Renunciation is Central to Christianity, But You’d Never Know It

I recently had an interesting back and forth with a guy I went to prep school with on “Renouncing Privilege.”  Evidently he and I have a different take on what that means, as evidenced by his comment:

Many of the students were, and probably still are wealthy, still privileged. I would not try to make the point that the young men became followers of Gandhi, just that they recognized an abusive power that they had the means to abolish and voted accordingly.

Some of my idea comes from the current assault on “white privilege,” the only logical solution being that white people just step aside and let everyone else run things.  (I document here how some well-heeled and bi-coastal white people have tried to get around that obvious conclusion for their children’s’ benefit.)  But much of my view on the subject is conditioned by the New Testament itself:

“I tell you,” answered Jesus, “that at the New Creation, ‘when the Son of Man takes his seat on his throne of glory,’ you who followed me shall be seated upon twelve thrones, as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel. Every one who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or land, on account of my Name, will receive many times as much, and will ‘gain Immortal Life.’ But many who are first now will then be last, and those who are last will be first.  (Matthew 19:28-30 TCNT)

Calling the people and his disciples to him, Jesus said: “If any man wishes to walk in my steps, let him renounce self, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever, for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, will lose his life shall save it. (Mark 8:34-35 TCNT)

I’ve spent time on the rich young ruler elsewhere.

In the past Christians have understood what this meant.  Consider this from J.N.D. Kelly’s Jerome:

In the fourth century it was common for really serious Christians, at their baptism or when they experienced a deeper conversion, to break with the world, abandoning career, marriage and material possessions in order (in the expressive phrase of Cyprian of Carthage) ‘to hold themselves free for God and for Christ.’  The ascetic strain which had been present in Christianity from the start, and which in the west tended to set a premium on virginity, inevitably received a powerful practical impulse with the disappearance of persecution and the emergence of a predominantly Christian society where much of the Christian colouring was skin-deep.

That’s something that advocates of the “Benedict Option” should keep in mind.

In any case such is virtually unknown in American Christianity, which is too hog-tied to upward mobility (and that link is a big reason why American Christians do what they do politically, on both sides of the spectrum.)

Since straight-up renunciation doesn’t go down well, is there another way to meet the challenge of the Gospel?  One comes from the Anglican/Episcopal George Conger, who has tried to deal with this by putting this verse into practice:

The servant who knows his master’s wishes and yet does not prepare and act accordingly will receive many lashes; while one who does not know his master’s wishes, but acts so as to deserve a flogging, will receive but few. From every one to whom much has been given much will be expected, and from the man to whom much has been entrusted the more will be demanded.  (Luke 12:47-48 TCNT)

He explains the “critical moment” for his commitment to “givebacks” here, in an encounter with then candidate George H.W. Bush:

I commented on that idea years ago:

If one were to name the Episcopal Church’s strongest point from a practical standpoint, it was this: the emphasis on the importance of “give back”. It’s something I miss in a Pentecostal church. This isn’t to say that Pentecostals are not willing to help others–they certainly are, and are for many reasons better positioned to do so than Episcopalians–but the context is entirely different, and it doesn’t percolate to the upper reaches of the organisation the way one would like it to. But that’s also generational: baby boomers, for all the talk and their self-righteous insistence of making the next generation volunteer, are mostly too self-centred to know what true give-back is.

That said, I think that the road to that needs to run through some kind of renunciation.

Although there are many people who don’t have a lot to renounce (that’s another lesson that comes from many years in a Pentecostal church) American Christianity would do well to learn from Our Lord on renunciation, if for no other reason than that, if things go south, renunciation will be a lot easier than having it taken away from you.

The Thing About Myself that @rachelheldevans Brought to Mind

I was saddened by the last voyage of Rachel Held Evans.  It is never good for such a thing to happen, especially at this time in life.  She was not so far from us and my wife and I know several of her fellow parishioners at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland.

