Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The One Who You Behold Is A Divine Mystery

A few days past, I was pointed to an article in that left me shaking my head, not because it is untrue, but because it is not a full enough vision. I must confess that I remain unconvinced of the ueber-seriousness sometimes found in the writings of the likes of Hauerwas and Wright. Something of wonder is lost in their want for the singularly corrective historical and ethical, biblical and traditional that finally does not do for me what these are intended to do, make This One alive in our time and place and culture in each of us in our own way together. Moves that, first, would press one season to another, Christmas to Advent, as if the two seasons together, along with Epiphany through Presentation to Transfiguration, indeed, by Lent onward through All Saints, do not break open a fuller and more whole encounter of Jesus, each in their own way, as they comingle, collide, and coalesce. I think of that verse of “What Child Is This?” when Good Friday breaks into Christmas Day:
Why lies He in such mean estate Where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christian, fear: for sinners here The silent Word is pleading. Nails, spear shall pierce him through, The Cross be borne for me, for you; Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh, The babe, the son of Mary!
Or of those words of Wesley’s "Hark! The Heralds Angels Sing" when Pentecost closes upon us at Christmas: “born to give us second birth.” Or of Watt’s “Joy to the World” when Advent breaks into Christmas: “Joy to the world! the Lord is come: Let earth receive her King.” Persons are finally irreducible, are ultimately, not amenable to our grasping. And that must especially pertain to the Incarnate Word, the Infinite, Eternal Second Person, who emptied himself and commits himself to our finite and mortal condition in his Incarnation. Jesus Christ is irreducible and not amendable to our grasping. But this same Jesus grasps us as one of my favorite Noon Prayer collects reminds us: “Grant that all the peoples of the earth may look to you and be saved.” Our seeing and hearing this One, these move us to change...can do so for each and all of us, because the One we meet, being God, can meet us each and all where we are at. Not as we might become, not as others think we should be. Austin Farrer’s words posted by Fr. Gunter struck a bingo:
God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is, and it remains for us, a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives us a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel's message to the shepherds: 'Peace upon earth, good will to men . . . and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.' A Son is better than an explanation. The explanation of our deaths leaves us no less dead than we were, but a Son gives us a life in which to live. – Austin Farrer (1904-1968)
Moves, that second, can so easily lead to justifications of our agendas. We can move so quickly to press Jesus to our agendas, political and ethical and otherwise, that we fail to leave space for others to encounter the Living and Incarnate and Wounded Person. When we do so, we leave no room for conversion…not to what we think the other person should do, but to what God is calling that person to become, which is never precisely what we think they should be or do. You see, our Mother Mary’s Song, and St. Zechariah’s, and St. Simeon’s, yes, they declare God’s Reign and the overturning of all that is at odds with God’s Reign, but they proclaim a doing of that that is finally not ours to complete, but a Person who is the Ruler and the Dominion. And this One, in the mean time, makes room for each and everyone one of us moved to become a someone called to a particular becoming in Him, a particular part in that Dominion, to be particular and unique…and that usually isn’t who others have decided for us, pressing their own desires or calling or becoming onto all others in pushy, moralizing fashion. Holiness has a million faces, each distinct, all Christlike. Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it beautifully when he writes:
The Church exists to be itself a symbol of God's purpose for a reconciled humanity; as such it works on the assumption that we do not yet know where the boundaries of the Body of Christ might finally lie. It cannot assume that this or that group is ultimately unreconcilable to God or to the rest of humanity. This is not because of any sentimental preconceptions about the natural goodness of human beings, but because of a conviction that the call of God can be addressed to any human person or community, and that is the same call to compassion, justice, conscious, and responsible love. Thus policies which involve wholesale slaughter or which rest on indiscriminate demonisation of a real or potential enemy cannot be squared with the kind of thing the Church is. Just by being itself, the Church will put a question to any such distorted ideas. The Church proclaims that there is one human destiny and that is found in relation to one focal figure, Jesus; but also that what this human destiny means cannot be worked out without "communion", a relation of profound and costly involvement with each other and receiving from each other. This and this alone is what saves the proclamation of Christ's uniqueness from being a piece of ideological tyranny. Only as each different "other" becomes a friend and a member of the Body can we discern how the unity of the Body will look; we do not begin with a blueprint which is to be forced on the stranger, or even a timetable and a programme for how they must accept the gospel. It is a matter of looking at the stranger with candour, patience, and hope, in the trust that our common destiny can be uncovered by the grace of Christ. -Rowan Williams, The Truce of God, 27.
