Monday, August 3, 2015

Evangelism and Millennials: Why the Atonement Matters

Three years ago, I was teaching a two week class for the Doctor of Ministries students at Nashotah.  It was on congregational development.  Almost all the students were clergy in small congregations.  They were eager to hear what I had to say on attracting and making new members.  In the middle weekend, I traveled to eastern Michigan to visit friends who were once members of my church in Seattle.  They insisted and I was glad to attend their new church that Sunday. 

Victory Fellowship was located in the next town.  It had an interesting history.  The founding pastor was a Pentecostal and had recently retired.  He was replaced by a younger pastor in his mid-30s.  My friends told me he was a great pastor and good preacher.  When the new pastor arrived, the church began to grow and changed its name to Victory Fellowship form The Pentecostal Church, Assemblies of God.  For Episcopalians who do not know much about the Assemblies of God, it is one of the three major “old line Pentecostal Churches of North America.   

My friends told me that the Pastor was a former drug addict who had experienced a miraculous deliverance and sobriety from his addiction and had eventually gone to seminary.  They also explained that he had introduced small group fellowships (they led one) and the church had a huge youth ministry with lots of young adults attending.  They were very excited that on this Sunday a young twenty year old member of their home group was going to be baptized.   

I knew the moment we pulled into the parking lot that I was in for a lesson on reaching millennials.  Everyone seemed to be in their twenties and thirties with a few of us older boomers mixed in.  Also, as we parked, a tattooed biker pulled up next to us with his wife riding behind him.  I noticed that there were lots of motorcycles in the lot.   

I was not surprised to see a theater type modern facility.  I also found that it had a welcome center that served Starbucks Coffee and lots of friendly greeters including the biker and his wife.  The building had two worship areas and a state of the art nursery and education section.  Parents signed in their children and were given a pager in case of emergency.  The two worship centers were for the adults and teens.  The teen area was already rocking with contemporary Christian music led by a youth band.   We made our way to the main worship center.  A music group was playing on the stage which had only a stool and a large screen behind it.  After an opening announcement, the worship began.   

I had been to this type of service before and stood as the music group led by a twenty something “Worship Pastor” led the opening music set.  It contained at least six songs.  I sat down after three songs and noticed that several of the older folks had joined me.  The service contained special prayers, music, scripture, and announcements about planned mission work.  The Worship Pastor was commissioned because he was leaving to start a new church in a nearby community.  Then there was a special song about Faith that led into one of the best teaching sermons I had heard on the biblical subject of Faith.  The theme was Faith what is it, why we need it, and why faith without works is not true faith.   

The pastor started his sermon sitting on the stool.  He was casually dressed and carried an IPad.  It was linked to the screen and, as he made his points, scripture verses and pictures appeared to amplify his message.  His sermon ended with a transition through the offering and offertory music by the band into an introduction to the baptism.  

At the front of the auditorium just below the stage was a large water tank much like you see on the farms in central Michigan.  The young lady was introduced and then the pastor asked her if it was her desire to be baptized into Jesus Christ.  He handed her the microphone and she proceeded to explain how she had “come to Christ.  Now her family, who were not Church Members, watched all this.  Wearing jeans and a top blouse she climbed into the tank and the pastor baptized her in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Then after she emerged from the water and was wrapped in a large white towel he anointed her with oil and prayed that she would be filled with the Holy Spirit.   

The pastor turned to the congregation.  “Perhaps there are some of you here today who want to follow this dear sister and receive baptism too. You too may feel that you are lost and need a new direction and a new life.”  To the family’s surprise, the woman’s younger sister stepped up and said she wanted to be baptized too.  (I found out later that she had never been to the church.)  She explained to the pastor and to her family and the congregation that she had seen the change in her sister and wanted this life.  Ultimately three other members of the extended family and two other congregants received baptism that day. 

While all this was going on, I stood looking at the members of the congregation.  So many were clearly not the kind of people you see in typical Episcopal Churches.  Many were Millennials, and remember this was the older service.  It was clear that the Church was racially and economically diverse.  I kept asking myself why we Episcopalians have so few examples of churches like this.  I knew that many of the clergy in my D. Min. class would be eager to reach such people.  I also knew that few would. I think that I know part of the reason why we will not. 

The Episcopal Church aims at two kinds of people.  We aim at the “already churched” and the “de-churched.”  We seldom aim our efforts or activities at the unchurched, especially the Millennial Unchurched.  If we are going to evangelize the unchurched youth of today, we will need to change, and I don’t mean style.  You see behind this church’s efforts lies a different interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, or as we call it, the Atonement.  It is not the progressive view that Jesus gives us a model of how to live a life of love.  It is not the Evangelical view that Jesus’ death saved us from our sins.  It is the classical biblical view expressed by Gustaf Aulen’s in “Christus Victor.”   

These young people did not need to know that they are sinners.  Everyone knows that.  They needed to know that there is a Savior who can deliver them from the power of sin, evil, addiction, dysfunctional families, broken relationships, despair, hatred, and death.  The Christ presented at Victory Fellowship is the one that Paul said “nailed to the Cross the Principalities and Powers of this world” and won for us the victory of a new life in his Kingdom.  Who better understands this than the Pastor who was delivered from his addition?  No wonder the name of the Fellowship was VICTORY.   

