Category Archives: Theology

Presentation on Trinitarian Theology

Back at the beginning of the year, the folks at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore asked me to give them a talk about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday. I said, sure, I’d be happy to—but that Trinity Sunday wasn’t going to work due to a conflict with the Society of Scholar-Priests meeting that I’d already agreed to. So, we agreed that I’d do it on Pentecost instead.

As I was putting together a slide deck for it, it occurred to me that I could do a run-through beforehand, make sure my presentation and slides worked as they should and that it would fall within the forty-five/fifty minute time-slot that I was shooting for. Not only that, I could record my little run-through and be able to upload it to the YouTube channel. Due to life intervening (as it is wont to do…), the recording didn’t happen beforehand. But—I did make a recording of it, and it now up on the channel.

Let me warn you ahead of time: it is 46 minutes long (!).

Long-time readers of the blog may recognize that I recycled my now twelve-year-old (!!) post Revelations of Divine Algebra for the initial section.

So, if you have an interest in boning up on the Trinity ahead of the Feast of the Holy Trinity this coming Sunday, set aside a block of time and give it a view:

On Boethius

In 522, another great Roman aristocrat was showered with honors. Theoderic in Ravenna selected one of his sons to be the consul of Rome representing the West while Justin in Constantinople selected his other son to be the consul representing the East; he himself was tapped for the high position of Master of Offices. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, a scion of one of the two great Roman senatorial families, the Anicii, was a philosopher as well as a public servant. As far as we know, he was the single greater intellect in the West than Cassiodorus—certainly the only one from whom we have writings. He wrote treatises on music, theology, arithmetic, and geometry. As fluent in Greek as he was in Latin (an achievement becoming more and more rare in this time), he translated the only texts of Aristotle from Greek into Latin that the Medieval West would know until the Crusades brought the Arabic editions of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina to light. In the introduction to his Commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione, Boethius lays out a plan for how his philosophical work would unfold:

I wish to translate the whole work of Aristotle, so far as it is accessible to me, into the Roman idiom and conscientiously offer his complete utterances in the Latin tongue. Everything Aristotle wrote on the difficult art of logic, on the important realm of moral experience, and on the exact comprehension of natural objects, I shall translate in the correct order. Moreover, I shall make all this comprehensible by interpretive explanations. I should also like to translate all Plato’s Dialogues, and likewise explain them, and thus present them in a Latin version. When this is accomplished, I will furthermore not shrink from proving that the Aristotelian and Platonic conceptions in every way harmonize, and do not, as is widely supposed, completely contradict one another. I will show, moreover, that they are in agreement with one another at the philosophically decisive points. This is the task to which I dedicate myself, so far as life and leisure for work are vouchsafed to me[1].

Unfortunately for him and for the unfolding of the Western philosophical tradition, the leisurely fulfillment of this ambitious plan of work was not to be for philosophy was not his only ambition. For somewhere in the year 522 or 523 also came the death of Eutharic, the strong and appointed heir of Theoderic, the presumptive next king in the West.

The Master of Offices was—just below the Praetorian Prefect—one of the two highest civil posts in the Empire. The Master of Offices received his title because his position oversaw four offices which handled all of the imperial correspondence and all foreign envoys who came to address the Emperor. All information about doings in the Empire and relations with its neighbors flowed through this office. If a wealthy, intelligent, well-connected man of ancient birth steeped in Plato’s Republic and its vision of philosopher-kings wanted to subvert the Empire, this was the perfect place from which to do it.

We do not have clear visibility into what happened next. Our usual source for government dealings of the time is entirely silent upon the events; there is one Eastern-leaning history by an anonymous hand that gives one take on events, and then we have Boethius’s side of the story. In short, he was arrested on a charge of treason in 524 or 525. He was accused of conspiring with other members of the senatorial class and of holding treasonous correspondence with the Emperor in the East. Imprisoned within a church in Pavia—a city in northern Italy—Boethius embedded his side of the story in a book that would become the most important work of philosophy for the Early Medieval West behind the Bible, the Consolation of Philosophy. In a dialogue between himself and Lady Philosophy, a personified woman hearkening back to the figure of Wisdom in the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclessiasticus, he pours out “a long and noisy display of grief” (his words!) where he explains that he was set up by means of forged letters by a cast of ne’er-do-wells unhappy at his attempts to reign in corruption[2]. However, even his self-defense does seem a bit weak at important points: “I am accused of having desired the safety of the Senate. . . . But the fact is that I did desire the safety of the Senate and will never cease to. . . . Should I count it a crime to have desired the safety of the Senate[3]?”

The Consolation itself—entirely apart from the guilt or innocence of its author—is a splendid work. A Neo-Platonic meditation composed alternately in prose and verse, Boethius explores his situation, his rise to tremendous heights and his tragic fall to the depths, and offers later ages two related themes that wrestle with questions around the unfolding of history, the justice of God, and the lament—old in the days of Job—that bad things do indeed happen to good people. The first theme is a differentiation between Providence and Fate/Fortune (he uses the two terms interchangeably). God, who stands outside of the flow of time, knows, sees, and directs the big picture—Providence—in order that all will end well. This is the plan in the mind of the all-knowing and all-loving God. The big picture is therefore fixed; we know its happy end. The route by which this plan is accomplished, however, is far more sketchy. This is Fate. Thus, “the simple and unchanging plan of events is Providence, and Fate is the ever-changing web, the disposition in and through time of all the events which God has planned in His simplicity[4].” You could say that Providence is the plan while Fate is its execution.

What Boethius gets out of this formulation is the ability to say that God is good and just and can affirm alongside St. Paul that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). In the end, he will affirm alongside the future words of Julian of Norwich that all things will be well. But, thanks to Fate, that doesn’t mean that everything is guaranteed to turn out okay for you! In the various vagaries and improvisations of Fate towards the irresistible end of Providence, even the wisest, the wealthiest, the most powerful person is but Fate’s pawn. And that brings us to the second major theme of Boethius of which all of America has heard—but maybe not in the sense he intends: the Wheel of Fortune.

