Identity and Priorities

The reported words of the Bishop of Durham found in the Lead today gives me pause. If letters are going out, I wonder whether they go to the “Southern” Cone or to New York & Friends. I’ll not waste my time nor yours speculating—I imagine if the words are true, we’ll know soon enough.

The girls and I went to M’s church yesterday where there were two preachers. The first preached at the early service which was a set of baptisms of great significance for the life of the local church. The preacher was a visitor from the area who now holds a role at 815. The preacher at the second service was M. I was struck by the contrast between the two.

I don’t like judging a person on the basis of a single sermon or liturgical encounter, so I’ll try not to do that. Let me just say that the first preacher completely met my stereotypes of someone who works at 815: much emphasis on social justice. The church was mentioned several times but I came away uncertain what the difference was between the church and a social services agency.

M’s sermon focused on Jesus as the gate through baptism and the sacramental life in the presence of God as the meaning of “having life and having it abundantly.”

No matter to whom the ABC’s letters go, now is the take for the Episcopal Church as a whole to think careful about who and what it is. My own focus and my own gifts are not those best suited for social justice, but I see that as an important component of what we do deriving entirely from God’s call to us. But we are not a social services agency or an advocacy organization. We are a church. The deep mysteries of life, the beauty of holiness, the life hid in God—these are our core mission and the other things we do proceed from there.

18 thoughts on “Identity and Priorities

  1. Anastasia

    i do see social justice as an important component but I also completely agree with the point you’re making here. that mission is derived from our identity in Christ, which is our core identity.

    our preacher on sunday was brilliant. Brilliant, I tell you! I’ve heard him preach before and not really cared for his sermons but yesterday was great.

  2. The Postulant

    We were very fortunate in our preacher on Sunday too — a very nice meditation on abundant life. He didn’t dwell at all on the Good Shepherd angle, but we made up for that by singing every conceivable hymn, anthem, and song about sheep, shepherds, and lambs.

  3. Scott

    Right on target as always, Derek. The Church often seems to be avoiding the work only it can do: equip its saints for the work of ministry. In many places, we seem to plod along in our weekly schedule, assuming we all know the basics of the faith and what we’re doing and why. But have we been equipped to think theologically about the world and our role in co-creation? Go forth into the world to carry out our baptismal ministry? Often 815-ish sermons sound like “Let’s skip the churchy stuff and get to work.” Fine if the churchy stuff has no value, but it’s the base from which we need to be sent, and we need to know this as we go forth.

  4. LP

    To take a lesson from the Acts reading appointed for Sunday, we can see that it is precisely because the church devotes itself to the teaching of the Apostles, the breaking of bread and prayers that it is able to impact the surrounding world. I fear, however, that removing that solid foundation leaves the church as little more than a social service agency.

  5. Christopher

    I think this is true, and yet social justice is not something only that we extend outward to the world, but the life of the Holy Trinity should impact how we are as church together. I think what has happened is twofold. The Gospel has become disconnected from how we treat one another, something that a solid sacramental life cannot do. The other is that some have then mistaken are failure to treat one another well and remedy of this as the Gospel itself.

  6. Annie

    I don’t see how you can separate the two! On one hand, I see that the priest from 815 has an all consuming focus on an objective and is probably not involved in the nurturing of faith department right now, but it doesn’t seem to me to be at odds with the Gospel. He is hungering and thirsting to see that justice is done. When the Spirit directs our course, she can be very compelling and can create in us a singular focus.


  7. Matt

    One sometimes gets the sense that a whole generation of Episcopalian clergy read The Secular City in the 60’s and never quite got over it. The result is a rather two-dimensional, works-righteousness focus on social justice.

    The problem with that is not that social justice is optional for Christians. It isn’t. The problem is that too often it is presented as if it is the whole point. Unless it is grounded in and grows out of worship it becomes an idol and ironically cannot be sustained.

    I am as close to being a pacifist as one can get without carrying a membership card in my wallet. But this is not because I believe peace is the point. Jesus is the point. And Jesus points to nonviolence. But, Jesus points to a lot more. Our desire for peace or justice or health or whatever is only sustained by the more that Jesus points to – the mystery of the life of the Trinity.