Precisely in hymn sings and liturgies and at table in song of Christ to Christ we are changed…our hearts are moved…often slowly imperceptibly…not all at once…in a twinkling…a bit... Persons with too much may not be moved by a political rant or a hymn so ethically focused that no room for meeting the Living God is left to them, but they may be moved by an Infant nestled on hay at the back of an inn, in a cave surrounded by adoring parents, shepherds, astrologers, and farm animals accompanied to an angel’s praise. By a pageant. By a song of adoration. By candlelight. In our going out into dark night. And looking up to see the moon perfectly ringed by an opening in the clouds, like last night. And wonder. Awe. Tremble. And no the historical accounts we sing are not all sewn up so quickly as the author would suggest of the hymns. Compare ten Christmas hymns on the matter. The accounts aren’t sewn up tight in the Gospels for good reason. This gives us room. On the contrary to the ueber-serious, the point of Christmas hymns is what we will make of the contextualization of this One, this Joy, in our time, and culture, and place, and yes, politics, just as so many of our Christmas hymns do just that in the climes and times of those who composed them. Our politics is response, and necessary, but not the encounter. The setting of things right, God's politics if you will, which is more than our politics can attain, in the Canticles will finally not be ours but the advent doing of the One we encounter. So be careful of reducing these matters, right, left, or center. And what responses in this mean time! “Go Tell It” is a rousing strength by those enslaved the United States every bit as much as powerful as Wesley’s “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” is a revolt against the slave trade. But do we know that about either hymn? To what do they move us today? “Go Tell It” moves me to consider how the Glad Tidings are for all of creation, not just homo sapiens sapiens. Precisely at Christmas, as not other time, save Good Friday, there is room for the flesh in our fullness, for the affective, even yes, the sentimental and schlocky and tacky and kitsch that moves our hearts in ways that moralizing or right history or politics or the correct interpretation or a singular read of tradition alone cannot. I think of my mother-in-law last night, singing along in German to the hymns we sang in English…and later that evening, as we bustled in the kitchen in preparation for today’s open house Christmas Day dinner, my humming “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and her singing along in German as she peeled potatoes. Here too in the singing, a political happening unfolds, a dinner prepared for others. I think of the too many sermons that tell us that Jesus came for some or another group. No, I have to respond, Jesus came for all—all of humanity, rich and poor and inbetween, all sentient and living creatures, rocks and stars, every speck of dust and lone atom. Not first and foremost to save us, but first and foremost to be with us, to love us…and it is his loving us that changes us. Our salvation is the consequence of his becoming flesh, one of us, loving us in the flesh, not as a sort of mechanistic first thing, as the reason for the Incarnation. The Reason is kinship and friendship, and these invite us into citizenship. It is this Love first that we sing at Christmastide, the Reason of the Season, Glad Tidings, sometimes in kitschiness. It is, however, this first thing tendency we give to the reason for Jesus' coming, this same pressing want to make of the Person a result or consequence, that makes me uncomfortable when applied too easily to the Canticles and their declarations of upheaval, for that upheaval is an upheaval Who is King and Kingdom, and none of our politics will remain on that Day. In the mean time, we live as if, and in our own small ways, each in our contribution, our responsive works of love, our citizenship, live out the hope of this End. And the schmaltz of Christmas Day moves my heart toward fellow human beings in a very sad moment in our nation's life when calls to do this or that left, right, and center simply do not and cannot. The contextualization of this One is precisely why the Benedictus and the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis are not only Christmas or Advent songs, but songs we sing in Lent, and Easter, and after Pentecost, and on All Saints. In every season, we are called to put on, contextualize, make manifest the One who became one of us, Jesus Christ. A song about a sweet Child in a manger is political in a way that breaks apart all of our political categories, makes room for us to become the one who God is calling us each to be, uniquely holy, makes room for us to greet others as Christ:
Goodwill greets us by the strong wails of a newborn crying, his wail our own and every, his stillest sleep is no more Peace than his raising a tiny hand, clenched to fist With-Us.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Friday, May 18, 2012

Matter Matters: Anglican Materiality

Everywhere I read these days, I encounter a lot of words about “spirituality.” In a recent conversation with a Lutheran student, I asked, “But what spirit?” “Well, the one in creation.” “Certainly. But Whose?” … Finally, I said, “The Spirit of Jesus.”