It’s best to put your opinions out on someone while they’re still here, and the one extended piece I did on her was this one in 2013 on a series of tornadoes in Oklahoma.  It reminded me of a simple fact about myself; that, although my years in the Evangelical-Pentecostal world have on the whole been positive, I’m glad I was neither raised nor came of age in it.  I’ll reproduce the body of my response to her (and her opponents):

The truth is that both Evans and her Evangelical opponents are working from one shared assumption: that we have a performance-based God whose purpose is to either a) fulfil our every wish or b) punish us for every fault.  Both implicitly assume that people are the measure, and neither really represents reality.  They represent responses to Evangelical Christianity’s current “selling point”, i.e., that if you get on God’s side you’ll have a life of bliss.  One emphasises the downside of not being on his side (and I’ll admit that too many Evangelicals are big on that) and the other attempts to apply post-modern “I deserve the best” mentality to a universe where such an assumption has no basis.

Such dialectics are, for me, a reminder of how blessed I was that my chief intellectual formation as a Christian was as a Roman Catholic and not a Protestant, let alone an Evangelical.  It has saved me a great deal of grief and probably apostacy.  So let me lay out what I think is the reality we have.

For all of its wonder, this world and universe is fallen and not God’s ideal for us.  That ideal will be found in eternity with him.  Before that happens we’ll have problems.  Sometimes these problems are big, sometimes these problems are small.  Sometimes these problems are the result of being in the path of unintended disaster, some are really of our own making.  (The global warming fanatics, for their part, can point to Oklahoma as a high-carbon consuming place because of its low-density settlement, large vehicles and ubiquitous air-conditioning, so there, you can make a liberal case against Evans).  But in either case the key is to secure our eternity so that we can deal with the problems that come our way in this life.

But ultimately that redemption, like everything else we get from God, is undeserved.  We don’t have the intrinsic worth to expect otherwise; God’s act of redemption was an act of undeserved love.  Coming from a congenial region, Evans may think this is harsh.  But as I’ve said before (and there are exceptions to this) growing up in a place like South Florida convinced me that, if there is a “default” in eternity, it isn’t heaven.

To think otherwise is, IMHO, to take on an entitlement mentality about God, which for many of us extends to the people and institutions around us.  Personally I can’t stomach that; entitlement mentalities not only go against my grain as a Christian, but they also really rub me the wrong way from my secular upbringing (and, yes, Rachel Held Evans, some of us really do have a secular background).  I would say that my walk with God has softened my attitude towards the world around me, which would otherwise be misanthropic and condescending (and I struggle with both).

It’s time to stop being so “deep in our own stuff” and broaden our horizons.

Memory eternal, and prayers for her family.

ACNA and CANA: The Baling Wire Unravels, and Some Thoughts About Ethnicity and Churches

They put a good face on a messy situation:

Archbishop Foley Beach, Primate of the Anglican Church in North America, and Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), have signed an agreement regarding the status of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) dioceses in both provinces…

The agreement provides that CANA become solely a mission of the Church of Nigeria but allows each of the three dioceses (Cana East, Cana West, Trinity) to make its own decision regarding its provincial relationships.

Each diocese will amend its constitution and canons as necessary, and may request to be a ministry partner of the alternative province. Both provinces are thankful that this resolution has been reached and look forward to continued collaboration in Gospel ministry, sharing full communion as provinces in the Anglican Communion.

One is led to recall Greg Griffith’s observation about North American Anglicanism when he swam the Tiber:

…the promise of the orthodox Anglican movement outside of The Episcopal Church never materialized either. Populated as that movement is by many good people, it has the institutional feeling of something held together by duct tape and baling wire.

Although the ACNA has made some progress from that, the multiprovincial origins of ACNA make things like this inevitable.

