Monday, October 6, 2014

The Incarnation Cycle, Anglican Quests for Holiness, and John A. T. Robinson

Last month I completed my fourth summer of coursework toward a Doctor of Ministry with the Advanced Degrees Program at Sewanee's School of Theology. With my final papers turned in, all that now remains is to write a project thesis of around 100 pages.

Ideally, I would write that in the summer of 2015, but it looks like my energy next year is going to be poured in immersion Spanish-language training so that I can more effectively lead St. John's El Corazón Latino Ministry Initiative, seeking not only to find ways to welcome Latinos at our church but also for our church to lead the way in dismantling the segregation and prejudice that persists in Northwest Ottawa County.

That said, like I did last year, and the year before, I am posting below the papers I wrote for this summer's courses.

Liturgical Time, class taught by the Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander (Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Liturgy, and Charles Todd Quintard Professor of Dogmatic Theology) and the Rev. Dr. Melissa M. Hartley (Associate Chaplain for the University of the South). A class that could also be retitled as "The Church Year is NOWHERE NEAR as simple and clear cut as you think it is!"

One Paper — A Robust Feast of the Incarnation: An Analysis of the Development of the Incarnation Cycle in English Christianity from the Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, with Application to Current Questions of Liturgical Practice

From the Introduction,
The liturgical calendar is something that most Christians in liturgical traditions take for granted. Those who have been raised in liturgical traditions assume that this is the way Christianity has been practiced since ancient times throughout the ages, the way it has always been. Those who have converted to a liturgical tradition from one that is not liturgical often perceive the church year as a way of reconnecting with ancient Christianity. At the same time, any scholar of liturgical history knows that the development of the church year came much more slowly and with much greater complexity than is often assumed. 
The Anglican tradition of Christianity is perhaps one of the most ancient streams that exist, with roots that may come from as early as the first century and with evidence of a developed enough Christian presence for an archbishop to attend a council in the early fourth century. From these earliest days, the Anglican tradition has had a tendency to do things differently than other areas, a tradition that has persisted throughout the centuries. For example, the English retained the practice of the new year beginning on March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation), up until the middle of the eighteenth century, long after most had started seeing January 1 as the beginning of a new year.  The sources and reasons for those differences are, unfortunately, often lost to history. However an exploration of the way that an aspect of Christianity developed in the Anglican tradition can reveal important new lenses to the Christian faith and can provide wonderful resources for critical reflection upon current practice. 
The nativity (or incarnation) cycle is an excellent example of where development in the British Isles happened differently than elsewhere, particularly differently than Rome. Even the common name “nativity cycle” betrays a later understanding of what is going on in this observance: a focus solely upon the birth of Christ instead the incarnation, a focus upon an historical event instead of the reality of God taking on flesh among us. Hence, I will be using “incarnation cycle” to refer to the celebrations and fasts related to the coming of God in Christ.  
It is often said that Anglicanism is an incarnational faith. What is particularly fascinating is that the peculiar Anglican focus upon the incarnation is much more ancient, much more rooted in specific liturgical observances of the church year, than is often realized.
Anglicanism: Love's Redeeming Work?, class taught by the Rev. Dr. Benjamin John King (Associate Professor of Church History at the School of Theology). I sort of asked him to teach a course using the text Love's Redeeming Work, knowing this was the only way I would get around to reading all 832 pages. Am I ever glad I did!

First Paper: The Distinctive Quest: A Critical Assessment of the Claims of Love's Redeeming Work & the Anglican Tradition of Christianity