For me, as an Anglican Christian, Jesus is the “hinge,” to draw on Tertullian’s famous quotation about the Incarnation. And Jesus is the lens through Whom I am drawn into seeing human social life and all of creation as dignified, loved, redeemed, acting, in the words of F.D. Maurice and Michael Ramsey, as if the Consummation is already. As I observed in a sermon on Philippians 2:

This Lord Jesus, by his birth and life and death and resurrection and ascension and sending of the Spirit, freely shares the dignity of his Person and Name with you, with me, with us, with every creature and the whole of creation. In Prof Carol Jacobson’s paradoxical completion of St. John Damascene’s words, “Because of the Incarnation, God reverences all remaining matter,” you and you and me and us and every creature. Amen. 
This is not one of the many spirits of woo and woo, but the Spirit who leads us into life. And by that, I mean the Spirit Who will not let us divide out a moment of experiencing God in contemplation from a moment of experiencing God in nature from a moment of dealing with conflict in our parish or work or home life from a moment of experiencing absolute Lutheran/Ignatian hiddenness and desolation. For someone like myself, who has experienced God in all of these ways, any lesser spirit will not do because any spirit lesser does not love flesh and life enough to have conceived God’s own Image as one of us in the womb of the Virgin Mother.

All are moments of potential encounter with the One Who promises to be with us always, not finally escaping this world, but continually engaging the world and recreating us all, not only in silence and beauty, as much as these are necessary for my well-being, but through the daily ins and outs of messy life.  Any spirituality worth my time will be one that puts fingers to flesh, not just in the beautiful moments, but in the hard times.

This is what Anglican liturgies do.

Anglican liturgies lead us into encounter with and train us to experience God who comes to us as word and song, innerward and outward, silence and voice, prayer and sacrament, as Word of our need for God in all things, as Body and Blood given to us in such a way that we are prevented from decoupling sweet things from “In the night in which he was betrayed.”  In our liturgies, we taste the vision of a God Who “goes all the ways down,” to quote Reformed theologian, Serene Jones.

The Spirit of this Jesus cannot lead us but to do the same, being of one will with the Father and the Son. So, our liturgies lead us not merely into fleeting moments of bliss, but train us to enduring responses of ecstasy, of going out of ourselves to be with and for others.

At the dismissal, we go forth thanking God, bearing thanksgiving into our fallen human social worlds and joining our voices with those of birds and bees and dogs.  We go forth into our human social worlds that are beloved and betrayer, we go forth into nature that is at once in glorious song to God and disfigured by our fallenness, our failure to acknowledge God in Christ as our “center and circumference,” to quote St. Bonaventure.

And just as Thomas does, we are asked to touch these wounds. For precisely where there is vulnerability, hurt, suffering, hard times and hardened hearts, the Word and Spirit are at work, blessing, healing, reconciling.  They ask our responsive cooperation. Or in the words of Anglican theologian, John Booty, our “contribution.”

This Spirit and any spirituality that goes and be-s with, takes us into the life of the world to be for the life of the world.  Contemplative practices, meditation on Scripture and creation, praying the Office, going to Mass, must be interpreted in this Light or they fail the Incarnation smell test.

[And as an aside, before some object, I would remind them that for St. Augustine, proclamation of the word too is sacrament. I don’t object. Words too are creatures, if you will. Through these too, God makes Godself available. As I’ve written before, words are icons—again, matter encounters with God in Christ Jesus. Use them with care and love.]