Here is my point.  The more secular our culture becomes and the more it moves from its Christian heritage, the more Churches will have to discover the full Doctrine of the Atonement.  Surely, Jesus is the model of God’s love for us to follow.  We also find forgiveness in his Cross and a new life.  But we also have a power in this new life that is able to deliver us from the Powers of this world.  This last expression of Atonement will take on much more importance in the coming years, and we had better figure this out as a Church or we will not reach Millennials in any significant way.  We can also consider recruiting from such Millennial Christians those who will plant new congregations.  We may not call them “Victory” Churches because we are after all Anglicans, but we will learn to explain that the Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Mary, and other such folks all represent followers of Jesus who experience the triumph of Christ’s victory over the Principalities and Powers of this world.  The more secular the culture, the more relevant this message. 


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Evangelism and the Episcopal Church

I will be writing in my next few blogs on the topic of Evangelism.  When I served on the Standing Committee in the Diocese of Dallas, I would ask those in the ordination process an important question related to evangelism.  First I would tell them that the question that I was about to ask was not a pass or fail one, but rather that I genuinely wanted to know their response.  Here is the question:
“As you know from your theological studies, there are several ways in which the Doctrine of the Atonement has been expressed.  Which one of these best expresses your own personal understanding?”
The reason I asked the question was because I believe there is a direct relationship between what an ordained person believes about the Atonement and how they would do the work of Evangelism.  Almost all the candidates gave a similar answer.  They would say that they believed that Jesus had on the cross paid the price for their sins and that they believed they were forgiven and saved by his death and resurrection.  This, of course, is a standard answer based on The Substitutionary Doctrine of the Atonement.  Now even though we were a conservative diocese, we had folks who had studied at a number of different seminaries.  A number of candidates went to Southwest Theological Seminary which is generally on the Progressive side of the theological spectrum, yet even these candidates gave similar answers.
One would have expect at least some of them to suggest that Jesus’ act of self-sacrificial love that he modeled on the cross showed us God’s love and that we who follow him are to live out a life of love, forgiveness and self-sacrifice for others particularly for the hurting, lost, and marginalized in our world.  This would be more consistent with a Progressive Theological view point.  I never heard it.  One very high church candidate who had gone to Nashotah said that he knew that he was a sinner and that Jesus’ death paid the price of his blood for his sins.  Most any American Evangelical would say the same.
With this the standard answers, one could expect that such people would be active advocates of people repenting of their sins, accepting Jesus’ death, and his blood as a covering for them.  Then they might ask others to make such a profession by repeating, say, “the sinner’s prayer” which is a standard tool among Substitutionary Atonement Evangelicals.  In my time, no rash of evangelical altar calls or invitations were taking place in the diocese, and neither were more Progressive calls for people to follow after the example of Jesus’ love; “his way, truth, and life” as a Christian.
What I found was a disconnect between what our clergy were professing and any behavior that would follow logically from such professions.  Indeed, I would observe around the wider church where Progressive Theology dominates, that there is no active recruiting of new Christians based on this view.  Episcopal Clergy on the Progressive side seem content to find those who wish an inclusive and non-judgmental denomination to join their churches.  If you notice, not very many are doing this, in fact, even less each year. 
There are clergy in our church of differing theological perspectives that are genuinely interested in the growth of their congregations especially with newer and younger members.  Some will even buy my books on congregational development seeking to be user-friendly and seeker sensitive.  However, they do not seem interested in actual evangelization.
Some clergy have told me that they are not interested in numbers and some rather strongly that they do not want to proselytize other people.  These folks seem to have moved so far out into the Universalist arena that they see no value in bringing others to Christ and the Church.  Personally, I believe that such people should be denied a pension, but perhaps I am too judgmental.
At the heart of all this is what I see as four dynamics that hinder our effectiveness in evangelism even when clergy think there is really something in this Atonement business that speaks to us personally.  Why?
1.      Episcopal clergy see ourselves as generous and accepting people who through our willingness want to show others Christ’s love and acceptance so that they will eventually come around to a Christian point of view. 

2.      There is a detachment between our liturgical and parish life from the acts and opportunities for evangelism.  For example, what better Sunday for an altar call or public decision than on Palm Sunday?  Yet clergy believe that having people observe the liturgy is enough.  “They will get it,” we rationalize.   

3.      In addition, many clergy would never interrupt the beauty of the service and its liturgical acts and symbols with such an action.  In summary, many clergy were taught and believe that participation in the Church’s liturgy will bring folks into a decided and deeper relationship with Christ.  They fail to hear the prophetic warning, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me!” 

4.      There is a lack of willingness of our clergy to create opportunities for evangelism.  Even at the end of confirmation instruction, few clergy actually ask people if they are ready to make a commitment or a more intentional commitment to follow after Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Many people believe that a confirmation they are merely joining the Church. 
Before I go on, let me remind my reader of the Episcopal definition of evangelism.  “To present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit in ways that people are led to believe in him as Savior and follow him as Lord within the fellowship of his Church.”Ironically we fail to do such a presentation even though we ourselves admit to an experience, or event, or moment when we led to do so!
For six years, I was Rector of an Episcopal Church that had a weekly evangelistic service.  I led and have seen hundreds of individuals make a conscious and prayerful decision to accept Jesus as Savior and to follow him in the power of the Holy Spirit as Lord.  I am not bragging at this point, but stating a fact.  I would be the first to admit that I had never done such a thing regularly in a parish before I became the Rector of that Church.  What I want to say is this.  I learned to do it.  And I want to suggest the following to my fellow clergy and lay leaders who are interested.  I learned the following:
1.       Never assume that you know where a person is in her or his relationship with Christ until you hear it from them.  And NO ONE has a greater right or opportunity to inquire about a member’s spiritual life and relationship to Christ than the Rector. 