Getting past the baling wire, the core issue here is whether a church should encourage the development of ethnically specific congregations or even dioceses within its structure.  This is a problem that the ACNA, whose leadership mostly comes out of a monochrome (and socio-economically undiverse) Episcopal church, are really not prepared to deal with.  The CANA Trinity Diocese is mostly made up of Nigerian immigrants, who are very much products of the “old country” by language and custom.  They would like that idea expressed in their leadership, and the old country responded by appointing four bishops on its own, something that created a brown pants moment for the ACNA leadership.

So is it right?  Let’s look at the usual suspects at this blog.

It’s been forgotten, but at one point the Roman Catholic church in this country seriously considered organising itself along ethnic lines of the places its immigrant laity came from, i.e. Ireland, Italy, Germany, France, etc.  They opted not to, and although we have had ethnically predominant parishes the structure is uniform.  The main result of this was to buttress the hegemony of the Irish, with all the ups and downs that comes with it.

With the Church of God, Pentecostal in doctrine and worship but episcopal and centralised in government, the formation of ethnic “dioceses” and structures from the outset has been the norm.  The downside to that is that you end up with ethnic “enclaves” in the church, which tend to isolate these churches.  The upside is that you can put your congregation at arms length from the domination of the Scots-Irish, whose own priorities are driven by the peculiarities of their own situation.  That started with the African-American churches; the largest group which have their own structure today are the Hispanics, not as homogenous a group as people think.

Some of this, especially now, is the result of variations in cultural assimilation.  When people come here at the start, they have their own language, customs, etc.  As time passes and the children grow up here, they will shift to a different idea.   The result of this are the multicultural churches (usually medium to large churches) which are more common in American Christianity than their “woke” opponents would care to admit.  In this respect churches such as the CANA Trinity Diocese are transitional in nature (isn’t everything on this side of eternity?)

Getting back to the ACNA and CANA, the rigid ideal of purely territorial dioceses is one that dominates the thinking of many in the Land of the Apostolic Succession.  It was broken by the way the ACNA was cobbled together, and the realities of ethnically diverse Christianity, which requires both putting people together from all places and all races into one church and accommodating the specific needs of different groups, make this ideal impossible on a practical level.  This concord isn’t the best way to address the current reality, but given the way things stand in the ACNA, it’s just best to tighten and repair the baling wire and hope for the best.

The “Acceptable Religion” Concept Makes a Comeback

Historical amnesia is a common American malady.  One of those aspects of American life that is oft forgotten is that of the “acceptable religion,” the idea that certain religions are more socially acceptable (and thus more amenable to their adherents moving up) than others.  In the past, this was mostly an intramural contest within Christianity (with the Lodge lurking in the background); certain forms of the faith were more “acceptable” than others, thus the Episcopal Church was the “church of Presidents.”  (I think we just buried our last one.)  That made Christianity, especially in the South, a socio-economically stratified business: people changed churches both to help move up and to announce that arrival when it happened.  Those who had the bad taste to buck the trend had…bad taste, with the consequences that followed.  The first groups to push back in a significant way against this were Jews and Roman Catholics, but it wasn’t an easy struggle for either group.

Today, of course, the new “acceptable” religion is sexually-driven secularism, and it’s setting the trend for taste in a new way at Yale:

But in late March, Yale Law School adopted a novel tactic: one-upping the protesters. It announced three major policy changes that went further than many of the protesters’ demands, all under the guise of an expanded nondiscrimination policy.

The new policies require all employers to swear that, when hiring students or graduates who benefit from certain Yale funding, they will not consider an applicant’s “religion,” “religious creed,” “gender identity” or “gender expression,” among other factors. The effect of this, for instance, is if a Yale Law student or graduate wishes to work for an organization that does consider religion in hiring — say a Catholic organization or Jewish advocacy group — Yale will cut them off from three important programs.

Because the United States had the bad taste to make another decision–anoint a group of private schools as its ne plus ultra educational institutions–this will probably stick in some form, since students at private schools of any kind don’t enjoy the same broad First Amendment protections from university intrusion that their state school counterparts do.  But it’s a serious shot across the bow, especially for climbing Evangelicals who want their children to move up without the inconvenience–and eternal consequence–of formally adopting an “acceptable” religion.