Recently in a sermon at my partner’s parish on Faithful, rather than Doubting, Thomas, I pondered for a moment the implications of a resurrection untethered from the cross (and crib):

In other words, in St. John’s proclamation and in Blessed Julian’s revelation and in Updike’s reading, bodies matter. “The flesh is the hinge of salvation.” Precisely from the inside, as one of us, a human creature of blood and sweat and clay, the Second Person, the Word, the Wisdom of God, the Image of God, wholly identifies with you and with me and with us and with every creature and the whole of creation, showing in himself very God, and in himself overcoming our march to an end in non-existence, non-being, hell—we might even say, [in] the spiritual. 
As I have continued pondering my “dense musing,” as a congregant observed to me afterward, rather than spirituality, I would suggest that we Anglican Christians are shaped by a very material orientation, a matter-loving ethos, that is rooted in the Incarnation, God become one of us as Jesus Christ. In the challenging words of William Temple, “Christianity is the most avowedly materialistic of all the great religions.”

And among Christians, though not uniquely, Anglican Christians embrace a vision of all of our human social worlds and the whole of creation reoriented to and reconciled with and united in the Communion of the Triune God, not just in the beauty of holiness in the sanctuary, but in the of joy in being alive even as we have to wrestle with all our complexity and mess and sin.

So, I would prefer to speak and write of Anglican life as practices of “materiality.” What do I mean by this? In a recent article, Lutheran Martin Marty quotes Anglican Martin Thornton.  Thornton reminds us of that distinctly Anglican focus on matter because of the Incarnation.  We Anglicans are a matter-loving people.  Marty spots our sacramental worldview and applies it to his Lutheran own.  So, I mean this way of viewing and engaging our fallen human social worlds and all creation as potential encounter with the Living Christ by the Holy Spirit, not by skirting around blood and flesh and bone, but by meeting the uniqueness of a created being spoken into existence and sustained in being by the Triune God.

I use this term, “materiality,” rather than the theologically proper “sacramentality” because we need a jolt to our system in the midst of the ubiquitous “spirituality” that in many of its various forms as interpreted is more often than not desirous to escape the grind of dust and press of flesh, to be at blissful peace away from others.  Such an interiority is at odds with contemplative practices (for these are the one's most labeled "spiritual"), and indeed, Office and Mass, intended to lead us deeper into the Life of God and paradoxically deeper into the life of the world.  Prayerful peace is a peace engaged with others' needs and sufferings and harms.  Daily bliss is a bliss in the sweeping of floors and changing of diapers.

Our experiences of God, to quote Karl Rahner, are “mediated immediacy.” God meets us through, with, in, or in the words of that ditty, attributed alternatively to John Donne and Elizabeth I, as matter:

He was the Word, that spake it:

He took the bread and brake it;

And what that Word did make it,

I do believe and take it. 
Whose Spirit? The Spirit of Jesus.

The Spirit Who works through, with, in, and as flesh, drawing us into Jesus Christ by calling us out of ourselves to be with and for others, so that indeed, I may encounter God in a bee buzzing in the flowers outside my window this morning as I pause from writing this or in the working out of ugly conflict with a co-worker.  And I might do so because I have been schooled to do so with daily Psalms:
O LORD, how manifold are your works!     in wisdom you have made them all;    the earth is full of your creatures.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Reconnecting Confirmation

Derek helpfully opens up another conversation that is all the buzz in Episcopal circles—at least among liturgy geeks. The question is Confirmation. A movement is afoot to eliminate this rite as part of our 1979 process toward recovery of Holy Baptism as our ground. The claim is that it is a sacramental rite or Sacrament in search of a theology. I fear that like CWOB, to do this will cause our Anglican kin to pause and wonder about us regarding sacramental matters. In other words, it raises questions of catholicity.

The issue is that in the Western Church(es), a portion of the oil rites, due to distance, where overtime stretched from the water rite as dioceses became larger and bishops could only make such trips on occasion, sometimes once a in lifetime or even not at all. In know this is hard for us to imagine today, but remember that St. Augustine's own cathedral as we can reconstruct it was likely parish-sized. Connection to the bishop was not so far away. That changed. Both water and oil are part of a whole intended to signify our being made a member of Jesus Christ through Christ’s own Body, the Church, and deepened in this life and identity by the power of the Holy Spirit that continues with receiving Holy Communion. For the Roman and North African rites, those that most influence us, there are two oil rites, a pre-baptismal exorcistic anointing and a post-baptismal anointing [yes, I mixed these up in my comment’s at Derek’s blog]. For the Romans, the post-baptismal oil rites had two anointings. It is this second post-baptismal anointing that moved due to episcopal distance and sometimes lost a connection to Holy Baptism, becoming Holy Confirmation. Other rites had not a pre-baptismal anointing or only had one post-baptismal anointing. I might add, however, that Christmation was not always administered by the bishop, in the East, but could be and is today administered by parish priests as permitted by the bishop. And today, in the Roman tradition, a priest administers confirmation as so permitted as well, especially for adults. For example, I was baptized and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church by my parish priest. So making too much of the necessity of episcopal hands and thumbs directly will not serve the claim of Bodily connections that the bishop signifies.