From the Introduction,
Those in the Anglican tradition exist in a tradition that has always been a little hesitant to speak too strongly about a distinct identity. Indeed, at those times in our history when any one group has sought to do this, the experience has usually ended rather badly. As the editors of Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness  note, many books about Anglican identity are focused on questions of history, ecclesiology, or theology. They suspect, however, that the true value and distinctive nature of Anglicanism is actually found in our spiritual practice, in the peculiar way that Anglicans pursue holiness of life and deeper relationship with God.  
What is most fascinating as one reads this book is how easy it is to forget what age in which one is reading or what camp in which a particular author falls. Certain themes, ideas, and concepts appear again and again, across centuries and party lines, as clergy and laity invite the people of God deeper into the divine life. The contribution this book makes to a renewed appreciation of this reality—despite any (very fair and important!) qualms we might have about editorial decisions of which authors are included and how much space is devoted to each—is, indeed, immense.  
What seems to unite Anglicans is not merely a particular book of worship or a hierarchical system adapted to modern circumstances. What remains present is the idea that God truly does call us to holiness—and that the bedrock practices of that journey, regular prayer and Holy Eucharist, can indeed change our very selves. A persistent journey that seeks holiness of life and a deeper relationship with God can even change the world in which we live.

From the Introduction,
In a powerful image for the life of this controversial bishop, John Arthur Thomas Robinson was born in the precincts of the Canterbury Cathedral in 1919. His father, Arthur William Robinson served as a canon at the cathedral, as did his maternal grandfather. However, Arthur Robinson had married later in life, when he was sixty-two, and he died when his son, John, was only nine. John retained a close relationship to the church, even after his father’s death. Six of his uncles who also served as clergy persons, including one, J. Armitage Robinson, who was dean of Westminster and then Wells...

Thursday, September 25, 2014

It’s been a horrific summer in the Middle East

My September 17, 2014, article for the Grand Haven Tribune, "It’s been a horrific summer in the Middle East,"
Please don’t tell anyone I told you about this,” the man told us with tears in his eyes, “I could lose my job.” In order to respect that request and protect his identity, I won’t tell you how I met the man. I won’t tell you when he told me this or what he did working for a major international company before everything got even worse in the West Bank.

But I will tell you that I can never forget the look of fear in his eyes. He was pointing out the bullet holes in the outside wall of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — the oldest Christian church still in daily use.

“Notice the bullet holes are all from guns fired outside the church,” he said. “You will find no bullet holes in anything out here due to people firing from inside.”...
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Reimagined Episcopal Church: Some Steps Forward, Some Steps Back

A few days ago, the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), released an Open Letter to the Church, sharing the latest update on their thinking and their emerging recommendations, hoping the church would give them prayerful feedback.

This letter represents an evolution from their prior release of position papers (one of which I found a few things to disagree with...). This latest letter contains a lot of good thoughts and I truly do believe they are moving in a positive direction. It seems very clear to me that they are trying abundantly hard to listen to the church—as best you can in our virtual age. I know a few people on TREC and what impresses me most is that they are not there to do what they want, but they are there to try to listen hard to the church while also making recommendations that will move us forward.

Indeed, my biggest worry is not TREC's recommendations being imperfect (the only way anyone would think they were perfect would be if the disagreeing reader got to write their own recommendations!) My biggest worry is that the political camps in General Convention are too deeply entrenched for any significant change to go forward. 

As exhibit A, I would direct you to the Lead's story on the open letter, to which their actual lead to the article is, "The Taskforce for Reimagining The Episcopal Church (TREC) today released a report in which sets out a vision of an Episcopal Church led by a Presiding Bishop with few checks on his or her executive powers."

Well, I'm pretty sure the report does more than set out a vision of "an Episcopal Church led by a Presiding Bishop with few checks on his or her executive powers." As I said on the House of Bishops / House of Deputies list serve, the fact that this was the big takeaway says more about the editorial slant of the Lead than it does about the report itself. Indeed, I think that there are other recommendations—two specifically—that are more jarring and more damaging to the future of the church than the idea that our leader be a bishop.

I'm on record with supporting a somewhat strengthened Presiding Bishop, but I think there is a deeper question the church must first answer.

Which Path Forward?
As I see it, other than the status quo, there are two options forward for our church. Everyone seems to agree that we need to revision ourselves as the missionary society we technically are. We need to find ways to support small and struggling congregations—but not just to support them but actually to equip them to enact changes that will help them grow once more. We need to take advantage of 21st century technology and increase the participation of all quarters of the church in our church's life. 