But such has never really been an option, has it?

Do not love the world or what the world can offer. When any one loves the world, there is no love for the Father in him; for all that the world can offer–the gratification of the earthly nature, the gratification of the eye, the pretentious life–belongs, not to the Father, but to the world. And the world, and all that it gratifies, is passing away, but he who does God’s will remains for ever. (1 John 2:15-17 TCNT)

Beating the Sheep Doesn’t Work

I recently reviewed Latta Griswold’s The Middle Way, this is another quote from that, in his advice on sermons:

The most ineffective, and ultimately the most objectionable of all preachers, is the scold. There is a vast difference between rebuking evil and exposing to a congregation the sins to which they are prone, and scolding. The scolding seldom reaches the members of the parish for whom it is in tended. Nothing is more fruitless than to rave to empty benches or a scattering of the faithful about the neglect of public worship. If a priest provides the best service he and his assistants can render, if he conscientiously preaches the Gospel as effectively as he can, if he is a faithful pastor, he discharges his responsibility to his parish. There is a point at which the effort to induce people to come to church ceases to be a virtue, and when they must be left to their own conscience.

This is referred to in Evangelical circles as “beating the sheep,” and Griswold is right: it doesn’t work. It’s usually an act of desperation, and that’s especially true these days.

Book Review: Latta Griswold’s The Middle Way

If there’s one term that gets misused in Anglican-Episcopal circles more than any other, it’s the via media, the middle way, which Anglicanism is supposed to embody.  Probably it’s original intent was best expressed by the men who “translated” the King James Bible.  In their dedication to their “dread sovereign,” they said the following:

So that if, on the one side, we shall be traduced by Popish Persons at home or abroad, who therefore will malign us, because we are poor instruments to make God’s holy Truth to be yet more and more known unto the people, whom they desire still to keep in ignorance and darkness; or if, on the other side, we shall be maligned by self-conceited Brethren, who run their own ways, and give liking unto nothing, but what is framed by themselves, and hammered on their anvil; we may rest secure, supported within by the truth and innocency of a good conscience, having walked the ways of simplicity and integrity, as before the Lord; and sustained without by the powerful protection of Your Majesty’s grace and favour, which will ever give countenance to honest and Christian endeavours against bitter censures and uncharitable imputations.

These days it’s often used to either avoid taking a firm stand on something or to conceal the firm stand that’s being taken.  Where the middle is depends upon where the extremes are, and the major change in the Anglican-Episcopal world it the last half century or so is the location of those extremes, and thus the ever-shifting location of a middle that is increasingly impossible to maintain.

Before this excitement–but sadly not all of it–we had a church world whose divisions resembled those King James’ men faced (although, in their case, the Roman types were driven underground in Anglicanism, not to surface until the Oxford Movement.)  This is the world that Latta Griswold, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Lenox, Massachusetts, lived and moved and had his being, and into which he wrote The Middle Way.  (He was probably related to Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop and Sufi Rumi devotee, but I haven’t pinpointed the connection.)  Published in 1928, the same year of the fabled Prayer Book, it’s basically his idea on how to best implement that Prayer Book in the ceremonial of the church.

So what’s Griswold’s idea of “the middle way?”  That’s the first problem: Griswold is a committed high churchman, one who more than edges his way into Anglo-Catholicism.  He approvingly notes the importation of a great deal of Catholicising practices into a liturgy which had just made a major shift in that direction.  Trad Catholics and #straightouttairondale types would be at home with many of these.  One that surprised me was his approval of adding the “Last Gospel” at the end of the Mass, which is an import from what is called now the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM.)  As far as ad orientem is concerned, his comment that the “minister should face the altar when he addresses Almighty God, the congregation when he addresses or reads to them, and the opposite stall during other parts of the service” pretty much takes care of that.  Calling this “the middle way” is IMHO a stretch, but I will say that Griswold is more pastorally minded as to the sensibilities of his people than the absolutists who dominate the scene today.