I do not see a reason why we cannot restore the connection between water and oil in one of two ways, either by placing Holy Confirmation with Holy Baptism as is done with adults being initiated and as the Eastern Churches do to this day for adults and babes alike, OR by restoring the connections theologically. I think both are worth much more consideration, and are less likely to severe catholic connections that are suggested to my mind by eliminating the rite altogether.

The former is a relatively easy fix, given we now commune babes, and the emphasis on understanding has been placed in a careful lifetime learning approach rather than on a moment with the caveat that understanding is always limited when it comes to the Mysteries.

I want to linger on the theological alternative that is in keeping with a recovery of our baptismal emphasis and that is rooted in centuries of Anglican practice and concern for formation. Just as Confession/Reconciliation is grounded in our baptism, as a moment of returning to our grounding in Christ and Christ’s Body, it does not seem a great stretch to suggest that Confirmation is a maturing of our baptism, as a moment of personal owning for oneself by profession of faith and of being strengthened in the life of Christ and Christ’s Body by hands of the one among us that signify our being bound with the whole and oil that signifies quickening of the Spirit in us for a life of service in the Community and for the world. Why is this not worthy? It is much of our present practice, and it has a sacramental practicality about it that is every bit as much valid as theology as the treatises and tombs we have on Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

This is not so very different from current practice where some catechesis and making the faith one’s own is hopefully to occur and where the confirmand is prepared to take up responsibility in the Community.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

CWOB: Asking the Wrong Questions

For all looking for a current state of the question on the development of some of what I discuss below, I recommend The Origin of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons by Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson.

The question of receiving Holy Communion without being baptized (CWOB) as rubric, that is as constituent of who we are as Episcopalians continues to vex us. Up front, I have to say that I find this practice gravely theologically deficient as a practice. The claim that there is an exclusivity otherwise, is I think, specious because all may be baptized, and indeed, we are commanded to go to all peoples and invite and do so, that among every people we would find some living out of God's Life for the life of the whole. I think we continue to ask the wrong questions by focusing on theologically upending CWOB.

So, I want to reframe the question, necessary in a changed contextual reality--post-Christendom. The question is about Holy Baptism. What is our practice of invitation?

Baptism has been greatly recovered as the ever-ground out of which we participate (and grow) in the Life of God—“indissoluble” "bond" as our Prayer Book notes. One of the great unspoken influences on our Prayer Book renewal is F.D. Maurice. He shifted Anglican thinking muchly, drawing upon Luther among others to move us beyond an event understanding of this Sacrament. Moment by moment, day by day, we return to our baptism, God’s adopting us as children in the community as our lasting identity. Baptism is not a mere one-time event as F.D. Maurice reminds us, it is our proper existence before God and once done is not back there but right now. Nothing can separate us from this bond God does for us as pure gift. Our nourishment and deepening in this baptismal existence is by Holy Communion. To jump the shark, so to speak, and make CWOB as policy, leaves the unbaptized person guessing about her or his adoption, about her or his lasting identity. The desire for Christ as the invitation to communion, as is the CWOB rubric, is a desire, best constructed, that is not solidified once-for-all not by us, but by God through the community. No words, no mark, no cleansing and rebirth by water has touched, soaked, wrapped, slaked, drowned the person. The classic Western Invocation (In the Name of the Father, and + of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit) could mean little, where to the received, it means adoption irrevocably, not matter what, including what is always true, that we are sinners and need God. Repentance is return to our baptismal existence. The official practice of CWOB, it could be claimed, is a form of a docetic sacramentality (an oxymoron, I know) because it denies the need for matter, for created things mediating, in our being adopted. It suggests that sin has not wreaked havoc on us, fragmenting us, and leading us to live lives as if we are not God's human creatures.