The famous television game show is named after an ancient concept that reached its finest formulation with Boethius. He was not the first person to come up with the concept and other thinkers had written similarly about Fortune before, of course. The 2nd century BCE tragedian Pacuvius had said:

Philosophers claim that Fortune is insane, blind, and savage,
That she stands on a rolling and treacherous stone—
Whichever way chance tips that stone, fortune falls nearby.
They say that she is insane because she is merciless, unsteady and faithless.
They repeat that she is blind because she does not see where she goes;
she is savage because she makes no distinction between a worthy or worthless man.

Boethius makes a more subtle but not fundamentally dissimilar argument. As he sits in his dungeon bemoaning his fall from glory, Lady Philosophy essentially shakes him and asks him what he thought was going to happen:

You are wrong if you think Fortune has changed towards you. Change is her normal behaviour, her true nature. In the very act of changing she has preserved her own particular kind of constancy towards you. She was exactly the same when she was flattering you and luring you on with enticements of a false kind of happiness. You have discovered the changing faces of the random goddess[5].

As Lady Philosophy concludes her discourse she breaks into a ditty that will be graphically illustrated in dozens of medieval manuscripts and even find its way into the trump cards of the tarot deck:

If you are trying to stop her wheel from turning you are of all men the most obtuse. For if it once begins to stop, it will no longer be the wheel of chance:

With domineering hand she moves the turning wheel

Like currents in a treacherous bay swept to and fro

Her ruthless will has just deposed once fearful kings

While trustless still, from low she lifts a conquered head;

No cries of misery she hears, no tears she heeds,

But steely hearted laughs at groans her deeds have wrung.

Such is the game she plays, and so she tests her strength;

Of mighty power she makes parade when one short hour

Sees happiness from utter desolation grow[6].

The standard depiction of the wheel throughout the middle ages depicts a spoked wheel set upright: a king robed in splendor is perched at the top while the same figure appears at the bottom, clad in rags and crushed with pain—sometimes with the crown toppling from his brow. On one side he is clothed in finery as he makes his ascent; on the opposite side he is in beginning his fall into despair. The point is that Fortune is inherently fickle. No matter how high or how low people rise or fall, the condition is temporary for change is inevitable.

The story of Boethius does not end well. Both he and his guardian/father-in-law Symmachus were executed at the order of Theoderic. The brilliance of his Consolation ensures that his side of the story is never forgotten, though; it’s easy to buy the caricature of the noble Roman philosopher unjustly accused and killed by a thuggish barbarian ruler. We’ll probably never really know the true story and Cassiodorus never tells us. But, then, he’s not entirely a neutral observer either…

[1] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, xv-xvi.

[2] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1, 16.

[3] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1.4, 11-12.

[4] Boethius, Cosolation of Philosophy 4.6, p. 105.

[5] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 2.1, p. 23.

[6] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 2.1, p. 24

Defining Heresies

There is a theology that seems to be marketed largely to White suburban America—that the created image of God is vibrant and whole in humanity and that sin is more of an ugly rumor designed to make you feel bad about yourself.

It’s heresy.

Despite assurances that you may have heard to the contrary, evil is real. Evil—human-created, human perpetuated—is a genuine force in our existence. The evidence is, well, self-evident. Whenever nations and armed groups commit and enable the atrocities of Aleppo, whenever children are raped, whenever the acquisition of money for the few overrides the lives, health, and bodies of the fragile, evil declares its presence to the world. There are strategies that are used and that we use to shield or hide ourselves from it.

That makes it no less real.

Not only that, getting ourselves in the habit of ignoring evil “out there” is part and parcel—a twisted feedback loop—of ignoring evil “in here.”

Understanding and getting in touch with the reality of our own personal sin is an important part of grappling with evil in its many forms.

Already I imagine some readers are turning away in disgust at the notion that they participate anything like “real” sin; adult forums and Lenten talks that M and I have given that speak about sin, confession, and repentance are regularly met with, “I’m not a bad person; this doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have anything to repent for.” (No kidding: that’s an actual quote.)

But here’s the thing: the Gospel is the tool to fight back against evil. The truth of God’s love is the only weapon that doesn’t beget more violence, more hatred—more evil. And if we say nice words about applying it in the world, we must begin by applying it to our own hearts and our own homes. We must recognize our own need for repentance and for grace. (And I use “we” here deliberately because I’m just as enmeshed in this as anyone else… I’m not perfect and have never claimed to be!!)

Spirituality, religion, faith, whatever we want to call it and however we want to define it has got to fundamentally be about truth, recognizing truth and confronting our own shallow constructs with it.  Evelyn Underhill nails it when she writes:

Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment. (Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People, 3.)

We are not telling the truth as revealed in the Gospel if we pretend that evil is not real.

I do believe in the image of God indelibly imprinted on the human soul. But I also believe in the sin and evil that obscure it, and that it must be cleansed frequently, its blurred lines touched up, and be colored in with the virtues (a nice image from Didymus the Blind riffing on Athanasius…).

But that cleansing work, performed by God, invited and cooperated with by us, has got to happen. We must recognize our own personal, secret, hidden complicities in the broader evils of our age. Yes, megacorps are bad; but our own personal sin has a role in sustaining and growing them… No, it’s not enough to decry them or use a general confession that mentions them obliquely. If you can’t begin to name your complicities, then you don’t really mean it.

The fall of Aleppo thrusts the face of evil into our eyes once again.

Reinhold Niebuhr is credited with saying that the only objectively verifiable Christian doctrine is Original Sin. This morning, scrolling through my news feeds, I’m feeling that. And yet there’s a cottage industry of ignoring and downplaying that such a thing even exists. Unfortunately for it, to twist a phrase, reality has a well-known Augustinian bias.

Ah, well—back to the book.

Happy Advent!

