avoiding talking about content.

. . .

I would identify as an “Anglo-Catholic,” I think, generally speaking – on the basis of “liturgy.”  That stuff really speaks to me – the smoke, the chant, the statuary, the movements, the reverence.  I like it.  I was rendered literally speechless – kind of choked in the throat, and not from the smoke – when I first saw it.  And I agree that all this was meant to express a certain point of view – but I do wonder what, actually, the actual content is, at this point.

Ok—The way that I would say it is this: Despite what many people think, liturgy is not a means for avoiding content, rather, it’s a means for performing and embodying content. But that doesn’t mean that 1) we’re doing the liturgy well, 2) we’re doing the liturgy in such a way that lets the content speak, or 3) that those who know better are helping everyone else connect the dots. As she and I have discussed before, liturgy is a major key to all of this—but liturgy is not enough. I’ve repeatedly said about biblical interpretation, the act of interpretation has not been completed until someone’s habits have changed. It’s not enough to read the Scriptures. It’s not enough to come to an understanding. If there isn’t a lived change in your attitude to God, creation, and humanity, then you haven’t finished the job.

I’d say that the same is true of liturgy.

If your experience of God and your relationship with creation and your fellow creatures is not in the process of being transformed on the basis of what’s happening in the liturgy, something is not happening correctly. Process is important here—liturgical formation is a process not an event, and occasional periods of back-sliding is an inevitable part of the process, but if forward progress into love and virtue is not occurring when measured over a period of years, then something is off.

Liturgy is a means of embodying content. And there’s content there a-plenty: the creeds, the narrative of our failures and God’s constancy in the Eucharistic canons, intercession as a way of drawing the whole world into our view as part & parcel of our relationship with the divine, etc. But we’ve got to do the work to connect the dots and between what we do in worship, how this relates to what we believe, and how this changes how we act.

This means that people like me aren’t doing our job to the best of our abilities. We know how these things are supposed to fit together, and aren’t being as effective as we can be about communicating it!

Again from bls:

So I have to ask again: what is the content of our faith? Well, we don’t generally say, I think because we’ve been worried for a long time about offending people. But, as St. Paul has said pretty plainly: Christianity is offensive. There’s no getting around that; we’re not going to convince people that it’s of value by making it seem attractive or elegant or whatever the adjective happens to be. It’s offensive – so we’d better start talking about why that’s a good thing – why it’s a necessary thing – I’d say.  And that means talking about content. (Listen: I myself am living proof of the idea that seeing and recognizing this “offensiveness” can lead to conversion! I’m sure I’m not alone.)

bls had this question up on her blog earlier and not many were willing to tackle it. The question was, how, in brief, to describe the purpose of the church to a non-believer without using churchy language. This was my go at it:

The point of the church is to bring the whole human family to acknowledge reality: that love is at the center of all that is, has been, and will be, (as revealed in perplexing particularity by Jesus, his self-sacrifice, and love’s inability to stay dead [which we call resurrection]) and that our greatest task on earth is to conform ourselves, our community, and our society to the virtues of love, compassion, and justice.

What we as religions and churches tend to argue about is precisely how we define “love” and how we order our lives and societies to best reflect how we understand those virtues.

(Readers of Evelyn Underhill will note a certain similarity here to what she writes in Practical Mysticism.)

Again from bls:

Those who’ve rejected Christianity are, in my experience, rejecting two things:

  1. The authoritarianism and hostility to reform of the Roman Catholic Church.
  2. Brain-dead evangelicalism.

But at least the RCC has tried to make a case.  As I’ve said quite often before:  I have RCC Catechism envy.   I admire the massive intellectual tradition of the RCC, and its appeal to reason; it’s very unfortunate that all that has come along hand-in-hand with claims of “infallibility” and the authoritarian tendency.  (By contrast, our feeble Catechism in the back of the 1979 Prayer Book is nothing except embarrassing, at least to me.  More of a problem:  it once again assumes prior acceptance of Christian claims.  It has nothing to offer anybody who doesn’t already accept the basic claims of Christianity – and it doesn’t offer anything really interesting even in that case.  “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”?  OK – but could you please say a little something about these “inward and spiritual graces” that connects our minds with our hearts and souls, instead of just offering bland doctrinal summaries? Apparently we have nothing very deep or interesting too say on the topic, which is mighty sad.)