BUT, is this best accomplished through an increase in authority to a single leader or to an elected body? In times of struggle and change, do elected bodies or a single leader stand a better chance of charting a strong course forward and leading the church in that direction?

I would argue that a single leader has a greater capability to lead, particularly when supported by a strong working relationships with an elected body. Anyone who has ever been on a board knows that, absent a strong leader, a board, whether operating by consensus or majority vote, struggles to move quickly, decisively, and boldly. That's good—boards exist to slow decisions, to ensure adequate discernment and consultation exists. However, to be led solely by a board slows all decisions. Furthermore, in most organizations it is hard to get on a board (they tend to self-perpetuate), and so you wind up with an oligarchy. 

What's fascinating is that most of those who I have read who oppose a strengthened Presiding Bishop in this open letter seem to support a different option given by TREC in their earlier position paper: have Executive Council hire someone as a General Secretary to the church. 

What is the difference between a General Secretary and a Presiding Bishop? A General Secretary could be from the laity or the clergy while a Presiding Bishop is, obviously, a bishop. I think that, as the Episcopal Church, it make sense to retain our historic practice of being "episcopally led but synodically governed." 

But this is the more telling difference between the church: a Presiding Bishop is elected by the House of Bishops and confirmed by the House of Deputies whereas a General Secretary would be chosen by... Executive Council. 

And yet, all those who oppose a strengthened Presiding Bishop and want a General Secretary instead say over and over again that it is because the voice of all people, particularly the laity, needs to be heard. They say we cannot centralize power in an age of decentralization. And yet, their own preference seems to be a centralization of power in the Executive Council of the church by having them select our leader instead of the actual General Convention.

Of course, General Convention is also an elected body, but they are one that will, by its very nature, be much more representative than Executive Council.

Which brings me to specific suggestions I would have in light of TREC's open letter.

Changes to General Convention
I agree that the primary role of General Convention should indeed be a place of deliberative discernment and evolution for the church's view on large-scale issues. I do not know whether shortening the length of Convention is necessary (they seem overwhelmed at trying to accomplish everything at the current length). TREC suggests we need "efforts to focus and prioritize its legislative agenda." But if we do that AND shorten the length, we might wind up with a still harried and rushed experience. 

What I would prefer is to leave the length alone while prioritizing the legislation. Get rid of all legislation that is unnecessary to the actual function of our church. Then, see how General Convention feels once we have focused and prioritized the agenda. My guess is that there will be more time for breathing, more time for discernment. My guess is that the current length will then, for the first time in years, be sufficient for the task at hand.

I would also say that Crusty Old Dean's point that we need specific changes to focus and prioritize legislation is essential. Keep the legislative committees, but streamline the legislative process. Allow Executive Council to bring legislation directly to the floor of the house. Increase the needed sponsors for resolutions. Empower a body to combine legislation. I would also say we need an explicit statement about what sort of legislation we should consider at General Convention. Sometimes resolutions that express the "mind of the convention" on pressing political matters may be helpful—but those should be few and reserved for only the most important of questions. 

TREC also does not discuss changing the size or make-up of General Convention. As I said earlier, I think General Convention should move to a unicameral synod with the retained ability to call a vote by orders. Each diocese voting delegation should consist of the diocesan bishop, two priests/deacons, and two lay people, with an equal amount of alternates elected. That's is half the size of the current delegation. 

(I am on record for actually supporting all four orders being the delegation for General Convention—that is, instead of "clergy", having priests be one order in the house and deacons be another order. However, it could be that many dioceses don't have a robust enough diaconate for that to happen.... in my pie in the sky world, though, it seems to me that having deacons and priests each attend as their own order alongside laity and bishops would be ideal). 

But then, keep the budget you had for when your voting delegation was larger and also send people to General Convention not for voting but to participate in parallel workshops and training opportunities that would empower the church. The sort of person who may be a good General Convention delegate may not be the same as the person in your diocese you would send to a series of workshops on Young Adult ministry (and vice versa). 