Prayer Book Revision and Identity

I’ve been trying to pull my thoughts together towards what I’d like to see out of the prayer book revision plan, but have had a hard time doing so. Yesterday, it finally clicked. A number of different things aligned in my head, and I caught a glimpse of the situation in a way that I hadn’t understood it before.

A key piece of the puzzle here is “identity” and the ways in which our liturgies are understood as a public enactment of who we are as a church, both as an ecclesial body that spans the United States and several other countries and as local embodied communities that make up the church in our neighborhoods.

Here are some of the things that I see connecting…:

  • The current argument around Communion without Baptism. In my latest sizeable piece on CWOB, I clarified further that I believe identity and anxiety are key drivers of this particular movement. The real question that we are wrestling with here is not the obvious one (what is the shape and nature of our sacramental theology?) but an identity-driven one (does the church affirm [at least verbally] that it—and I—am welcoming and inclusive?).
  • The bulletin for Sunday’s installation of Bishop Curry as Presiding Bishop.
  • The notion of “liturgical evangelism.” This can paraphrased loosely like this: If Sunday morning is the church’s cultural moment in the spotlight, then we need to have a service that is going to draw people in rather than turn them away. We need a service where visitors are going to feel comfortable and included, and maybe they’ll actually come back. There’s usually more than a hint of anxiety built into this one because the fear is, if a visitor doesn’t feel welcomed and included, they won’t come back and our church will continue to lose numbers and die…
  • And that fear connects to the sobering reality of how the numbers overall are looking for the Episcopal Church. Here is the latest research on the 5 year trends from 2009-2013 for the Episcopal Church as compiled by our Office of Research under Dr. C. Kirk Hadaway.  Here is his latest snapshot of the demographics of the church based on the 2014 data in both the short form and the long form.
  • Last but definitely not least, I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last week or so considering the second resolve of the prayer book revision plan resolution: “Resolved, That such a plan for revision utilize the riches of our Church’s liturgical, cultural, racial, generational, linguistic, gender and ethnic diversity in order to share common worship;”

So—what’s going on here? How do these things connect together?

One of my axioms is that liturgy is the kinetic expression of the gathered community’s theology. (Or, at least, it should be. I’ll touch on how and why that can break down a little further on…) As such, there is a direct relationship between the identity of the worshipping community and the liturgy through which it expresses who it is and what it believes. However, identity can be a very vague and slippery thing due to a whole bunch of overlapping scopes and aspects. Furthermore, identity is neither static nor something that can be easily nailed down. Certainly there are some aspects of identity that can be quantified by sets of numbers, but identity as a whole is more of a mental or ideological construct. When we start “acting out of our identity,” then, the questions must be asked: who is the “us/our” and which version of constructed identity are we working with? Furthermore, because identity isn’t static, I think a lot of effort around identity in the Episcopal Church is invested in what I call “aspirational identity”—who we wish we are, who we believe that we can eventually be, rather than who we may actually be now.

Let me break this down in a couple of different ways.

  • There is the actual identity of the local worshipping community. This refers to an identity based on the people are who are physically present in the nave during worship at your local congregation.  Notice that this is a little more precise than “local community.” That’s deliberate. For instance, at the church we recently left, the “local community” included children but the “actual local worshipping community” didn’t as the kids were hustled out of worship.
  • Then there is the aspirational identity of the local worshipping community. This would include all of the people who you really think ought to be in your local congregation and who certainly would be if they just realized how awesome you are. For instance, I know a church in an urban area whose congregants are mostly  older folks who commute in from the suburb they went to when White Flight transitioned the neighborhood from ethnic European immigrant to Black. The urban area has since gentrified and is now filled with young professionals and families with children.  The hope, the aspirational identity of this congregation, is well-stocked with these young folks even though very few (if any) actually darken a pew on Sunday morning. Typically, it is this aspect of identity that gets factored in when liturgical evangelism is on the table. What is it that we imagine “those people” might like? How should we change ourselves so that “those people” will want to come and join us so we won’t die and the bishop won’t close us down?
  • Identity doesn’t just manifest on a local level, though. Indeed, one of the key things that I think we are now and will continue to argue about and fight over is the aspirational identity of the whole church. What could/should the church look like? This is the point where I think the second resolve in the prayer book revision plan resolution is very telling. In the aspirational whole church the seven different aspects of diversity outlined there would be richly and thoroughly represented. As a result, when we think liturgical evangelism and prayer book revision, I see us working around the question of whether a given liturgy will attract and keep the wide diversity (and great numbers!) that will surely follow when we finally “get it right” with our liturgies, all kinds of people do flood in, and our aspirational vision is fulfilled.
  • But, there’s also an actual identity of the whole church to be reckoned with as well. That’s where the statistics come in. They show an actual church that is largely white, aging, and shrinking. And, despite our vaunted liberality—even after the departures of the last decade—only 29% of surveyed congregations identified themselves as “somewhat liberal or progressive” and only 8% as “very liberal or progressive.”


Who is the church that we are revising the prayer book for?


That’s not a rhetorical question or a “gotcha” but an honest question that we need to have clarity on. This is where all that CPE and therapy come in handy—so that we can assess what our true motives are so that we are not working out of our fears and anxieties but actually know what we’re dealing with, what situations we’re envisioning, and why.

It’s this confluence of aspirational and actual identities that I find interesting when I consider the liturgy for the installation of the Presiding Bishop.

Again: liturgy is a public expression of community identity. This event is a Big Deal for the Episcopal Church. It isn’t quite on the scope of a royal wedding, but it is a key point where a certain amount of attention will be focused on us and our church. In this moment we have an opportunity to introduce ourselves liturgically to people who may not know much about us and who we are. What kind of identity does this liturgy enact?

Here’s the thing—this liturgy is an embodiment of the actual worshipping community who will be gathered in the National Cathedral on Sunday. That is, we have Spanish-speaking people, clergy from Native American backgrounds who speak Lakota, gospel choirs from African-American congregations, and the like. We have progressive liturgies like Enriching Our Worship, Prayer 2 which will be the Eucharistic prayer for the service. In a real sense this liturgy will be an authentic expression of that gathered group.