2.      There are many church members who love the Church, its liturgy, its parish life, its Anglican style, but who are not disciples of Jesus Christ.  I have had so called “life-long members” of the Episcopal Church say to me that they see no reason for them to ever have to make a decision to follow Christ: note that we teach that Confirmation is an adult affirmation of our Baptismal Vows to do just such a thing.   

3.      In our subtle way of presenting the Gospel, we fail to understand the importance of a conscious moment of commitment.  As a lay evangelist once told me, clergy in our church seem reluctant to “close the deal.”   

Here is what I think is both a pastoral and spiritually valid way of closing the deal.  “Have you come to a place where you are comfortable accepting Jesus as Savior and following him as Lord?  If not, why not?”
Notice that “No” is an acceptable answer to the question, and that a no answer allows up to speak to any objections the person may have.  What I find is that there is a real spiritual value in a person honestly admitting (even if a Church member) that he or she is not yet at a place where that person is comfortable with this.  I have had many people come back to me at a later time and say that NOW they are now ready to do it.   
I did not write this blog to make anyone feel bad especially my fellow clergy.  I had to learn how to do evangelism.  What I am suggesting is that clergy need to connect our view of the Atonement with a practical way of applying this.  This is the work of evangelization.  If you want to discuss this with me more directly, feel free to email me at  I would be happy to reply.
In my next blog, I want to suggest a fuller understanding of the Doctrine of the Atonement and how I apply this to our increasingly more secular world. 


Thursday, June 25, 2015

General Convention; Notes from the Fringe

Leaders of the Episcopal Church are gathering for General Convention.  I am retired , but this does not mean that I am not engaged with this special time in the life of the Church.  There are many important items before this gathering from TREC’s call to restructuring, the debate on changes in the Marriage Canon, to funding of the Church’s Mission for the next three years.  No matter how important these matters are, I am writing from the fringe to remind us of some important ecclesiastical and theological issues before us.  I write to remind us all: 

1.        That the Church (especially Anglicanism in North America) is broken.  It is divided, fractured, and in serious decline.  We are unable to fix this situation on our own power and attempts to restructure the Church and General Convention of our own efforts will fail. 

To acknowledge this truth is not to say that there is nothing good in TEC or that significant ministry and mission is not happening, there are plenty of signs of health and vitality. The centers of health and vitality should be models and examples for all of us to follow. 

The need some leaders to affirm TEC unabashedly or any other way to state that the present fracture and decline does not mean the Church is dying (but is in transformation) and that there is plenty that is good and godly  is helpful and hopeful.  Hope is after all one of the three Theological Virtues.  Where such affirmations bring hope, they are good.  Where such affirmations feed denial and reinforce the status quo of brokenness and out dated structures and forms, they are not helpful. 

The path before us must begin by acknowledging our current situation.  Blaming others for our condition and claiming a self-assured rightness, theologically called “self-righteousness” are both sides of the same coin of dysfunction.  The cure for this condition is repentance and reconciliation.  We should make reconciliation a priority in all that we do and in how we treat one another, even those who have left TEC.   

2.       That there are three important questions we must answer at this time 

We must reaffirm who we are or more importantly “whose we are” or “to whom we belong.”   The historical teaching and metaphors are significant.  The Church is the Body of Christ, the household of God, Christ’s creation by water and the Spirit, the Community of the Resurrection, the incarnation of the reign of God, or my favorite, The Community of the King.  

As this community, we acknowledge that we have both the Great Commandment to love one another and the Great Commission to make disciples as our core values.  These call us to mission and the second question is simply “What is our mission at this time?”   

This leads us, as TREC has so rightly pointed out, to the question of “How we are to organize and structure our present community to accomplish this mission?” Although, IMHO, TREC has too quickly assumed that the wider Church has really engaged these primary questions of identity and mission. They are right that forms must follow and flow from the first two questions; who are we, and what is our present mission?   

The over-arching consensus that has emerged among those who have seriously engaged these questions is that this mission should focus on having our structures and methods serve the local congregations, ministries, organizations, institutions, and Dioceses, and that our corporate entities (such as General Convention, Executive Council, and the Office of Presiding Bishop are primarily to serve these local communities and ministries.   

It does seem that many of the recommendations to restructure our corporate entities are caught up in too many details and that one General Convention cannot fix this and can easily be caught up in debate on details that are not that significant when it comes to the three main questions.  For example, who can really say whether a bi-cameral or unicameral legislative body best serves our current mission?  This work can only begin now with some clear guidelines to direct us, and it will take the new Presiding Bishop and the Executive Council to guide significant change and evaluate efforts at restructuring with on-going feedback from these local communities.    

