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 clichés 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).



Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Thoughts on The State of the Church

Each year the President delivers a “State of the Union” message.  This usually is a combination of celebrating who we are, what has been accomplished in the last year, and the President’s agenda for the next year.  Last night had all these elements.

Over the years the Presiding Bishops of TEC have given the same kind of talk at the beginning of General Convention with about the same content.  In addition, at each convention we get a report from the Committee on the State of the Church.  While our Presiding Bishop’s message is usually filled with reassurances that all is well, the committees of late have been fairly direct about the problems and issues before TEC.  Of course, few people, especially Deputies and Bishops pay much attention to these reports but a re-reading of them for the past ten General Conventions will pretty much describe how depressing things are. 

Obviously, I have no position of authority to give such a “State of the Church” speech, but I do have 42 years of experience as a priest and many years of ministry to congregations and clergy.  Here is my general sense of “the way things are.”

When I think of TEC, I have very divided feelings and thoughts.  When I think of TEC on a national level especially concerning “815”, the House of Bishops, and our many Committees and Commissions, I get discouraged.  We are in serious decline and I do not see the present leaders who got us into this situation as able to get us out of it.  I am hopeful about two dynamics. 

First is the Committee on Restructuring the Church.  We have needed such work for a long time and I am mildly optimistic about their work. I find it predictable that the greatest resistance to their work is coming from some of the Church’s most long-term progressive leaders.  My observation is that, having fought so long to take charge of the Church and occupy its structures, this group is strongly reactionary when any change is proposed.  What they most want is for our leadership to continue the focus on justice issues and marriage equality and to reassure them that all is well. 

The second dynamic for me is the number of new and younger leaders in the House of Bishops.  I think these leaders are much more in touch with “our current realities.”  I am not so sure they know what to do about them, but I hear good reports from a number of dioceses. 

In summary, I am generally pessimistic about the future of TEC.  As I have often said, “Until a new generation of leaders emerge with a new vision for our common life, what you see now is what you get.”  What you see is declining numbers, an aging constituency, smaller and fewer congregations, and current leadership committed to the status quo while repeating clichés about multi-culturalism and inclusiveness. 

When I think about congregations, I feel much differently.  Everywhere I have traveled in TEC, I have seen vibrant and exemplary congregations of all sizes full of committed, dedicated people, carrying out extraordinary ministry to their communities. 
While I see these congregations, I think it is also true that they comprise only about 20% of our communities. Whether this 20% can sustain the rest especially the near 60% in serious decline seems doubtful.  Yet, we do have healthy and vibrant places and they can be and should be models to us of what the future could be.

What is clear to me is that we need to radically rethink the preparation of people for ordained leadership of local congregations.  Now, let me be clear.  I am not arguing against our current seminary education, nor do I think seminaries can add more to their present demanding work.  What I believe we need is the creation of a “Mission Training Center” pre/post seminary that would educate ay leaders and clergy in the best practices of building congregations and recruiting unchurched people. 

All over the Church we have town parishes that once maintained a “pastor size” congregation with a full time ordained priest.  Now these congregations have 30 to 50 folks on a Sunday and are supplied with part-time, bi-vocational, and retired clergy.  The problem is that seldom does this mode of leadership build up churches.  It is mostly intended to sustain and maintain them. 

I have floated the idea of such a Mission Center to several church leaders.  Most admit we need something like this, but there remains little energy or resources to do it.

In summary, while we have many vibrant congregations, TEC as a whole looks like the aging downtown church that is living off its endowments, losing members, and will soon have to dedicate all its resources to maintenance.