But there is also a significant disconnect between what will occur in that liturgy and the average Episcopal Sunday services in the parts where there is overlap.

I said that liturgy is “the kinetic expression of the gathered community’s theology.” That’s what liturgy ought to be. In reality, liturgy is the kinetic expression of what the people with the control print on the papers that get handed out and what gets enacted in the chancel. Sometimes these two things are exactly the same—that’s what it ought to be. But I’ve certainly been in places where the clergy and/or worship leaders have different notions about theology and its liturgical expression than the majority of the congregation. There’s a paternalistic sense that the leadership knows better, and that they understand their role to lead the congregation up to their more enlightened level. Hence, I always get a little worried when I hear clergy tell me that they’re leading their congregations into a new kind of worship or liturgy; it seems to me their congregations ought to be leading them rather than the other way around… (I’ve ranted before about clergy inflicting their personal spiritual journeys on the congregation, I won’t go into it now…)

Clearly this installation liturgy is intended to be a celebration of the multicultural diversity of the Episcopal Church upon the installation of its first African-American Presiding Bishop. I completely understand that. Not only is the installation of a Presiding Bishop an occasional liturgy (occurring only once every three to nine years) but this particular installation is a unique one—you can only do “the first” once by definition…

But how do we “read” this event, or how will it be read by others?

This is our main public moment for years to come; this liturgy is portraying the Episcopal Church and its liturgy in a way that is dissimilar from what visitors would find in the majority of Episcopal churches they might visit. Do we read this as a unique liturgy celebrated once to mark an important event coupled with a significant milestone, or do we see it as a template for what the leadership thinks our liturgies ought to look like—setting the tone for the desires of the “incoming administration” as we look towards prayer book revision?

To what degree is criticism of the installation liturgy—and I have heard some—related to a gap between the theology of the planners of the liturgy and the theology held by the local communities from which the critics come? (And please note that I am making observations here, not criticisms. Trust me, I’ll make those clear if I decide to do so…)

The participants in the installation liturgy are, I believe, a microcosm of the aspirational identity of the whole church as constructed by those who wield power in the church currently. And why not? This is a vision of the church as diverse, welcoming, and inclusive. But does it necessarily follow that in order to make this aspiration the actual identity of the whole church that an installation-style liturgy must become the norm? We should resist the temptation to draw an easy line between the installation liturgy and the character of a future prayer book; that move is not self-evident. However, I’m sure that there are plenty on both sides who will quickly do so, either fearing that to be the case, or hoping that it will come to pass.

Let’s not forget, too, that this vision only represents one version of the aspirational identity of the whole church. Part of our conflict within the church is about who we are and who we wish to be going forward. Are we the church of the upper-crust, the church for those who have arrived in society? Or are we the church of the liturgical(ish) social justice warriors? Or are we whatever we were when we were back in the ’50s? Or the 70s?

The reality of our situation is that there is a disconnect between the (several competing) aspirational identities of the whole church and the actual identity of our local worshipping congregations.


Who is the church that we are revising the prayer book for?


Until we have some clarity around the answer to that question, we will be working in the dark.


Theology and Liturgy and History (Oh my!)

In writing up my thoughts and recommendations around prayer book revision, I was poking around in the back catalogue. In the course of that exploration, I ran across a post which neatly and succintly addresses a large set of issues that I had intended to bring up. Rather than writing it all de novo, I think it makes much more sense to reproduce that text, with a few words of context for the current situation. (The original is here.)

I wrote the post in 2010 upon receiving word of the American Sarum conference that I subsequently attended and blogged. For me, the central issue was this: When we identify a historical point as particularly paradigmatic for renewal of our liturgical practice, we are making a huge theological statement whether we know it or not and whether we intend it or not.

Five years ago, the conference raised the issue of “Sarum”: what does it mean for 21st centruy Episcopalians to claim “Sarum Use” which was itself, truthfully, an appropriation of a Victorian nationalistic reconstruction of a medieval tradition?

Today, we know have this issue before us again because of the “fourth-century fundamentalism” that characterized the Liturgical Renewal Movement that gave such a strong shape to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. (Note that one of the current arguments against the retention of the Nicene Creed is that it wasn’t used during the Eucharist in the fourth century.) If we really are going to do a “comprehensive revision”, then we must look at what we have gained and what we have lost through conducting liturgy through an appropriation of the the 1960’s reconstruction of the fourth century tradition…

Liturgies change. Indeed, liturgical and ceremonial tinkering is inevitable across any significant group of folks whether there’s a set standard liturgy or not. Sometimes it’s because the liturgy needs a change, sometimes it’s because the tinkerers want a change.

No matter which way it goes, there’s no such thing as a liturgical change; rather there are theological changes that have liturgical implications. When a worshiping community of baptized Christians gather, they incarnate in a particular way the eschatological reality of the Body of Christ.  (This is most especially the case when they gather for a Eucharist where the whole intention is the making tangible and consumable the literal Body of Christ to be shared amongst them all.) You cannot separate the liturgy, the ceremonial, and the theology of such a gathering—they are inextricably bound up in one another. When the liturgy or the ceremonial gets changed, therefore, a theological change has necessarily occurred. When we say and do something different liturgically and ceremonially, we are just as surely saying and doing something different theologically as well. Sometimes these changes are minor—and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes these theological changes are intentional and conscious—and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the tinkerers are aware of what they’re doing—and sometimes they’re not.

When liturgies change, my sense is that the motivation for the change and the direction in which the change occurs relate to two different axes: contemporary culture and historical practice. That is, when liturgies change it tends to be because the tinkerers are trying to make a statement to the contemporary culture; history can be leveraged in a number of different ways:

  • Sometimes historical practices are jettisoned entirely because of a perceived disconnect with contemporary culture (this would be your praise & worship/Willow Creek type response).