Historically, Anglicans and Episcopalians have believed that Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are our authorities in ordering our life as a community.  We should affirm and trust that as these values have guided us in the past.  They can guide us in the future.  May those at General Convention remember these values as they seek God’s direction for our community at the critical moment in our life.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

In Honor of Ashes to God

Columbus Post

Baptismal Font Goes on the Move 

Even though heavily endowed, Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Kelso, Ohio, a town just outside of Columbus is facing hard times.  The Rector, an Assisting Priest, and a Deacon have only three remaining Church members.  That is when the Reverend Alice Fairweather and her staff got an idea on how to reach out to others.  At the beginning of Lent In 2012, the staff took to the streets of Kelso to offer ashes to anyone who wished them.  “This January, as we prepared for the Sunday that remembers the baptism of Jesus, we realized we should do the same only this time with the baptismal font,” said the Rector Fairweather.  “We removed the silver bowl lining from the stone font, blessed the water and headed downtown to our main intersection.  We wanted to offer baptism to anyone who wanted it.” 

The staff faced an immediate crisis because the temperature was so cold the water started to freeze.  “That is when we headed to the Tri-Cities Mall,” said Art Dunning, the Deacon of the congregation.  The group moved to the fountain inside the Mall’s rotunda and set up a sign declaring “Free Baptism for Anyone.”  The group  drew a crowd, but at first folks were reluctant to step forward.  Finally Jimmy Dietsel, ”Moonshine” to his friends, a 17 year old son of lapsed Roman Catholics stepped forward and asked to be baptized if he could do it while standing on his skate board.  “At first I thought it was some kind of joke,” laughed the heavily tattooed Dietsel, “but they even blessed the skateboard.”  According to Jimmy, the experience was “cool.”   

By the end of the day, nine people had stepped up and received baptism.  Unusually, Margo Schwartz, a member of Beth-el Temple in Kelso, accepted the invitation.  “I felt bad for the folks, all dressed up in their special clothes and all and no one coming forward,” Schwartz declared.  So I asked myself, “What would Moses do? And I went right up to the fond.”    Rev. Fairweather poured the water over Margo with the words “May the Holy One fill you with new life.”   

“It was sweet,” said Margo, “but then Sparky started barking.”  Sparky is Margo’s purse size Chihuahua.  “So I asked if Sparky could be baptized too.”  “Why not,” said Fairweather. “Sparky is one of God’s creation.”  Sparky seemed to enjoy it all and after a few shakes of the head, ducked back inside Margo’s purse. Deacon Dunning explained that “We are a very welcoming and inclusive community and baptizing Sparky seemed like the right thing to do at that time.  After all, many churches do animal blessings and there really isn’t much difference if you think about it.”   

In the aftermath of the mobile baptism, there has been some controversy.  The Rev. Harold Glummer, long time pastor of First Lutheran in Kelso said, “I think the whole thing was ridiculous.  Maybe Grace Church should change its name to Cheap Grace Church.”  This was a reference to an obscure 20th Century theologian.  The Rev. Fairweather however was undaunted.  In a later written statement she said, “There are and always have been reactionary people in the religious community that resist change.  In the Episcopal Church, we had those who disliked our 79 Prayer Book, then women’s ordination, then same sex blessing.  We can’t let such people stop us from doing what is right.”  “Besides”, Fairweather added, “John the Baptist, and Jesus and his disciples didn’t sit around in churches and wait for people to come to them.  They went out in the world and baptized anyone who wanted it.”   

Some people questioned the appropriate use of Tri-Cities Mall, a secular retail center, as venue for the event.  When asked, Joe Marshall, the Mall’s manager said, “At first we weren’t sure what to do, but then Rev. Fairweather pointed out that this was a spiritual act and not a religious one, so we let it go on.  It really drew a crowd after a while and it seemed good for business.”  Mr. Marshall did not say whether such events would be encouraged for the future. 

The Rt. Rev. Sydney Atwater, Episcopal Bishop of Central Ohio, was asked his take on all this.  In a statement released by his diocesan office, Bishop Atwater, who was attending a House of Bishop’s meeting in the South of France dealing with “God’s Mission and Global Hunger, was quoted as saying, “I commend the leadership of Grace Memorial for their creative action and I have called for a taskforce of key Diocesan leadership to study ways that this action of inclusiveness could be extended to other congregations.”  

 Although none of the nine people receiving baptism (nor Sparky) indicated any interest in attending services at Grace Memorial, all felt that the baptism was a good thing to do.  Bishop Atwater also noted that, “Nine new baptized persons in one day was the largest number of baptism at one service in the Diocese since 1988.  In addition, the baptized membership of Grace increased over 300% in one day.  Now that is a story of a real miracle and is exactly the kind of mission activity that The Episcopal Church needs to rebuild our membership at a time when so many are disillusioned with the Church’s seemingly irrelevance to society,” Bishop Atwater’s concluded.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Those Who Have Eyes, And Cannot See