We need to make a case.  Reformed Protestantism – it seems to me – speaks to the individual modern human psyche, in all its alienation and anxiety.  It does have something important to say – but our case can’t be predicated on Biblical literalism or shallow, “personal salvation.”  It can’t assume facts not in evidence; it must make an argument.

And, actually, I’d tie this line of questioning in with the whole set of questions around Anglo-Catholicism:

I would identify as an “Anglo-Catholic,” I think, generally speaking – on the basis of “liturgy.”  . . .  And I agree that all this was meant to express a certain point of view – but I do wonder what, actually, the actual content is, at this point. . . . And there’s no particular clue in that article, titled “What Is An ‘Anglo-Catholic’ Parish,” about anything else we might regard as content.  It’s all about form:  historical events and counter-reactions, and “ecclesiology” and “how we do things” – i.e., “liturgy.”

I have to believe that one of the major issues here is that Episcopalians who are Anglo-Catholic are going to have a different understanding about the core content of the faith than other Episcopalians. But what and why? There have been a lot of the shifts in the past few years. Many of those who identify as Anglo-Catholic have left and those of us who are still here have yet to take stock and claim our identity. We need to do it clearly and publicly. Most Episcopalians still think of us as “those people who like incense and Mary and closets and who don’t like women.” Is that who we are? If not, then who and what are we? I have some ideas but am still working them out.

I do believe that the Society of Catholic Priests is a good start in this regard. But I think we also need a lay movement that can provide an active and vocal presence to church discussions. What would/could/should this look like?

Again, bls:

We need to make a case.  “Mystery” and “mystification” are two completely different things; we really can retain the former and eliminate the latter, I believe.

Absolutely! The fact that God, the communion of the saints, the sacraments, resurrection life etc. are mysteries to be inhabited doesn’t mean that it’s ok to keep everything nebulous or to use those mysteries as an excuse for fuzzy thinking.

We do have things to offer – but we’re not saying anything that’s very interesting to anybody not already interested!   (And sometimes not even to those of us who are, when you get right down to it.  I mean, when we’re not talking about “liturgy” we’re talking about partisan politics – both of which get my eyes to glazing over these days.)

But the Gospel is very interesting – it’s speaking to some of the most basic facts about living life as a human being on earth – and we just can’t let the opportunity to talk about it go to waste.

I agree entirely!

Liturgical Naming of Spiritual Communities

Our creeds tell us that we believe in “the communion of saints.”

Our Eucharists tell us that, in the consecratory act we are “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven.”

These are important but rather non-specific ways of talking about our larger eccesiology. These two statements remind us that when we gather in the church on a Sunday morning (or other times) for a Eucharist there are more who gather than we see; our “we” and “us” are not simply limited to those physically and visibly present.

The Rite I Post-Communion Prayer may say it best: “we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people…”

Now—“all faithful people” has a pretty wide scope. This helps break open the sense that we are more than the folks in this room, but almost broadens the scope to near incomprehension, not leaving us much better than we were to begin with.

How do we get a concrete sense of who these people are?

The central place where we get a picture of this in an Anglican environment is the church kalendar. Specifying people to be liturgically celebrated in Mass, the Offices, or both, is our primary vehicle for naming the company who surrounds us and joins us when we gather for worship.

In most of the Anglo-Catholic places I’ve been, a litany of the saints is chanted during the procession to the font during the rite of Baptism which seems a particularly appropriate time to be naming the saints who surround us and who have preceded it into the Body of Christ.

In both the kalendar and the litany, the church never claims—should never claim—that its lists are exhaustive. Rather, they are representational. They indicate a tiny fraction of this great host—just enough for us to get a sense of what kind of people inhabit our spiritual community. Furthermore, the Commons of the saints present us with helpful categories for grouping and conceptualize those who are in this company.

So—to summarize—the liturgy’s construction of the sanctoral cycle and sanctoral categories performs a valuable function in terms of giving us a tangible, comprehensible sense of who the church is.

More on this to follow…