  8. nurse rached

    Derek, I hope you are continuing to mend (you are still in my prayers). When I read your post about the two sermons I thought about Rudolph Otto’s concept of the numinous: “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” The sermon by the 815 person sounds like it was skewed too much towards the political with little or no sense of awe about God (with the wordly-wise, secular, yankee-prophet coming down from New York (where all people are thinner, much more intelligent and better informed) to preach to the vacuous, lazy, fried-chicken-eating, bigoted ignoramuses taking up space in pews in the Deep South). William Stringfellow had a gift for communicating social justice with humility, while remaining very grounded in Scripture and rooted in the life of the Trinity. Stringfellow wasn’t superficial or arrogant. And it seemed like Stringfellow arrived at some of his conclusions via Jacob-wrestling-the-angel-all-night-long experiences of prayer. Arrogance and an overarching assumption of personal infallibility seem to afflict many social justice prophets (and God help you if you ever disagree with them or cross them). I, of course, support the U.N. Millennium Development Goals as much as the next Episcopalian (Heck, I am even a card-carrying member of the United Nations Association!). But the mission of the Church, primarily, is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (at least that’s what the BCP catechism says). And that restoration and unity begin in baptism (also the beginning of a lifelong process of love and conversion). We won’t, somehow, fix ourselves inside by food shipments to developing countries (although justice and charity demand our involvement in works of mercy). Maybe excessive or imbalanced focus on social justice is a way of staying busy in order to avoid the spiritual growth-work (wachstum-arbeit) that needs to be done at home (along with growing in love and conversion). Sometimes 815-style social justice comes across as humanism in ecclesial drag or “the power of positive Pelagianism.” I would have gotten more out of your wife’s Sunday sermon, I think. Some people cry a weddings. I always get tears in my eyes at baptisms. It would have been entertaining, though, to ask some polite and pointed questions of the 815 person at coffee hour or adult forum.
    Keep getting well, Derek!

  9. bls

    I really don’t think the people at “815” think that New York is infallible and that people in the South are a bunch of lazy chicken-eaters. People here are quite aware of the faults of this region – the greed and the carelessness and the vanity and etc. Anyway, there has always been a segment of Anglican Humanists, alongside the Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals and etc.

    But I do agree that an over-focus on “social justice” tends to get quickly into self-justification; you can see this more easily today via the blogs. It’s important to integrate both things, but of course not everybody’s a Stringfellow.

    Some people don’t understand (or experience) the “mysterium tremendum”; they’re not wired for it, or have never learned how to access it. That’s what I think, anyway. But why shouldn’t they be a part of the Church? I don’t think they deserve scorn for trying to put their faith into action to help others; that’s the least of the faults, I’d think.

    Anyway, a lot of this is a reaction to too-interior faith to begin with; the key, at the end, has to be balance. And prayer and confession and real repentance.

    But of course, this is lacking all over the Anglican world at present; everybody’s very into self-justification. Take a look at any of the so-called “orthodox” websites, if you don’t believe me.

  10. Vicki McGrath


    It strikes me that one of the unfortunate omissions of the Rite II Eucharist was leaving out the Great Commandment after the Collect for Purity. “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God….and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” The 8 am folks in this parish hear that every Sunday, as do the 10 am people during Lent. I grew up with the 1928 BCP and so heard it at every Eucharist (which for us was every other week). And it becomes so ingrained to understand that our focus as Christians is to love and serve God and out of that, to love and serve the world around us when we hear it as part of the great mystery of God’s love and Christ’s presence. IMHO, that may be a contributing factor to some people experiencing a separation between faith/worship and social justice (even though I don’t think there is a separation).


  11. John-Julian, OJN


    Suggest to your rector that s/he consider using the “Penitential Order: Rite Two” (BCP p. 351) before Eucharist EVERY Sunday. It has “propers” that are appropriate for celebratory occasions and Ordinary time as well as for Lent.

    And the most-used one here at the monastery is the “…on these two commandments….” that you miss. It also means that you get Confession out of the way before starting the Eucharist proper.

    We’ve used it daily for nearly 25 years, and it truly works wonderfully!

  12. nurse rached

    Hi bls, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to characterize all people from 815 that way. The mentality I described I’ve actually encountered much more from some folks from a parish in Pasadena than New York (militant, “my way or the high way,” “if you disagree you are defective or bad,” etc.). And, in a way, I was trying to be funny about how some folks from larger (more cosmopolitan cities) sometimes assume that folks in rural areas or in the South in general are unsophisticated or primitive. It actually scares me to think that some folks are “not wired” for the numinous. That’s like a person missing one of their major sensory preceptions or faculties. Is it possible that all people are born with this and if it is not nurtured it becomes flacid or repressed? I don’t think anyone really understands the numinous (that is why it is so awe-inspiring). I was trying to describe a sermon which is almost completely lacking in a spiritual dimension (more of a talk about policy or politics without a real reference to God or the Church — I’ve heard sermons like that). Peace, Mildred

  13. bls

    No need to apologize; I guess I wasn’t reading the humor that you meant to convey in your post properly. I completely agree that “sermons about policy or politics without a real reference to God or the Church” are not the ideal. Once in a while – OK, but certainly not all the time.