                 When I was in Seminary in the late 60s, I was deeply influenced by Liberation Theology.  I was reminded of this connection recently when the Old Testament reading in the lectionary was the retelling of the call of Moses.  It contains these significant words:
                “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt.  I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.  So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. . . “
                Most scholars believe that the Exodus Event is the perspective from which all of the Old Testament was written.  God had delivered his people from slavery.  Since the Old Testament is written from this post-exodus viewpoint, the words contained in this significant theophany reveals much about the nature of God.  I learned that God reveals God’s own self as the champion and advocate of the oppressed.  This theme is repeated in the Psalms and in the prophets and is the major theme of redemption.  The day of the Lord’s coming will be a day when God brings justice.  The Messiah will be God’s anointed servant who will preach good news to the poor and announce the day of liberation to the captive as Isaiah foretold.
                The New Testament proceeds from this perspective.  We need only remember the words attributed to the Mother of Jesus in the Magnificat.  “He has exalted the humble, scatter the proud, caste down the mighty form their seats, and sent the rich empty away.”  Jesus, of course, came preaching the good news to the poor, the acceptable day of the Lord’s favor.  The Kingdom of heaven is presented as a place of reversal of the values and powers of this world and the triumph of God’s love and justice.  In Liberation Theology, God’s Love cannot be separated from God’s justice. 
                I came to understand that the Church was not just about saving people from their sins and promising them eternity.  The Church is the champion and advocate for the poor, the needy, the marginalized, the alienated, the immigrant, the stranger, in summary “the oppressed.”  Indeed, the first converts to Christianity throughout the empire were mostly from the lower and slave classes.  And the challenge is that if we are not on the side of God’s Kingdom, we are a part of the oppressor. 
                I came to understood that as a person raised in the segregated culture of the South that unless I worked for justice, rights and full freedom for all people especially my African American fellow citizens, I was not doing God’s will in my world.  I could not separate my personal faith from my public responsibility. 
                This leads me to say two things, one of which you may already have anticipated.  I became in Seminary a part of the movement in the Church that today we call “Progressives.”  I supported civil rights, I supported the ordination of women, and I believed strongly in the full inclusion and participation of all people within the Church.  The second thing I want to say is that after my post-Seminary personal conversion to Christ and an overwhelming and life changing experience with the Holy Spirit, I did not abandon my belief that God’s Love and Justice cannot be separated.  I do not understand how any person can believe the scriptures and be led to any other conclusion.
                It was this understanding that has allowed me to continue in the Episcopal Church when many of my dearest friends left it.  It was this theological understanding that I carried and proclaimed at the Cathedral of St. Matthew located in East Dallas and where over half our membership are Latinos and many of them undocumented immigrants. It was this understanding that allowed me to proclaim my evangelical faith while also welcoming all people to our community. 
                Those who know my theological orthodoxy and evangelical enthusiasm often assume that I am a culturally conservative Christian.  Indeed many friends who have left the Episcopal Church wonder why I have remained.  So now, I have stated as clear as I can the vision of God’s reign that I carry.  This is why I describe myself as a “heart strangely warmed conversionist” who like John Wesley believes that true conversion is never merely personal.  It was this view that led many Methodist leaders in the early nineteenth century to demand that southern converts free their slaves. 
                  I see this as making me an Anglican in the widest understanding of this term. My roots in Anglicanism are found in the evangelical awaking of the three great W’s of our Faith, Wesley, Whitfield and Wilberforce.  I also find them in the early Anglo-Catholics who took to the streets of London and the other major urban areas of England to work with the urban poor. 
 My movement within the Episcopal Church has been from a traditional Anglo-Catholic beginning, to Liberation theology, to personal renewal and to evangelical faith.  Call me mad or confused, but I do not see these as inconsistent.  There is one thing that I will not call myself today and that is a Progressive.  Often, I do not fit in with the current majority of Episcopal clergy, and in fact, see progressivism in a negative light and hold our progressive leaders responsible for crippling the Episcopal Church and contributing directly to the divisions of Anglicanism that we have in North America today.  My central dislike for the present Progressives is not a conservative reaction.  It is a belief that they have reduced the passionate gospel of individual and corporate redemption to something a great deal less than good news for the poor.  All this came to light one evening while watching late night television.
                The nightly reporter was interviewing Bishop John Spong, the then Bishop of Newark.  I knew that Bishop Spong was considered as one of the chief spokespersons for progressive Christianity in the Episcopal Church, but I had never given him much attention.  This was mainly because as a Yale Divinity School graduate I found him consistently outdated.  His gift seemed to be writing books re-stating controversial things discussed twenty years earlier, but then adding one page that seemed tantalizingly radical.  So Paul of Tarsus just might have been a self-hating homosexual.  Or he would suggest that perhaps the Virgin Mary (who “no modern person could believe a virgin mother”) was actually a victim of rape by a Roman soldier. 
                On this particular night, Bishop Spong was insisting that he could not accept God as the God often portrayed in the Bible.  Take for example he explained the story of Exodus.  At this I perked up and began to listen.  He directed his comment to the reporter with something like “I don’t really believe that God loved the Hebrews more than the Egyptians.”  He went on to say that he could never accept a god who would save the Jews but drown the Egyptians.  He concluded that he believed that God loved everyone equally.  The reporter acknowledged that this story had always bothered him too.  “What about those poor Egyptians?” he asked rhetorically. 
                By this point, I was standing in front of my television shouting at the Bishop in disbelief.  God, I wanted to remind him, did not love both Egyptian and Jew because God loved and sided with the oppressed and not the oppressor.  This sappy and feel good theology that God loved everyone seemed to me to be morally offensive.  So, I began to listen more closely to my friends in the Progressive side of the Church as to what they were really saying.  Surely the majority of them had not surrendered to such sophistry.