It is not that such a one, an unbaptized person, is not beloved of God. On the contrary, as Maurice reminds us, Jesus came to his own. In so doing, Maurice draws together the intimate connection of creation and redemption. Yes, Jesus came to his own—the Hebrew people particularly, but as is the case in Scripture, particularity always stands for the whole, so ultimately to all of humanity, and indeed the whole of creation. Nevertheless, we knew him not. It is we humans, as the Orthodox remind us, that have stepped outside the dance, and require the attention if all of creation is to experience healing, renewal, salvation. Being sinners, our receiving of being God’s own requires particular attention. This attention is Holy Baptism. God’s work on our behalf by water with Word and Spirit that we indeed receive and be indissolubly children, where children is a living out of this Life and growing more fully therefrom living for one another, general society, and all creatures. This is the human creature freed, again, drawing together our creation and our redemption—for the latter is who we are intended to be in the former.

So, before we begin to reframe the question, however, we need to dispel some historical truisms that may be getting in the way of our revisioning the practice of Holy Baptism in a post-Christendom Episcopal Church.

1) Catechesis—While mid-Twentieth Century historical research placed great weight on Apostolic Tradition and its recommendation of a three-year catechumenate, the document is now in question. The provenance of that document was once considered to be Roman. It is now likely to be read as of mostly Egyptian origin. The generalizing of its instructions to all of Fourth Century Christianity is now greatly questioned in light of a variety of practices and theologies within the orthodox range. After all, it is notable that Tertullian, of North African provenance, recommended a one-year approach. And we all know the famed passage from Acts and the Ethiopian Eunuch. The notion that somehow folks must have oodles of formation before being baptized is only one of several perfectly catholic notions. It may serve in some contexts and moments. I do not think it may best serve our own.

2) Pre-Baptismal Preparation—Coupled with a hard-and-fast thumb at Apostolic Tradition, our 1979 revision assumes that Triduum was to a tee the high feast for Christians that was later lost and that Lent contains and derives from a pre-baptismal preparation that includes the reception of the penitents. We now know that the Triddum, while on the Roman books may not have received as much attention always and everywhere in the Western Church(es) in practice. What is on the books cannot be assumed to be what was actually done. Indeed, most books carry on what was once done well past their use. We see hints of this (sadly) in the example of Rite I in our own time. Moreover, while in some places, Lent developed at least partially from a pre-baptismal, penitents receiving origin, it also developed as much from a post-baptismal Epiphany. Epiphany too has historically been a day for baptism (by the way, any Sunday is, and even any day as necessary). The baptismal theology that flows out of Epiphany is not one of penitence, but of deepening in the mind of Christ, that is, the light of Christ as adopted children. This after approach is very similar to St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s catechetical mystagogical approach. The Mysteries are unfolded in the undergoing and in follow up to having undergone them.

3) Terminology—Open Communion is the invitation of all who are baptized to receive Holy Communion. Communion Before Baptism occurs when unofficially or officially an unbaptized person receives and there is the hope that any receiving by a non-baptized person will lead to follow up to draw the person to receive God’s indissoluble embrace. CWOB is official policy of communing the unbaptized, and what I think actually happens in most cases of so-called Communion Before Baptism because we’re too shy to boldly proclaim the Good News and invite others in.

4) Inclusivity—Our Church denies no one the possibility of Holy Baptism. Inclusivity is a red herring, drawing on a simplistic read of certain Gospel stories of meals that conflates Holy Communion with these. I am reminded of the rabbinic story of God searching the earth for a people to take up the covenant and commandments. Only the Hebrews are willing to be chosen. Being chosen is not about being privileged, it is about precisely the opposite, about being called to serve. What is missing from conversations about inclusivity is that adoption, our being grafted into Christ, carries with it that same weight as the Covenant God has with our Jewish kin. Do invite without any sort of explanation of what the person is getting into seems dishonest. The invitation is to be included in God’s work in Christ Jesus, and that is no soft thing.

I’m accustomed to end my sermons by pointing to the Altar-Table in word and gesture, reminding folks of our life as receivers, our life as God’s in Christ. Perhaps it is time instead to point to the Font?