Changes to the Presiding Officers
Change the Presiding Bishop to a role that is elected by the entire General Convention. Take a cue from our ELCA sisters and brothers and scrap the current nomination process (a process that will cost us a quarter of a million dollars this year!). Have the first ballot allow any eligible bishop to be elected. Then, in successive ballots, slowly drop off the lowest vote getters until you get to a person who is actually elected by a majority of the laity, priests/deacons, and bishops. This is not impossible in an age of electronic voting.

Then, do the same thing to elect a President of Deputies or Vice-President (or some other name)—but have that person be a lay person. The election process is the same as that for a Presiding Bishop. Envision the relationship as similar to that between a rector and a senior warden. 

Next, empower the Presiding Bishop to lead the church, assisted by the advice of the President of Deputies. Have the Presiding Bishop remain bishop of their diocese (even the Archbishop of Canterbury, even the Pope is bishop of a diocese!), but since General Convention is now paying the salary, the diocese can elect a suffragan (if need be) to assist. 

As TREC recommends, the Presiding Bishop remains "CEO of the Church, Chair of the Executive Council, and President of DFMS, with managerial responsibility for all DFMS staff" and the President of Deputies is "Vice President of the Church, Vice Chair of the Executive Council, and Vice President of DFMS." The Presiding Bishop nominates "Chief Operating Officer (COO), Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Legal Officer," with the concurrence of the President of Deputies. The Presiding Bishop retains the right to supervise, hire, and fire all staff (just like a rector). 

Changes to Executive Council
Here is one of the most significant disagreements I have with the TREC report. I agree with cutting the rise of Council in half (from forty to twenty), but they suggest those twenty all be elected at General Convention without attention to regional representation, eliminating the election of Executive Council members that currently also happens at regional provincial synods. 


Once again, as Crusty Old Dean notes, this would likely result in only a few provinces having adequate representation. Instead, I would reverse it. I would have the entire Executive Council elected at the regional provincial synods, with those synods being comprised not of independent synodical representatives, but of the Deputies and Alternates to General Convention (with both Deputies and Alternates having the right to vote at a provincial synod—current practice is that provincial synod is its own elected representative office). Each province elects one lay person and one bishop, priest, or deacon to sit on Executive Council. 

Changes to CCABs
TREC also suggests the "elimination of all Standing Commissions except the Joint Standing Committees on Nominations and Program, and Budget & Finance." Instead, the Presiding Offices "appoint such task forces as might be necessary to carry out the work of a GC on a triennium by triennium basis."

I agree with most of this... I think. So long as the Presiding Officers are vigorous in appointing task forces we need and pay attention both to rotating people into task force work that have not previously served while also bring people onto a task force who may have served in a similar task force previously. A balance between continuity and fresh ideas is essential. 

Changes to Churchwide Staff
The final—and most troubling!—recommendation is "a transition in the mission or program-related staff of DFMS to a primarily contractor-only model."

I am consistently shocked by the fact that a church like ours that speaks to strongly of the importance of justice and valuing all the baptized consistently treats lay employees so remarkably poorly. This new model eliminates salaries. It eliminates benefits. It is shocking. And it is wrong.

My experience of the Churchwide Staff has been nothing but fantastic. I do believe that the staff could perhaps be reorganized—but the overarching concern should not be saving money but instead empowering ministry. The staff for ecumenical and interfaith relations has been slashed over the past few years—a remarkably bad decision given the increasing importance of ecumenical and interfaith relations at the local level in our times. One of the reasons why our diocese is still viable is because of our relationship with the ELCA!

Ask ourselves what work we want staffed at a churchwide level. A missioner for young adults, for Latino ministry, an ecumenical officer... what else? Create that staff, have Executive Council be the employer with the Presiding Bishop as the one with supervisory, hiring, and firing. 

Concluding Thoughts
As I said, TREC is moving in some very positive directions—though there are definitely a couple areas where I would raise caution flags. 