Such a view and the topics he discusses might give the impression that he’s cooked up a recipe for a dull book.  But The Middle Way is anything but, especially for those of us who were raised in that tradition.  Griswold wrote novels as well; he crafts precise and sometimes witty prose, and probably the best way to give a feel for the book is to cite some of that.

Let’s start with his advice to ministers and the way they should be conducting the service:

His (the minister’s) demeanour during the service is important. It should be reverent, without being solemn; dignified, but not pompous; cheerful, but without levity; alert, but unhurried. If his personal mood does not accord with what he is doing, it can and should be concealed. Similar considerations apply to the choir. A service is like a play; it is a drama, and it needs to be rehearsed. The more faithful and carefully laboured the practice, the more natural, smooth, and satisfactory will be the performance. (emphasis mine)

Don’t let them know you’re having a bad day!

Twenty minutes is a wise limit for most preachers to set themselves for the sermon. If they do not use a manuscript, they should use a watch, and heed its monition. Nothing more defeats a preacher’s intention than to miss an admirable point at which to end his sermon.

That’s pretty standard advice for liturgical churches, but one which is often honoured in the breach.

If the service is well planned, if the musical setting, anthems, sermons, notices are not too long, such a Matins as has been described should not last over an hour, never over an hour and a quarter; and that is about the time the average congregation in the present day can concentrate upon divine worship.

We complain about the short attention span our people have today, but there really isn’t anything new under the sun…

Too often the presentation of the alms is conducted with so much pomp and ceremony, and this particularly in churches where ceremonial is affected to be despised, that it appears as if it were the climax of the whole service, a circumstance that invariably gives the intruding Philistine occasion to blaspheme.

Anglican-Episcopal types “trash talk” prosperity types, but this was a fault my home church Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach was notorious for.  We had the largest silver trays I have ever seen, and the celebrant’s elevation of same at the altar, accompanied by the organist’s all-stops-open rendering of the Doxology, outdid the elevation of the Host at Communion.  I’m sure the Philistines said some ripe things!

If some one could devise a method by which more people could he induced to attend evening services, he would be rendering the Church a great good.

This is a struggle that Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are losing (or have lost) today for the same reason their Main Line counterparts did a century ago: secular pursuits by the congregation.  It surprised me that Griswold brought this up: I was raised with the idea that twice-a-Sunday church was something that “they” did, not “us.”

Happily there is a growing tendency to bring children to Confirmation much earlier than formerly…The child is to go on with religious education all the rest of his life–at least that is what we should hope. Postponing Confirmation to the period of adolescence, as is so widely the practice, seems to me to place it at the most unsuitable age of all. It is then that children are apt to be less interested in religion than at any other period of their lives.

This was another shocker for a Bethesda veteran–I don’t know if it was a diocesan rule (probably was,) but Bethesda wouldn’t present anyone to the Bishop for Confirmation until he or she was 12.  Griswold’s observation about the unsuitability of waiting until the teens for Confirmation was true enough in his day; it was on steroids in the 1960’s and beyond.

But apologetic sermons are better than a sort preached by some men, who seldom lose an opportunity of announcing from the pulpit how very little of the Christian religion they deem worthy of acceptance.

I think this passage should be etched on the tombstone (or other memorial) of people like John Shelby Spong.  Griswold was a minister in a church where the whole life of the church revolved around the Book of Common PrayerLex orandi, lex credendi not withstanding, the weakness of that type of spirituality is that it lulls the church into a false sense of security: if the BCP is being faithfully and aesthetically executed every Sunday, life is good.  But behind the BCP are the essentials of the faith from the Holy Scriptures.  In Griswold’s day the rot was already underway, propagated by the seminaries; the explosion of the 1960’s and again in the 2000’s were only the lighting of the fuse, the explosive material of unbelief was in ample supply both times.  Looking at Griswold’s time and the years immediately following leads one to think of a quote from Gregory the Great:

There was long life and health, material prosperity, growth of population and the tranquillity of daily peace, yet while the world was flourishing in itself, in their hearts it had withered away.