One possible solution for us to truly consider is to have regular invitation to Holy Baptism in Sunday liturgy. Folks have heard the Word proclaimed. They have heard the News expounded upon in Sermon—or so we hope, with the hard call this entails. Instead of these or similar words for invitation to Holy Communion as I have seen them in CWOB settings, “All who desire to draw near to Christ are welcome to receive communion,” why not use these words instead to lead folks to the Font? “All who are not yet baptized and who desire to receive Christ are welcome to come forward to be baptized.” And from there to the Altar-Table in a beautiful drawing together of the Sacraments as new-old catechetical approaches do. And instead of emphasizing pre-baptimal preparation, why not overlap this with or do instead post-baptismal teaching and mystagogy? At least then we maintain a catholic approach, if one different from the one we have emphasized in the last century.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Complicating Liturgy: Problematizing Community, Evangelism, and Mission in post-Christendom

“If we don’t, we’re not.”

In words to this effect, an interviewee coming out of the Mass tells anthropologist, Victor Turner, why it is she must go to Mass. Her words capture to my mind the essence of why we Christians are gathered together Sunday after Sunday.

Yet, lately, I have read a spate of suggestions that unless we do it differently, we will be not. And by differently, those doing the suggesting mean complete overhauls. We must undo everything we have done before.

Complete breaks with languages and idioms of our past. Rite I must go. [And even Rite II.] Good-by Schmuecke Dich. [Bach be gone, too.]

And with these breaks we must countenance complete rejection of the liturgically-formed pieties that have fed generations to go forth and serve a world in need. Including the pieties of many currently living. We are asked to dismiss generations with all of their own greatnesses and failures, compassions and sins, just like us in all of our own ambiguities and complexities.

This either/or approach to liturgy sets my teeth on edge because it is quite distinct from a tradition, like the Anglican tradition, or I would suggest, the Lutheran tradition, that has tended to incorporate insights, expand options, and build bridges between liturgically-formed pieties past and present as we go along. This antagonistic thinking is at odds with a canonical approach to liturgy in the same vein Luke Timothy Johnson uses when discussing Holy Writ, an approach that makes us stronger because we have many resources upon which and whom to draw from across many, many centuries. New languages and idioms and theological insights will indeed find their way into our praying—alongside that which and those who have gone before. And after sifting. But they will not pit themselves over and against that which has fed ancestors in faith or current sisters and brothers, but seek development in which ancestors and kin too might recognize themselves if but in glimpses and in which they too would recognize the Jesus who came to them as he does to us and turns us from ourselves.

Recently, Dr Derek Olsen offered a cogent, to my mind, initial answer in a conversation on what it is that we Episcopalians should and should not bring up for negotiation in these changing times. Derek noted that we cannot negotiate giving up our common prayer with the theological commitments as expressed in the 1979 Prayer Book. Another responder suggested that, on the contrary, the Prayer Book must be the first thing negotiated—and fast. And if we do so, young people will show up “in droves.”

[As an aside, to be fair, the languages and idioms of the Prayer Book may no longer be in a language understanded for all comers. Nevertheless, finding languages and idioms that do communicate and maintain the scriptural allusions, inherited resonances, and creedal commitments of those we currently have is delicate if we are not to lose the gains of our current prayers--both in Rite I and Rite II. Finding such languages and idioms is careful work if what we shall have in a “Rite III” is to be heard as development consonant with Rites I and II in keys that communicate the Incarnation in his fullness as he is for us here and now AND as he has been for those gone before us. ]

So, droves. Let me be honest. I don’t buy it. The fact is that there are many other, often more interesting, things most younger people (sometimes, including myself) would rather do on their Sunday mornings no matter how revised, with it, or expressive of current spiritual longings our prayers might become. In fact, I am willing to wager that many of the unending debates about language we Christians are currently engaged in are lost on many who don’t currently go to Church or who have never gone to Church. That isn’t to say these debates aren’t important, but it is to say that making these changes won’t make us less sinners and more saints, less irrelevant and more appealing. That work largely lies in community, evangelism, and mission.

What gets me is the suggestion that we make all of these changes, and if we do so, people will come in droves. This is only verifiable if we make all of the changes and risk losing everything that has made us who we are to-date. Are we willing to take that risk? I’m not. The liturgies that we have in our Prayer Book are the stuff of many hundreds of years of people in ongoing encounter with Jesus Christ by the Spirit to the Father and the simultaneous theological and Christological reflection that goes with these encounters. This simultaneous encounter/reflection being what Rahner termed an ever “mediated immediacy” in which the prayers shape the encounter and the encounter shapes the prayers.