I simply pray that as they move forward they will continue to listen to the voice of the Spirit in the larger church... and that all of us will hold our own fears and anxieties lightly. Indeed, nothing short of the work of the Holy Spirit will enable TREC's final recommendations—no matter their final form—to make it through the various interests and groups that make-up General Convention.

Holy Spirit, who broods over the world, fill the hearts and minds of your servants on the Taskforce for Reimagining The Episcopal Church with wisdom, clarity, and courage.  Work in them as they examine and recommend reforms for the structure, governance, and administration of this branch of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. Help them propose reforms to more effectively proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, to challenge the world to seek and serve Christ in all persons—loving our neighbors as ourselves—[MT4] and to be a blazing light for the kind of justice and peace that leads to all people respecting the dignity of every other human being.Be with The Episcopal Church that we may be open to the challenges that this Taskforce will bring to us, and help the whole church to discern your will for our future. In the name of Jesus Christ our Mediator, on whose life this Church was founded.  AMEN

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Lessons for Independence Day from the Holy Trinity

My July 1, 2014, article for the Grand Haven Tribune, "Lessons for Independence Day from the Holy Trinity,"
Four years ago on July 4, I celebrated my first service as the rector of St. John’s. In preparation for the day, the interim rector and I noticed the strange coincidence that my first Sunday also happened to be a year when the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday.

In the Episcopal Church, Independence Day is actually a major feast of the church. That means it has its own collect (opening prayer), with readings and a Eucharistic preface assigned to it. Interestingly enough, our prayer book assigns the preface for Trinity Sunday to be used at worship on Independence Day.

Both Father Laycock and I remarked that this is an interesting choice — to call us to the Holy Trinity as a way of focusing worship on Independence Day...
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Be Made Clean

Below is my sermon from the closing Eucharist of the 2014 session of the Advanced Degrees Program of the School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, TN.
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (8:1–4)
When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ 
He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 
Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’
The Messianic secret always confused me growing up. I was raised an evangelical, in a tradition that put a significant emphasis on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. And so I never understood why it was that when Jesus would heal someone, like the leper in today’s Gospel reading, he would tell that person not to tell anyone what happened to him. Perhaps in telling people to keep their experiences of Jesus to themselves, Jesus was simply an excellent early Episcopalian.

This is now my fourth summer up on the Mountain, digging deeply into questions of theology, spirituality and the Christian faith. I have not been keeping this experience to myself, tweeting and Facebooking my way throughout class—sometimes I’m sure to the raised eyebrows of my professors. I have been trying to share with my congregation what it is exactly that I do for these three weeks each summer. I have not been keeping this experience to myself.

And though the relative paucity of posts from others on the ADP14 hashtag would indicate that not many of you have been tweeting or facebooking your way through classes with me, I’m sure that you will also find ways to share with your congregation the good experiences you’ve had in the program this year, the things you’ve learned, maybe even the things you learned that you had been wrong about all along. We clergy tend to be sharers, we have accepted this vocation because of our passion for telling people about our experience with God in Christ.

Jesus Heals the Leper
You know, I’m struck by this leper, the question he poses to Jesus, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” It’s really a statement, of course, a statement of faith that he knows Christ can do this if he wants to, but the unspoken question underneath is… is Jesus willing? Maybe the leper was better about talking about Jesus, than coming out and asking Jesus for the healing he so desperately desired. But that’s getting awfully close to psychologizing the text, and I’d hate to get marked down on exegesis so late in the program.

Except for one thing, I wonder about you. Do you talk more about Jesus than to Jesus? Do you wrestle with papers and newsletter articles and sermons but then spend little time in quiet with Christ? Is there within you, somewhere deep within, beneath the clerical collars, the alb, stole and chasuble, is there a place within you that hurts sometimes? A place you would deeply like our Lord to cleanse?