 I came to a startling discovery.  Gone were the prophetic voices of the 60s and 70s of our Church and replacing these were now what I would describe as a group of upper middle class professionals who could not accept a God of judgment and who had centered on the full acceptance of Gay and Lesbians into every aspect of the Church as the primary issue of the day.  Their theological justifications for all this were based on an existentialist view of fairness and rights.  This became a modified Rodney King theology of “why can’t we all just get along?”  For Progressives, it was becoming increasingly clear, the only real problem the Church had were people in it that could not accept the full inclusion of all people.  By 2000, the theology behind this had become reduced to “God is love so all love must be of God.” 
                When I challenged this muddled thinking, I was marginalized as one of those reactionary conservatives who were homophobic and as such did not have to be listened to or given a place of credence within the councils of the Church.  I was grouped together with folks like Bishop Iker of Fort Worth whose positions I had adamantly opposed. 
                Now let me make this clear.  I am not saying that gay or lesbian people have not been mistreated.  Clearly many have been.  Many would be numbered in the marginalized of society and at times abused if not outright oppressed.  This part I can understand.  Yet, something else has happened in all this that needs to be acknowledged.  If the Progressives believe that the Episcopal Church doing same sex blessings or marriages is advocacy of the oppressed, we need to stop and look around.  The obvious truth is that most homosexuals in the Episcopal Church are upper class, highly educated, and in many ways privileged people like most other Episcopalians. 
                I also began to realize that much of the rhetoric in all this was contrary to what was actually happening.  Many of our leaders saw us making the Episcopal Church a more inclusive church by being more multi-cultural and multi-ethnic and diverse.  Yet, in actuality, the Episcopal Church was becoming less diverse.  We had lost thousands of African-American members.  Particularly painful for me was the realization that we were largely token in our approach to Latinos.  For example, when I wrote an article advocating an aggressive strategy toward Latinos that could make the Episcopal Church a bi-lingual and bi-cultural community in 20 years, leaders of the church reacted negatively.  As one wrote to me, “I want an inclusive Church, having that many Hispanic people would not allow space for all the LGTB people.”  Clearly, there is a disconnect between what we say we believe and who we are.  We are not a diverse ethnic and cultural community and we are becoming less so.  Today, TEC is nearly 90% Caucasian.  Progressives seem to be choosing sexual diversity because it is the only real form of diversity that is available to us.
                In some twenty years, liberation theology and the passionate commitment to work with and advocate the oppressed had dissolved into a well-intentioned group of sexually diverse people repeating unthinking clich├ęs that have almost no meaning to non-Christians and the vast majority of oppressed people living in our world today.  A Church whose message is reduced to “God loves everyone equally” is a Church that has lost all prophetic power and witness.  The message that God loves everyone is not good news to the poor.  For them there has to be something more.
                After Bishop Gene Robinson, a  gay man living in a same sex partnership,  was given consent at the 2003 General Convention, I asked a gay friend of mine who was not an Episcopalian what he thought of all of this.  This is what he told me.  “Of course, I am happy that a church with as much prominence as the Episcopal Church has done this.  I think it is about time you did.”  So, I asked him, “Would this make you want to consider joining the Episcopal Church?”  He thought for a long time before replying,  “I don’t see why it would.  I am glad you made the decision, but honestly, if I were going to ever join a church it would have to be for some other reason, something spiritual.”  This statement is revealing.  It explains why despite all the predictions that the Episcopal Church was opening our doors to thousands of new people who would embrace a church that had taken such a prophetic stand, we then lost 1/3 of our membership in just ten years. 
                Let me put this as strait forward as I can.  The Episcopal Church may have done the right thing and something that many secular people can agree we should have done.  But in trying to make the case for full inclusion, we have not made the case for the Church!  Those who believe in marriage equality do not see the Church’s actions as prophetic.  And they do not need the Church’s advocacy to have it happen.  The secularization and diversity of society is making this happen.  It is not God’s voice or justice that is wining; it is secularism that is speaking.  The Episcopal Church with its strong connections to education and the arts has accommodated to it.  Meanwhile, we have not been the spokespersons for the vast majority of the oppressed in our world whether it is sex slaves in Asia, women in Islamic society, undocumented workers in North America, or the victims of child pornography which is the largest form of commerce on the Internet!
                There is one further lesson that could have been learned from Liberation Theology that our Progressives have chosen to ignore.  God heard the cries of the slaves in Egypt.  He sent them a deliverer and brought them out of slavery.  He gave them a yearly celebration, the Passover, to remind them that they were once slaves.  Yet within just a few generations, Solomon built the Temple and his palaces with forced labor!  As one commentator observed, there may be a difference between slavery and forced laborers, but I doubt that those forced into such labor would appreciate it. 
                The lesson is that yesterdays oppressed can easily become today’s oppressors.  In fact, they will, if they forget their own history.  They can use their own experience of oppression to actually justify their own oppressive behavior.  We need only look at such places as Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mozambique, and dozens of other places to see this sad truth lived out.  As has been said, “failing to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.”  
                Much of the energy of our current leadership seems to be taken up with defending our past decisions and telling one another that the Church is actually doing well.  They ignore the devastating losses of the past few years while forced to “restructure” and make adjustments in budgetary expectations.  I would suggest that the reason the Episcopal Church is in decline and trouble isn’t because we have the wrong structure or priorities.  It is because we have the wrong God.  We want the god who loves everyone.  We do not want the God of both personal and corporate repentance, change of heart, and transformation.   There is something fundamentally wrong with the Progressives who lead our Church today and sadly their own good intentions make them blind to it. 