What also gets me about this suggestion is that when we get to brass tacks, many of those telling us we must change everything about ourselves don’t seem to have a common understanding of what that would be. Some say chant. Others say not. Some say Lord. And others say not. And so on. In the mean time, I have worshipped in many Episcopal parishes, and the breadth of variety that touches all of these suggestions is to be found with varying levels of numbers and vibrancy (and numbers are no guarantee of vibrancy). No single formula seems to do the trick if numbers is the measure.

And then yesterday, I read a piece in The Lutheran in which the author claims that unless we change everything about ourselves as insiders, we will keep others away and die of irrelevance.

In a rather overly general and swift dismissal of the pieties that feed many to go forth and serve through their life, work, and loves, the piece suggests that folks must give up what makes them who they are using the insider/outsider trope to guilt us into changing everything. This sort of thinking is a set up for a new round of liturgical warfare in congregations. And that will serve no one.

Like those who suggest changes in language and idiom will solve everything, with due respect, I think the bishop who wrote the piece mistakes liturgy for the hard work of community, evangelism, and mission.

Liturgy, particularly, Holy Communion or the Divine Service, is meant to feed those who are already Christians, and Christians of this or that particular stripe. And before anyone reminds me that liturgy is embedded, yes, I am quite aware that liturgy as actually done in any given context is contextual and cultural in communicating our Risen Lord. I expect to find that cultures have been and are being taken up in liturgies to this task. But inculturation does not mean we will not continue to recognize one another and what we’re doing even across cultural expressions and variations.

And what is this we're doing? Receiving and responding to Jesus Christ who comes to us as word and bread.

Just as our Orthodox kin are masters at inculturation while maintaining shared liturgical commitments across a wide range of peoples, I hardly think it wise to suggest we lose recognize-ability. And who, by the way, are growing in the U.S. without changing a thing? The Orthodox. [And yes, I know that that growth has a complicated story.]

The end result of all of this is that we are in danger of making relevance the wag that tells the god. And then who shall we be?

Now, we are living into post-Christendom. This is neither necessarily the greatest thing to ever happen to us as Churches, nor is it the worst. It is different.

One mistake we often make is to compare post-Christendom with pre-Christendom or Christendom.

Post-Christendom is not pre-Christendom. We who are living into post-Christendom realities are not on the whole prone to sporadic persecutions. On the whole, society is indifferent to us at best and carries a low level hostility toward us at worst.
Unlike Christendom, we are finding ourselves increasingly irrelevant and marginalized and vulnerable. And this taste of low grade marginalization, however, does carry resonances with pre-Christendom. This taste is an opportunity. Yet, who knows now what finally will differentiate post-Christendom from Christendom?

But, let me make a bold claim about our current liturgical expectations: The expectation that liturgy can and must carry the weight of community, evangelism, and mission is itself a hangover from Christendom. Why do I say this? Because only in societies in which Christianity has been dominant and thoroughly a part would we suggest that liturgy should be the most central or primary or initial encounter the unchurched have with us.

Folks in the pre-Christendom era did not join up with the Way because of liturgy. In fact, depending on their locale, they might not have been permitted to join us in God’s Service at all because they might be spies on the look out for trouble-making Christ-followers.

As historian and theologian, Robert Wilken, once noted, Christianity spread because we were the great redistribution society at a time when mystery religions of similar ilk and style disconnected rite and right. Our deacons, like St. Lawrence of Rome, were a hit because they distributed the goods brought to the service to those who were poor and in need, radically undercutting a society that, like our own, reduced most human beings to resource and use and numbers and disposability.

What makes us distinct is that unlike these early ancestors, folks do walk in off the street and join us from time to time. The question I have for us is not how did we change our liturgy to bring them in, but how does who we are at prayer reflect who we are we being with one another, who we are in sharing the Reason for our worship in the rest of our lives, and raising a stink and sharing daily bread in the middle of a society willing to use up and spit out the masses?

How is it we are being actively irrelevant, nay a thorn in the side, to a culture that measures relevance by use, resource, numbers, and disposability?