Episcopalians are wrong, I think, in keeping our experience of Jesus to themselves. The Messianic secret, in all the forms the theory has taken over the past hundred or so years, remains somewhat of an enigma from a Scriptural standpoint. But the evangelistic call of Christ to share the good news is not an enigma. We have to do better at this, we clergy, we have to better equip our people to go out and talk.

But, perhaps, as clergy, we also have to learn that every moment of our life is not sermon fodder. Perhaps we have to know that some of those quiet places in our life are important, that they cannot be neglected, and that we need to hold them between us and God. Perhaps we need to step away from the laptop and seek the presence of Christ. Perhaps we need to stop telling people about Christ and to ask Christ, to ask our Lord, to please make us clean… all those wounded places, the struggle and self-doubt and anxiety… to heal us.

Because I have a hunch that if we did ask him we would discover that he is indeed willing. Amen.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

There is a place for the broken

My June 18, 2014, article for the Grand Haven Tribune, "There is a place for the broken,"
“Oh, I don’t want to go to church. It is just full of hypocrites.”

I hear comments like this regularly from members of a rising group in America: the “nones.” This is those people who claim no religious affiliation — now nearly 20 percent of the population in the United States, including one-third of those ages 18-29.

And, every time I hear this comment, I grimace just a little. Because I know it is true.

I’ve been involved in the church my whole life, active in ministry of some sort since I was a campus minister in college 16 years ago, including the past six as a priest. I’ve seen that the church does indeed have our fair share of hypocrites — those who claim one thing with their lips but then do another in their actions. I’ve seen that selfishness, anger and gossip sometimes seem to be just as prevalent — if not more — in religious communities as in society at large...
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Choosing Death or Life: Reflections on 21st Century American Ecumenism in Light of the NCC's 2014 Christian Unity Gathering

We are at the end now of the 2014 Christian Unity Gathering of the National Council of Churches. I was sent by the Churchwide Office of The Episcopal Church to represent our church at the Conventing Table for Theological Dialogue and Matters of Faith and Order.

At which point, I imagine, about half of you have already checked out of reading this post.

Still there?


Because I think that what this Gathering is wrestling with (and what this Gathering has not wrestled with) involves some profoundly important questions for contemporary Christianity. I hope you'll listen in as I think through some of them because I, because all ecumenists out there, need the wisdom of the larger body.

So, I want to begin with describing the Challenges of this Gathering but then I want to say what I find Hopeful about this Gathering.

Before I do, though, I want to be clear about something. I am a young clergy person, not an academic, and so I enter ecumenism with a very different lens than many of my other colleagues. Others have more experience and a broader view of the lay of the land—I think particularly of Crusty Old Dean (otherwise known as the former Assistant [and then Interim] Ecumenical Officer for The Episcopal Church) and his fantastic posts on the "Ecumenical Autumn" (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). I don't have the training nor the breadth of him or other ecumenists who were cut from that cloth. Also, I am from the "Millennial Generation," but even I sometimes wonder if I am an aberration or example of that generation's impulses. Who knows. But the questions of Millenials and our engagement with the Christian Church are questions that are increasingly pressing.

All I do know is that I think the Ecumenical Movement is still desperately needed in today's Christianity. The question will be whether or not the current trajectories of that movement will lead to growth and vibrancy or only prolong an inevitable continued decline.

That said...

Challenges of a Struggling 21st Century Ecumenism
The National Council of Churches (NCC) recently went through a pretty significant restructuring of their work (you can read the report of the Task Force that engaged that work online here and the actual Restructuring Overview online here). This restructuring included the elimination of all former Commissions (including the Faith & Order Commission on which I served and which, as many Commissioners told me, predated the NCC). At the same time, the restructuring group created several "Convening Tables," including (ta da!) a Convening Table on Theological Dialogue and Matters of Faith & Order alongside of three other Convening Tables. So, it's not like Faith & Order has gone away... perhaps.

Whereas the former Faith & Order Commission met twice a year, now the NCC calls together one annual Christian Unity Gathering at which all the Convening Tables are present. Supposedly, this will help ensure we are in communication with each other and working together towards issues of mutual concern to the member communions of the NCC.