Friday, November 21, 2014

The Virtue of Tolerance

During a recent discussion online about the Episcopal National Cathedral offering space for Friday night Muslim prayers, a colleague of mine made some very good observations, but then made this intriguing remark,  “Of course, tolerance for its own sake should never be an end in itself.”   

As a student of history and particularly church history, I would like to suggest tolerance like any virtue can and should be exercised as an end in itself.  Further, tolerance of other peoples’ religious beliefs may be one of the greatest contributions of Protestantism.  What do I mean and why am I saying this? 

The word tolerance has seemed to fall in disfavor in recent years.  Perhaps it is because when we say we “tolerate” someone or someone’s beliefs it tends to sound condescending.  It seems to imply “you may be wrong, but I graciously have chosen to tolerate you in spite of this.”  If this is what you think, then recapture the development of this important virtue.   

The history of all denominations and indeed faith groups are often replete with examples of intolerance.  Catholics did not tolerate Protestants. Protestants persecuted and murdered Catholics. Lutherans did not tolerate Calvinists.  Anglicans did not tolerate Congregationalist, Presbyterians and even Methodist.  However as these different churches emerged from bloody wars and acts of repression and then found their way to places like the new world, they learned, sometimes painfully, the importance of toleration.  And in cultures and countries where religious liberty is truly exercised, as opposed to merely given lip service, religious leaders have learned that the defense of someone else’s right to their beliefs is defense of our own.   

In the U.S., the two clear early beneficiaries of tolerance were Roman Catholics and Jews.  I do not say this to deny the often deeply held anti-Catholic and anti-Semitism that existed in American history, but the truth is that over time, the toleration given between Methodist and Baptists as well as other protestant bodies, created a religious umbrella that allowed these two groups to exist and most importantly to exist without state sponsored repression. Today, the Roman Catholic Church is the fastest growing and largest Christian body in the U.S.     

Let me underscore what I just said.  The learning by religious leaders that in defending the free religious beliefs and practices of others they provided a strong defense of their own religious freedom was a direct result of the practice of the virtue of tolerance.  Tolerance carries an implied two way bridge, a kind of covenant, that I tolerate your religious values because it insures a wider context of religious freedom that benefits us all.   

This is why I am prepared to say unequivocally that tolerance for its own sake is worth it.  In other words, even if Christians learn nothing else about the beliefs of Muslims and their practices, our ability to provide an attitude and even a place of tolerance is a significant accomplishment.  Of course, few early religious leaders in the U.S. could have imagined the religious pluralism that exists today in our nation. Now we have a significant number of Muslims as well as other non-Judeo-Christian traditions, but it is a natural evolution of the virtue of tolerance that it is extended to this wider circle. 

Further, and this is the really provocative thing that I have to say, in the face of growing secularization and a more vocal and hostile atheism, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have an overwhelming stake in religious toleration.  Imagine a society in which religion is allowed as a personal freedom, but public displays, such as corporate worship, holidays, and tax free worship spaces are denied.  I think this is not hard to imagine and could happen within one generation!  I continue to fight this battle by pointing out that separation of Church and State is something I value as a citizen of this nation, but that for Christians, Jews and Muslims, separation of politics and religion is impossible.  As a Christian, my beliefs in Jesus and his teachings have social, ethical, cultural, and political applications.  I cannot separate my personal beliefs from my public behavior.  If the early Christians could have done this, all of them would have been happy to burn incense to the current Caesar!    

So, in the unfolding relationships between religious groups including Muslims in the country, I vote for toleration.  It is possible that I may learn more about the religion of Islam in doings so, but I do not have to do this to justify toleration.  Neither must I become syncretic or Universalist in my own religious views to do so.  In fact it is exactly the defense of my own views, those of my Church, and of my fellow citizens that compels me to exercise toleration. So I say “Tolerance for its own sake” is something to affirm just as all virtues are good in themselves.  

 I do know, of course, that there are plenty of Christians in this country that take the view that Islam is a false religion and its adherents are at best deceived and at worse evil.  They point constantly to the atrocities of ISIS and other extremist and Jihadist groups as examples for their beliefs, but this is wrong.  We can no more do this than to have people point to the evils of extremist Christian groups as justification for condemning all Christians.  As Karen Armstrong has argued, at the heart of all religions and at their best stand the equivalent of the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you yourself wish to be treated,” and the truth that compassion comprises the deepest expression of the Spiritual Life.  The virtue of tolerance provides the environment for the best in religion to flourish. This seems to me to be a worthy end in itself.     



Sunday, September 21, 2014

The TREC and Renewal, Revitalization and Restructuring

 Given all the challenges before The Episcopal Church, is restructuring important?  