  • Sometimes historical practices are resurrected because they represent a perceived correction to the current deplorable state of the contemporary culture—if the historical practice is maintained, the culture will be restored. (I see this as one of the motivations behind some who call for the ’28BCP & ’40 hymnal/Traditional Latin Mass: if we return to a pre-’60s liturgy, maybe we’ll return to a pre-’60s culture as well.)

  • Sometimes historical practices are resurrected because they represent a perceived connection to the contemporary culture–if the historical practice is maintained, this culture will be better able to hear, receive,  and embody the Gospel.

I’d suggest that this last approach has been behind most of the major shifts in liturgy within the Christian Church as a whole. Most of the major liturgical changes in Western Christendom have been attempts to re-engage/re-enliven contemporary practice based on historical precedents. This isnot a new thing. Most of the monastic renewal movements in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were rooted in attempts to return to the True Practice whether that be the Desert Fathers, John Cassian, Benedict or a combination of the three. The Protestant Reformers attempted to return to Early Church practice. The first liturgical revival driven by the monks of Solesmes was an attempt to return to proper medieval practice. The Ritualists attempted to return to a High Medieval practice. Blessed Percy and the English Use tried to return to a Sarum standard. The most recent Liturgical Renewal encompassing Vatican II and the ’79 BCP tried to return to fourth century practice. Picking up a theme from the previous post, isolating one movement as “museum religion” is a bit disingenuous becauseutilizing historical precedence for contemporary practice has been a consistent habit in the West for a very long time.

Furthermore, we need to note that the exercise of identifying and utilizing historical materials is always a process thoroughly invested with contemporary meanings and limitations. The Protestant Reformersthought that they were returning to Early Church patterns of worship. Their historical reconstructions of Early Church worship didn’t have a whole lot to go on and look little like how we reconstruct Early Church worship today. We have better sources and better scholarship. (Would Luther or Calvin have used the Eucharist of the Didache had they known it?) Likewise, the work of the Ritualists and the Blessed Percy are properly understood as part of a broader English Gothic Revival rooted in English Nationalism and a political and social appropriation of the peculiarly English/British heritage over and against Continental expressions of nationalism. The work of Vatican II and attendant movements cannot be separated from the cultural and social movements of the ’60s. Historical work and even its excess—antiquarianism—are events that are contemporary in nature despite their focus on the past.

Now we tie these two threads together. The appropriation of historical practices always signals theological changes to the contemporary liturgy. Some of the theological changes are because of what the historical practice itself is or does. On the other hand, the very act of incorporating a certain practice from a certain time and place is a theological statement entirely apart from the content of the practice; the very selection of any time and place as an “ideal” is a major theological statement. The selections of the Early Church for the Reformers and the Fourth Century for Vatican II were attempts to achieve a purity that had been lost. The return to the High Medieval or Sarum reflected attempts to recapture a fullness that had been lost. None of these choices are theologically neutral—they all had and have an impact.

So what, what is a Renewal vs. a Revival vs. Musem Religion? Is it purely subjective or are there objective measures? When is a Renewal/Revival/Museum Moment an imposition into a contemporary practice and when does it represent a true enlivenment and enrichment?

For me the issue goes back to theology. As I’ve said before, we’re not the Christian Historical Society—we don’t do things because they’re old, we do them because they proclaim the Gospel. But some times the old ways proclaim the Gospel in new ways or media or avenues that our contemporary society needs to hear. Whenever we try to bring back an old practice, rite or time, my questions are these:

  • Why—to what end? Is it for the sake of nostalgia or fantasizing that the contemporary culture will go away and reformulate itself accord to the ideal pattern if we can sufficiently recall this past time? Or is it because we see a way here that the Gospel can be better communicated in this time and place?
  • Is there a coherence and an integrity between this historical practice and what the contemporary community is doing now? How radical or organic is this change?
  • Are the theological messages and intentions of this change in coherent relation with the theological trajectory of the community into which it is being introduced?

These are the kinds of questions that I see and here us asking about the Vatican II changes and the changes of the ’79 BCP. They’re also the questions that I will take with me to the American Sarum conference. Why a Sarum Revival? Why here—why now? Into what deep currents, culturally and theologically, is it tapping—or do we want to revive it because it seems “cool”? Why Sarum over some other time and place? As I’ve said before, I think there’s a case to be made for infusing as bit of the English early medieval monastic spirit into contemporary American Episcopalianism. Why is Sarum a better choice?

I don’t want to focus narrowly on Sarum here, though. Instead let me just say that this movement is raising for me—for us—a number of questions that I think are important now and may become even more important in the near future. Society is shifting. Technology and the evolving world situation are bring us into new opportunities and conflicts. Where, amongst the contemporary world and the faithful works of the past, is the Gospel best found and proclaimed?

That, indeed, remains the central question that we must consider in prayer book revision. How do we best proclaim the Gospel in our own day and age?

Theological Context of a Revised Prayer Book

It’s in my nature, I suppose, that when I address a topic, I want to back up and see the context. In order to address the issues that I see coming and to respond properly to the issues raised by Ruth Meyers in her presentation at CDSP, we have to have a sense of the culture in which, for which, and to which a revised prayer book and a church shaped by it will serve.

This is the first American prayer book that will be revised for a self-conciously post-Constantinian Church. That is, I think most Episcopalians are clear on the fact that we cannot and should not rely on general “cultural forces” to compell people into our churches and to align themselves with our vision of the faith. American society doesn’t work that way any more.

What I don’t think many Episcopalians are clear on is the spiritual shape of the culture that we are working with.  It is my belief that orthdox/Nicene Christianity is in the minority even among those Americans who identify as Christians. Of course, this is not the first time this has been the case, and likely not the last. Let’s recall—in the early days there were multiple versions of Christianity being proclaimed, only some of which had the intention of being apostolic Christianity. That is, teaching the faith as it was taught by the apostles and as presented in the writings that would become the books of the New Testament. Looking back, we can see Irenaeus and others like him as key figures who helped define the contours of apostolic Christianity over and against other forms that held Jesus as important but were not in organic continuity with his teaching and that of his apostles.