However, there is a part of me that feels like this is so much re-arranging of the deck chairs—and not a very good rearranging at that. It seems to me that what has actually happened is that Justice & Advocacy has now taken the lead role at the National Council of Churches. The NCC offices are now located in Washington, DC. Our First Christian Unity Gathering was held at the Washington-Dulles Hilton. The restructured NCC has laid out two key issues for us all to focus on: (1) Mass Incarceration and (2) Interfaith Relations with a focus on Peace-making.

Justice. Advocacy. Let's sign some petitions and change policies and programs in our government given the mandate of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I want to be very clear. I am a huge proponent of Justice and Advocacy work. Go to Twitter and search for #NCCCUG — you will see some fantastic points made by the speakers in our plenary sessions about the scourge of Mass Incarceration, several of which I myself quoted in tweets. The church must be mobilized around this and other issues of our day. Absolutely. I cannot wait to get back to St. John's in Grand Haven and talk to people about how our parish can engage this issue.

What I wonder, though, is whether Justice & Advocacy truly is the sole work of ecumenism in the twenty-first century. Is other ecumenical engagement (like, for example, traditional Faith & Order discussions on church-dividing and church-uniting issues) now going to be co-opted, used entirely in service to Justice and Advocacy concerns?

But perhaps even more troubling is that the pivot to Justice & Advocacy seems to continue the great weakness of late twentieth and early twenty-first century American (particularly mainline) Christianity—a longing for the return of Christendom. We want to come together to be a powerful voice to get Congress and the Courts and the President to listen to us. We want to be a force to reckoned with in Society. Because we know what's right.

Yet, we are not. We are not a force to be reckoned with. In the end, very few media outlets or news organizations probably care about the work and energy stirred up in these past two days at a hotel outside of Washington, DC. And even if they did, the question remains: should we, as the church, want them to care?

When we had power, back in the days of Christendom, we had a pretty bad habit of using that power poorly. We protected ourselves instead seeing a mandate to act in ways both healing and reconciling. If we get the power back, would we use it better than we used to?

Maybe instead of mobilizing around petitions, we should mobilize resources in local ways, help congregations see the plight of prisoners in jails and correctional facilities near them, encourage those congregations to become communities who truly care about prisoners, who advocate for forgiveness, who ensure they can indeed re-enter society in a way that is healing and healthy.

Maybe instead of cozying up to power to get the church's way, we should cozy up to Christ in the powerless that Christ may have his way with us.

My other worry about the pivot to Justice & Advocacy is that it seems to accept division among churches as a given that should not be worried about. We have lost a sense of the sin of schism that still besets the Church. As COD quotes H. Richard Niebuhr's classic, Social Sources of American Denominationalism in one of the above essays, “Denominationalism in the Christian Church is an acknowledged hypocrisy. It is a compromise made far too lightly, between Christianity and the world. It represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste system of society.”

Take the question of Eucharistic hospitality, for instance. My heart breaks that at a Christian Unity Gathering like the one I have attended, we cannot bless bread and wine and eat it in memory of Christ. The fact that we are so broken that we cannot partake in the sacramental act that unifies believers with Christ and his sacrifice is tragic—the fact that it doesn't seem to bother anyone is unconscionable.

Not only is this accepting of the sin of division troubling ("why talk about theological issues that divide us when there is real work to be done?" seems to be the thinking of the day) it is bears a remarkable ignorance when it comes to the current re-arranging of Christianity happening all around us. These theological issues still divide churches but they rarely divide the Christians in the pews.

Which brings me to my hopes...

Hopes for a Flowering 21st Century Ecumenism
More and more, people choose a local congregation because of they like the social justice work, or the programs for formation, or the worship... rarely do they choose a local congregation because it is a member of their denominational affiliation. The old labels of "conservative" and "liberal" of "mainline" and "evangelical" are becoming increasingly nonsensical. Clergy and parishioners are both increasingly identifying around new polarities, many of which are yet to be identified.