Leaders of the Episcopal Church are fond of using initials, hence “PECUSA” which became “ECUSA” which is now “TEC.”  The powerful fiscal committee of the Church is Program, Budget and Finance which is almost always referred to as “PB&F” which I always thought sounded like a sandwich you would order for lunch.  The latest set of initials is TREC or The Taskforce to Reimagine the Episcopal Church.  This high level taskforce with many capable leaders was established at the last General Convention to come up with recommendations to enhance the structures and mechanism of the Church for the more effective accomplishment of the Church’s Mission.  While this seems to imply a whole re-thinking and re-visioning of the Church, this is not exactly what is now before us.  In their initial reports, clearly the taskforce members have given some thought to the challenge of doing this, but their recommendations point more toward the issue of restructuring the Church, I think that is because the essentially the driving force for this work comes from three different dynamics. 

First is the long standing lack of clarity about the relationship of the Presiding Bishop’s Office, the Staff of 815, the President of the House of Deputies and the relationship of all these to the Executive Council along with the Council’s relationship to the General Convention.  Second is the immense cost and continued complexity of General Convention with its extensive committee structure and the overwhelming number of resolutions generated each three years.  Lastly there is the unfolding challenge of funding the budget and establishing priorities given the shrinking number of members and congregations. 

The Taskforce set out to do its work deliberately and with much energy.  The Taskforce’s very existence along with its interim reports have been meet with much discussion, debate, criticism, resistance, and some outright cynicism.  The Taskforce members seem enthusiastic about their work and have clearly done some in depth reflection and strategic thinking.  Their latest report shows that they are taking seriously the work of restructuring the church to make it more efficient, to clarify relationships among important groups, and to give increased power to both the office of Presiding Bishop and the Executive Council which is consistent with the greater centralization of the Church in the past several decades.  The suggested move toward a more centralize role for the Executive Council (reduced in size) and greater clarification of the role of the PB as chief executive of the Church are not surprising and reflect the long historic development of the PB’s office.  In recent years, the on-going tension and power struggle between the current PB and the President of the House of Deputies have accentuated the need for clearer lines of authority and accountability. 

I do not intent to comment much in this blog on the merits of the individual recommendations.  Essentially, I believe that such restructuring and clarification have been badly needed and in summary I believe the Taskforce has done a credible job.  I personally would agree with the reduction in Executive Council members, but would prefer Provincial representation rather than election at large.  I also applaud their recommendations about the reduction in the time of General Convention, the elimination of most join Committees, and as a consequence the reduction in the huge number of resolutions.  The Taskforce is rightfully trying to make the main thing the main work of General Convention. 

As I read the criticism and cynicism regarding their work, I note two general themes.  The cynicism is rooted in an essential truth, namely, restructuring is not the same as re-visioning or revitalization.  While it is right to point out that restructuring will not lead to the kind of re-vitalization that our declining community needs, I believe it is unfair to lay this at the Taskforce’s feet.  Renewal, Revival, Re-vitalization, Re-visioning, and even Resurrection is clearly the work of the Holy Spirit and greatly dependent on our need for a new generation of visionary leaders.  When such movements do occur in the Church they almost never come from the center of power and decision making, but rather on the fringes of the Church and among creative (and often controversial) outliers.  Yet, as the Taskforce rightfully points out by the example of the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus then commands them to “unbind him” and the work of the Taskforce is an energetic effort to unbind the long outworn structures of a once larger Church and morass of committees and commissions that were extensions of creations of an 18th century community. 

Does TEC need revitalization?  Only those totally caught up in institutional denial would think it does not.  Unfortunately, we have a goodly number of such people including the current PB still in elected and appointed offices.  I am not saying that all is wrong with our community.  I see much creativity, experimentation, and a willingness to try new methods and model to carry out our understanding of God’s Mission.  Yet as a whole, we are clearly a declining community still living in the after math of a substantial conflict and subsequent divide.  What I am saying is that one significant part of this is creating a Church with a structure that serves our members, congregations, and dioceses in efficient and effective ways.  I pray that TREC’s work succeeds in this necessary work.

The other issue the Taskforce faces is a predictable resistance to the changes by those who currently are most vested in the status quo.  Who are these people?  First are the Senior Deputies who control so much of the mechanisms of General Convention.  Second is every Deputy who sits on these joint committees and commissions.  The resistance is highly predictable; when has any legislative body voted to reduce its perceived power and influence?  I note with interest that on the internet it is often Senior Deputies and long-standing Church functionaries who are warning of the centralization of power and the elimination of vital participation.  I think we should call this what it is, the knee jerk reaction of those in power. 

In summary then, I think the work of TREC is important, worthwhile and should be received and acted upon by the wider Church.  Will it fix all that is wrong?  No it will not.  Will it address the core issues that are really at stake in “reimagining” the Church and its mission? Not directly though it is a start.  In addition to the example of the raising of Lazarus, let me offer another Biblical example.

When David set out to take on Goliath, Saul offered David his armor to wear.  David refused and the usually understand is that the armor was too large and bulky for the young David.  Perhaps a more insightful understanding is that the young charismatic future leader of Israel understood that one cannot fight the battles of today with the already defeated tools of the past.  This may be the greatest insight that the Taskforce has placed before the whole Church.  I pray that this is a word that we are prepared to hear. 

Note: The Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC) will convene a church wide meeting on October 2 at 7:30 pm Eastern time (6:30 pm Central/5:30 pm Mountain/4:30 pm Pacific/3:30 pm Alaska/1:30 pm Hawaii).