    I am very frustrated with the Episcopal Church at the moment; it often seems to me that we are, as I’ve said before, more a collection of competing agendas than a church. Perhaps it’s just all the blather in the blogosphere that has me down – but we do see it IRL also. Everything seems to become a theory, or a basis for an argument, without there being much actual understanding of the way things actually are. Everybody’s on a side all the time. That’s fine occasionally, but not all the time. (I’m not saying that you are doing this, Mildred; it’s just the source of my frustration and weariness at this moment and for some reason I’m talking about it on this thread!)

    I think we let “liturgy” become the catch-all for everything, as if “liturgy” were supposed to convey everything we need to know. I don’t think it is; I think we actually need to talk to one another, and debate (in good faith, of course, not like now), and work things out. I was just thinking this morning that in trying to let “liturgy” say everything – in having so much pride in our “Anglican comprehension” – we’ve ended up essentially saying nothing. God Is, is what we’re saying we believe; well OK – but now what?

    Surely we could actually teach something, no? It doesn’t have to be one thing in particular; it could be many things. The whole panoply of Christian thought, sure – but we can’t let people flounder around seeking faith. They don’t know what faith consists of. What’s happened is that in being careful not to be dogmatic, we’ve become overly laissez-faire – and in the meantime, two millennia of wonderful writing/thinking/action is being ignored. That’s why, I think, politics and policy has become central; it’s an area that has something deeper and more meaningful to offer to people than generalized religious platitudes.

    I’m kind of rambling now, sorry. But the Church can’t keep people in the dark anymore; that’s been the big fault of the Christian Church since forever, and it seems to be happening all over again and for a totally different reason.

  14. bls

    What I’m saying is that Christianity is not only experience; some people don’t have the same sorts of experience(s) that others do – and some prefer an intellectual approach.

    Many people – me, too! – like and admire the massive intellectual tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, even while we dislike its authoritarianism and overly-dogmatic approach. But I go there for a deeper understanding of things; the faith has been worked out into something quite deep and beautiful over time.

    We should do this, too. Many modern people need something meaty to bite into, and some just aren’t going to get there through the “numinous” (and yes, I think some people are wired for that much more than others are).

    There is a history of thinking in Anglicanism, too; it’s different from the RCC style, but it’s there. But not these days.

  15. Derek the Ænglican

    I do think that balance is the key–and has *always* been the key. Most of the great heresies in Christianity keep reoccurring because they’re embedded in who and what we are; they keep cropping up when things get out of balance.

    What I see us wrestling with here are several facets of the Christianity, the active, the intellectual, the liturgical, the mystical. None of these are truly separate. Rather when in proper balance they interpenetrate one another and bring forth each other. Real problems happen when these are stifled in the corporate life of the institutional church. And that’s precisely what we’re trying to prevent.

    We need to reclaim the balance.

  16. nurse rached

    Hi bls! I, too, am frustrated with the Episcopal Church right now (and the Anglican Communion). We have so many gifted laity and clergy, but our conversation is so very limited to one or two subjects. And the polarization, hostility, and odium make it increasingly difficult for trust, listening, and even simple visiting with one another (there are certain dioceses or wide swaths of the Church where I would be hesitant to visit). Many activist types in the Church (on all sides of the various disagreements) remind me of swarming and devouring locusts. It doesn’t seem as though they will be satisfied until everything is depleted or becomes a wasteland. Socrates said that locusts were originally human beings who became mesmerized by the sounds of the Muses. They listened to the Muses, forgetting (or neglecting) to eat and drink. Then the Muses turned these people into locusts, condemning them to a shrivled life of futile noisemaking and devouring. Many folks are beguiled by the sounds made by certain factions in the Church. They are neglecting to take in intellectual nourishment (ignoring it, choosing the noise made by the locusts) . They aren’t letting themselves be nourished spiritually either. And they are gradually (in a profound state of malnourishment) being transformed into locusts themselves. It’s sad.

  17. The Anglican Scotist

    It does not seem that difficult to tie concern for justice to sacramental life, seeing that every normal Sunday Eucharist begins with an offering; i.e. the labor of the church community is sanctified with the Real Presence of Christ and returned to the community, sent out into the world to continue work as the body of Christ.

    There are a number of themes integral to the Eucharist and the notion of justice–note how multiple Exchanges and Labor (even Objectification) are essential to the sacrament, how Communication of the Elements could bring up questions of what constitutes a fair exchange, how the collection of the offering implies a notion of common good, how the presentation of the elements imples a notion of representation, etc etc.

    There is no–there cannot be–an apolitical or a plotically neutral Eucharist.

    Granted, loosey goosey lefty preachers might preach social justice and be too dull to notice the sacramental context in which they preach is soaked in political references, but there is also a loosey goosey mentality perversely abstracting the Eucharist from the political, as if real labor and real money and real paychecks and real exchanges were not actually involved and actually sanctified, as if it were all just symbolic or even pretend.

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