With the rise of Marcion, I have read that at various places and times in the 2nd/3rd century there were more Marcionites than orthodox Christians.

Certainly in the fourth and fifth centuries orthodox Christians were a global minority versus Arian Christians. Not only did the empire go back and forth between orthodoxy and Arianism, but many of the European tribal groups were Arian. (And, recall, this was an important political choice as much as it was a theological one. Claiming Arianism enabled the tribal groups to remain outside the control of the orthodox bishops who were aligned with the empire’s ideology and interests.)

There are some these days (I think of Elaine Pagels and others) who underscore the diversity of early Christianity to remind us that the stream of apostolic Christianity that became orthodox Christianity and that grounded the Undivided Church was one among many in order to suggest that some of the others are perfectly valid ways of being Christian and that orthodoxy became orthodox because the mean patriarchal Fathers constructed it that way so they could oppress everybody else.  I don’t agree with that perspective, and that’s not why I’m bringing up the diversities of Christianities in the past. My point is simply that claiming Christianity does not automatically ensure orthodoxy.

In fact, I’d argue that orthodox Christianity is once again a minority among Americans generally and even among Americans who claim Christianity. The majority faith is Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD).  Again, the major tenets of MTD are:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Furthermore, I think that some of the classic Christian heresies are currently functioning in such a way to blur the edges from Christian orthodoxy into MTD.

Again, we need to recall why heresy is an issue. I think sometimes there’s a sense that there’s a “patriarchal dogmtic thought police” who wants to make sure that you’re under their thumb and you’re only thinking what they want you to think. Throw that notion out—it’s ridiculous. Heresy is a problem not because you’re thinking illict thoughts, but because of its impact on how the faith is actively lived out. When we misconstrue the nature of the Godhead and how that Godhead relates to creation (and, obviously, us as beings within the creation), that misconstrual leads us to live out how we love God and love our neighbors in ways that do not match the intentions revealed by Jesus to his Church and therefore the apostolic faith. As a quick for-instance, if you don’t believe that God-the-Father-of-Jesus was the creator of the material world, then you will act and react to the material world as if you either 1) need to shun it as a spiritual contaminant or else 2) you can do anything you please with it or to it with no spiritual consequnces. In point of fact, this is what gnostics believed, and how they acted. Both paths are distortions of the Gospel. This is why heresy is bad: it leads us into lived distortions of our call to love God and love our neighbors.

The resurgent heresies that I’ve seen in and around our churches are these:

  • Neo-Arianism: Recently popularized by some factions within the “Historical Jesus” movement, neo-Ariansim revives the notion that Jesus was a truly awesome human and a wise spiritual teacher and someone who participated in “God-consciousness” but wasn’t actually God. There’s also an anti-ecclesial/anti-Pauline form of this belief that suggests that Jesus wasn’t God and never thought that he was, and either the apostles or Paul got him wrong (intentionally or not) and claimed divinity for him that he would not have claimed for himself. (or, naturally, that no one thought he was divine until Constantine told them to think that…) This heresy helps bring Christianity into conformity with MTD in a couple of way. First, it helps recover Jesus as a nice guy and a teacher of niceness (pt 2); anything mean or that challenges the way we live that he said can therefore be ascribed to the Paul/the Early Church and their attempts at thought-control (pt 3). Second, it helps keep God out of contact with our everyday world and keeps him sealed off in his heavenly sphere so that we don’t have to worry about God interacting in and with us (pt 4). Third, it reduces the uniqueness of Jesus; he was a wise prophet and an enlightened guy. We don’t need faith in Jesus, just the faith of Jesus. He simply teaches us how to be good so we can go to heaven too (pt 5).
  • Neo-Pelagianism: These days this is usually connected with an elevated view of creation. Basically, the modern presentation is that God created humanity good, and generally we are pretty good, and we certainly seem to ourselves to be just fine, therefore a lot of the Church’s historic language about sin can be classified as a major over-reaction which is unnecessary. The notion of Original Sin is frequently dispensed with and the concept of personal sin is downplayed; if sin appears it is usually identified as social sin. A common example is the way that corporations destroy the environment.  Note that this presentation soft-pedals the really hard edge of classical Pelagianism that remains its natural consequence if you play the logic out. Remember—the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin is the much more pastoral of the two! Since Pelagianism insists that human will is not fallen, then we can and must make our own moral choices and correctly follow through on them. If we do evil, it is because we had the capacity to both choose and enact the good but deliberately failed to do so. Under the concept of Origianl Sin, if we screw up it’s because that’s normal, not because (as in the Pelagian scheme) we could have done otherwise but didn’t. This heresy helps bring Christianity into conformity with MTD by obscuring the nature and prevelance of sin (pt 3). Furthermore, if the role and influence of sin is diminished, the need for a Redeemer is concomitantly diminished; we need a Creator, yes, but a Redeemer—not so much (pt 1)…
  • Neo-Marcionism: Marcion was a gnostic who taught that the Creator spoken of in the Old Testament as the God of Israel was a lesser being who imprisoned souls and soul-stuff within material reality. Jesus came to save us from creation and material reality, and taught us of his Father who was all love who was different from the lesser, evil, Creator active in the OT. The modern form is the general rather nebulous notion that the God of the Old Testament is the mean god who does mean things; the God of Jesus is the good god who loves you and thinks you’re great. Whereas the first two heresies are presently taught by thinkers who write books that are discussed in Adult Forums and such, this one tends to be more cultural than presented as an actual argument. This heresy helps bring Christianity into conformity with MTD by denying the continuity between God the Creator and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who was intimately related with human life in its particularity (pt 1, 4), and downplaying the notion that God has some very clear and specific commandments on the ordering of human life an relationships (pt 2).
  • Quasi-Modalistic Tritheism: Modalism is the error where there is one God who operates in three different more-or-less distinct modes; tritheism gives us three different gods. Tritheism has always been an issue with Christians; while there have been a few outbreaks of full-on Modalism in Christian history (I’m thinking of the Fransican Spiritualists here), our greater tendency is to lapse into a functional belief in three different Gods who hang out together a lot. Trinitarianism lapses into the currently fashionable form of tritheism when three specific spheres of the Godhead’s activity become rigidly circumscribed. That is, when we take three legitimate functions performed by the Godhead as a whole and by all three Persons of the Trinity in various ways, and we make them absolute roles, implying an exclusivity: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier (or Sustainer if there’s no sin to be sanctified from…). I don’t think that this heresy ties in as neatly with MTD as the others; this tends to be an issue of linguistics. People who are uncomfortable with the traditional language or who find the classic Trinitarian formula too patriarchal/male-dominated make this move as an acceptable substitute. But—unless very careful catechism is employed to reinforce that all three Persons have, do, and will continue to employ all three functions and that these functions are only part of the Godhead’s full portfolio—tritheism is almost inevitable. I do think this makes us conceive of God and the Godhead only within the context of these three specific activities which does result in making God and the action of God more removed from daily life (pt 4).