I, for instance, represent a stream in the Episcopal Church focused on traditional approaches to liturgy and music, drawing from the well of the Christian spiritual tradition, intent on arguing for the inherent belovedness and dignity of all people, particularly the marginalized, and yet still formed deeply by the Biblical text and a passion that people come to know the grace of God. To put it more simply, my politics are liberal, my liturgy conservative, my preaching evangelical, and my spiritual life pietistic. Furthermore, a lot of those choices don't come from traditional sources. I am liberal on same-sex marriage because I believe this so-called liberality comes from a close reading of the Biblical text, not because I buy the traditional arguments of liberal Christianity. I believe in same-sex marriage because I believe in marriage—and I think that is a counter-cultural statement in today's context.

All of that to say, we now face the possibility of engaging in ecumenical dialogue that recognizes that many of our old categories simply no longer ring true. There is renewed possibility for convergence and communion. A careful analysis of the new polarities and streams arising across denominational lines, streams that are already present in the pews if not recognized by the leadership of communions, could yield remarkable fruit for a new unity that seems to be breaking out among Christians.

But if Faith & Order is only seen as the "theological dialogue" portion of Justice & Advocacy work... well, then we will miss this opportunity.

Now, after being admittedly a bit grumpy about the Justice & Advocacy work, I need to say that there are other aspects of it that make me profoundly hopeful. For example, our focus on the scourge of Mass Incarceration during the past two days was very clear in acknowledging the racial dimensions of this work. An increased awareness of the persistence of racism both in Christian division and also in societal issues is one that is deeply needed.

This new era into which the ecumenical movement is entering needs to continue to look closely at the racial dimensions of what divides us as Christians. The comfort (or ignorance) many predominantly white churches have when it comes to the slow holocaust of young people of color occurring in our prisons and correctional facilities is heartbreaking and terrifying all at once.

And this awareness of the racial dimensions of struggle is also entering more fully into Faith & Order concerns in ways that are new and life-giving. At our final Convening Table meeting today, one participant shared the pain that discussion of Mass Incarceration brings up in his spirit, given his own experiences of racial profiling and mistreatment by the authorities.... and he brought that up in a conversation regarding the theological predispositions our respective traditions bring to the table when considering these issues. We need more engagement around these realities, recognizing that theology is lived out in the bodies—particularly the mistreated bodies—of the baptized.

So, where do I go now?
I came to this Christian Unity Gathering intending to determine whether or not I will continue to accept my appointment to this work or if I would write the Churchwide Office and ask to exit out of it. It's too early to tell, I think, what direction this restructuring will take. I have significant concerns, as I've outlined above, but I have just enough hope to want to try and see if I can be a part of the solution, even if only a small part.

So I accepted a role as Co-Convener of a subgroup of the Convening Table on Theological Dialogue and Matters of Faith & Order. I'm going to work with a colleague I just met and try and facilitate our subgroup's engagement with the question of how our theology informs the justice work we do when it comes to the issues of Mass Incarceration and Interfaith Relations. (Spoiler alert: I have a feeling one of my strongest emphases is going to be on Eucharistic hospitality and our ability to discern Christ's body among the incarcerated, drawing a bit, perhaps, from one of the most powerful books I've ever read on Eucharist).

I'm going to dig in and see what work I can be a part of because I truly believe these issues and questions, these challenges and hopes, are simply too important for me to bow out at this point.

I titled this post "Choosing Death or Life," drawing from the choices laid before the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 30. I don't know which choices will bring death and which will bring life when it comes to contemporary American ecumenism. But I do believe that if we are willing to wrestle with these choices, to wrestle with the challenges and hopes of the many who do care about modern ecumenism, that God will bless and guide our work.

And we will see... in the weeks and months and maybe even years to come we will see what will become of the Ecumenical Movement in 21st Century America. We will see what we can do to fulfill, as best as we are able, Christ's prayer that we all be one.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect at the Great Vigil of Easter, BCP 291)