So—this is my perception of the early 21st century context of American Christianity. This is the context in which a revised prayer book will be received. The next step, then, is to consider how this context will affect how revisions are carried out.


Thoughts on the Creeds

A dust-up over the use of the creeds in worship is circulating on Facebook again connected to this post on Fr. Arnold’s blog (now joined by this post by Fr. Hendrickson). I do think that discussion about the creeds is useful and ought to be done quite a lot particularly because I think a lot of people aren’t exactly clear on what they’re for and why we have them.

I address the creed in a couple of different ways in my book on the spirituality of the prayer book that the folks at Forward Movement tell me will be coming out by the end of the year (yay!). In particular, I talk about how the creed serves as a set of hermenetuical boundaries for reading Scripture, but that part of the real genius of our liturgical system is that the Christian Year itself is a slow-motion meditation on the creed. Here’s my first draft of that discussion.

Truthfully, though, that was my second go-around on that topic. A decade ago (!!)  one of the first prolonging things that I wrote on this blog was a two-part discussion of the creeds that works through reading practices in Christian Antiquity, Origen, the place of the creeds in a clash of worldviews, and even some wrestling with (famous 20th century biblical guy) Rudolf Bultmann! You can find them here:

The Creeds I

The Creeds II

(These are the sort of posts that make me think I may want to troll through my old posts and craft some of them into essays…)

Thoughts on Marriage

Even though I haven’t been writing here, I have been pretty busy over the last few weeks. One of the things I’ve been working on is now up at the Fully Alive site. If you’ve not been following along, a group of four authors—all of whom are regular writers at the Covenant blog run by The Living Church—released a position paper called “Marriage in Creation and Covenant” that was highly critical of the work of the Task Force on Marriage.

Essentially, they’re trying to appeal to the “Augustinian tradition” to argue against same-sex marriages in the Episcopal Church. Unfortunately, there are several rather glaring issues with it that I point out.

Now—I have to admit that I haven’t read the new material out there on the marriage issue. As you can imagine, the polemics of recent years have been bolstered by a number of books on both sides; I haven’t read any of them. As a result, I’m coming to this discussion in the position of a layman who doesn’t know the marriage literature but does have a certain amount of experience with biblical and patristic texts so that’s where I focus.

I am fully committed to our use of Scripture and the Church Fathers as we try to be faithful Christians in the 21st. But part of being faithful means recognizing the cultural distance between us and the Fathers, between us and the Scriptural text, and working through what those differences mean. MCC failed to do that; I try to point out why that’s problematic.

Give it a read and let me know what you think…


Reflecting on the Weekend

I had a lot of fun this weekend down at Holy Trinity, Decatur. It was great to catch up with the rector, Greg Tallant, (M went through the discernment process with him and we are all at General together during our time there) and to hang out with Jenna Strizak and Ashley Lytle; Rob and Susan Ashemore were extremely gracious hosts!

In terms of my talks, we were all over the map, touching on several different aspects of the prayer book. Friday focused on the patterns and habits of the prayer book with a special focus on family life. Generally we fussed around topics of prayer, prayer disciplines, and the place and formation of the psalms. We even did some psalm singing together as we discussed corporate discernment of the Spirit and breath in the classic method of singing the psalter.

Saturday focused on saints and the prayer book. Coming out of my experiences co-chairing the Calendar subcommittee, we dove into the prayer book itself and looked carefully at the Calendar, the Baptismal Covenant, and the sections on Burial to get a solid sense of how the prayer book implictly constructs sanctity in a church that truly includes all the baptized—both living and dead. Then we made the constructive turn and talked about a specific and positive theology of sanctity and how such a theology follows naturally from and serves as the capstone to a theology of sacramental discipleship.

On Sunday morning we visited the Communion Without Baptism controversy as a way to open up conversation about topics around  inclusivity, church identity, our practices of hospitality, and the role of the sacraments within a life of discipleship. The discussion around the issue was honest and open and difficult and was a great opportunity to wrestle with some of the important thoughts and feelings that this topic stirs within the church.

As a presenter, I couldn’t have asked for a better audience—they were attentive, thoughtful, and more than happy to ask questions and push back, particularly in the CWOB session.

Two thoughts as I reflect on it…

First, there truly is a theology of sanctity hidden within our prayer book that is intimately connected to and has deep implications for a robust baptismal ecclesiology. Working over the texts together with this group made me even more convinced. It’s just not obvious or expressed enough. More work needs to be done on making this theology known.

Second, as I was putting together my thoughts around the CWOB discussion, I kept thinking about the ways that anxiety and church identity are present within this topic. My tendency and the tendency of a lot of others who hold to the traditional pattern is to want to make it about sacramental theology. And, it is a matter of sacramental theology—but that’s only part of it. To approach it purely from that angle is pastorally lacking. I came away from the discussion itself with a stronger conviction than ever that the pastoral angle is an important one. This topic touches on a deep woundedness in many of our people. It calls up and taps into ways that they have been hurt by the church—or a church. We do the conversation as a whole a disservice when we do not acknowledge this and when our rhetoric is insensitive to it.

So—all in all, a great weekend that generated a lot of stuff to think about further…

On the Collect for the Departed

A whole bunch of things are swirling around in my brain around the dead, saints, and theology thanks to discussions about the SCLM report, the talks I’m going to be doing in Atlanta next weekend (more on this in a little bit!), and the latest edition of the Collect Call which focused on the collect for the Departed.  If you’re not listening to the Collect Call and/or recommending it to your parishioners, you really ought to be. Brendan and Holli do a great job of looking at the collects and discussing the theology in them in a very accessible way. A few points, some in response to the episode, others that I just think need to be said…

1. Baptismal Ecclesiology!!

I don’t like it when certain liturgical, biblical, or theological phrases are co-opted by church politics and their functional meaning is reduced to address a very specific issue. I’ve often said that I fear this is the case with the phrase “baptismal ecclesiology.” A plain and literal meaning of this phrase means that we are talking about Church as it is fundamentally and uniquely formed by Baptism and the necessary and inherent corollaries of that fact. The way that it tends to get used in church talk, though, is to indicate either a construct of the church as a non-hierarchical institution (oddly, this perspective seems to be insisted upon by certain priests and leaders who impose it in a hierarchical kind of way…) or following the catch-phrase for Integrity “all the sacraments for all the baptized” promoting the full inclusion of lgbt folks in the life of the church.

Now, personally, while I totally support the roles of bishops, priests, and deacons and acknowledge an inherent hierarchy there, I am for a less hierarchical practice of being church. As I was saying to a clergy friend on Facebook, as a layman I do get tired of “clergysplaining”—when someone dismisses me on the basis that they wear a collar and I don’t. Also, I do support the full inclusion of lgbt folks in the church. However, the apparent attempt to reduce the term “baptismal ecclesiology” to these two specific referrents drives me crazy.

If we say that we are interested in and care about a true baptismal ecclesiology, then it means thinking through all of the various aspects of what that means—and that was one of my big beefs with Holy Women, Holy Men. This collect gets it exactly right:

Eternal Lord God, you hold all souls in life: Give to your whole Church in paradise and on earth your light and your peace; and grant that we, following the good examples of those who have served you here and are now at rest, may at the last enter with them into your unending joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This is precisely an expression of baptismal ecclesiology! The church consists of all the baptized, not just the-baptized-who-happen-to-be-bodily-living-right-now. This is part of why getting our theology of sanctity and saints right is important! All souls who have been baptized are, in the words of Colossians, “hid with Christ in God” and are plugged into the life of God in a greater and grander way than before. The physically dead still remain part of our community—which is the entire logic of church-yard cemetaries.

We need to be thinking and talking about baptismal ecclesiology in its broader sense and not just allow it to be narrowed for use as political language.

2. When to Use This Collect

The collects for Various Occasions grew out of the old notion of votive masses. Briefly, with a multiplication of priests who were each bound to say a daily mass, early medieval monasteries and cathedrals needed something else to celebrate other than the Mass of the Day from the Temporal cycle as that mass could only be celebrated once. The solution was votives. Masses were said for particular intentions and a standard weekly pattern evolved:

John Beleth in the thirteenth century describes a series of votive Masses once said (fuit quoddam tempus) each day in the week: on Sunday, of the Holy Trinity; Monday, for charity; Tuesday, for wisdom; Wednesday, of the Holy Ghost; Thursday, of the Angels; Friday, of the Cross; Saturday, of the Blessed Virgin (Explic. div. offic., 51).  (Ibid.)

These changed over the centuries as certain causes and personages waxed and waned in the church’s favor. However, take a look at these and then at the first several items appointed for Various Occasions: “Of the Holy Trinity,” “Of the Holy Spirit,” “Of the Holy Angels,” “Of the Holy Cross,” etc. Coincidence? No.

One of the most common votives throughout history in the Christian West was the Requiem—the Mass for the Dead. It was said for a particular person on the day they died, the third day after they died (in token of the resurrection), then on the anniversaries: the week (7 days later), the month (30 days later), and then yearly from then on. In some times and places, the Mass for the Dead for the community (rather than for a specific individual) was said on any ferial day. In some places, the pratice was to do a solemn Requiem for the whole community on the first Friday of every month. Some priests were paid stipends in wills to say daily Masses of the Dead for wealthy benefactors.

Most modern Christians tend to look askance at these sorts of practices, and—partly due to Reformation polemics—tend to see the last practice of bequeathing masses as a bald tactic by the Church for diverting the fortunes of the faithful into their coffers. I’m not saying that there isn’t truth to this critique, but I also have to point out that, due in part to this focus, the medieval church had a far better sense of the expanse of a baptismally-shaped church than we do!

In addition, the Offices for the Dead were supplemental versions of the Office prayed in addition to the regular hours on behalf of the dead. In some places, these offices were done at particular set times, in others it was done every day. Again, thinking of late medieval wills, some of the wealthy set aside money to be paid out to poor men who would pray the Office of the Dead daily for them.

This constant prayer for the dead generally and specific dead individuals helped retain a sense of community through time, seeing the living and the dead in close communion. If we were serious about a baptismal ecclesiology, this might be a practice worth considering. Hence, I include both the Traditional form and a Contemporary form of the Offices of the Dead at the St. Bede’s Breviary. Note that the aforementioned collect is the one used in these offices.

3. No Prayers for the Dead in “I Will Bless You…”

Huh… I hadn’t realized that. I’ll have to poke around and find out what’s up with this.