That’s the challenge in front of American Christianity today, Anglican and otherwise.  Do we really believe the basic truths?  Or will we too sell the pass?  That’s the challenge in front of us.  Are we up to it?

There is much in The Middle Way that may not interest too many people now.  For those of us raised in this type of Christianity, or those who attempt to maintain worship according to the 1928 BCP, it’s a fascinating read.  But some of Griswold’s pithy observations have a prophetic ring to them, and for those whose objective is to carry on where other churches have failed, it’s a worthwhile read.

About Those Honorary Doctorates in the Church of God…

I’ve spent the past several weeks going on about social and political things, but this week I’d like to discuss a pet peeve of mine in the glorious church Church of God I’m a part of: the issue of honorary doctorates, and the calling of their recipients “Doctor.”  Fortunately our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Tim Hill (to use the Anglican form of address) has come out with a nice piece on the subject, Let’s Talk About It: Honorary Doctorates.  Coming from someone who a) received one, b) is called “Doctor” as a result, c) doesn’t require it and d) is now Presiding Bishop, it’s a welcome treatment of the subject.

I like Tim Hill, think he’s a man of integrity and transparency, know many in his family.  I think his personal qualities are worth far more than whatever title he holds. Putting that first comes from years of working in the Church of God at the denominational level, to say nothing of my years-long involvement in Anglicanism.  Pentecostals like for their leaders to have “the anointing,” but personal integrity before God and the church is really more important, and once that’s established the anointing will flow.

My own journey with this issue is only partially related to the fact that, much closer to the pearly gates than to my birth, I received my own earned doctorate.  A product of an Episcopal background and a Roman Catholic early adulthood, I didn’t join the Church of God until my late twenties.  To be honest, it was (and still is) an alternative universe.  Being in the construction industry, people with “too much education” don’t always get a warm reception (or maybe they do!) One professor at West Point even cautioned me about putting “PhD” after his name on my website, as he was concerned about the “warm reception!”

One thing I discovered early in my years in this church was that many in its upper echelons were called “Doctor.”  Growing up in a church with clergy equipped with plenty of formal education, that was no surprise.  It didn’t become apparent until much later that these doctorates were honorary doctorates.  Where I came from, the only people who were referred to as “Doctor” were either a) medical doctors or b) those who earned what accreditation types refer to as the “terminal degree.”  Some parts of the press only refer to people this way with (a).  So I thought this was strange, not only because it ran against general practice but also because I figured our laity wouldn’t take to educated people!

Part of solving this mystery in the “alternative universe” came when I came back to teach regularly about ten years ago.  Since most of my colleagues have a PhD, some of the students called me “Dr. Warrington.”  I tried to dissuade them from this practice but found it a “whack-a-mole” proposition, as Tim Hill did.  I think that some of it was just habit but some of it was currying favor.  I suspect that this same motivation inspires our people as much as it did my students.

But a great deal of it, I think, comes from a deep-rooted inferiority complex in our people, and a desire to move up in the world.  That’s a reversal of some long-held values, but a reversal I was unaware of until it was, for me at least, too late.  Our people wanted to show that they had arrived, and having a surfeit of doctors at the top was one way of doing that.  I still think that this inferiority complex is dangerous and will get us into trouble sooner or later, if it hasn’t already.

So what’s there to be inferior about?  Modern Pentecost’s position in Christianity reminds me of an apocryphal story about Maurice Ravel, the French composer, and George Gershwin, the American one.  Gershwin decided to take some lessons from Ravel, who asked Gershwin, “How much do you make in a year?”

“Oh, a quarter of a million dollars,” Gershwin replied (this was back in the 1920’s.)

“Perhaps I should be taking lessons from you,” Ravel replied.

Most churches would do well to take lessons from the Pentecostals and Charismatics regarding their outreach and the growth that can come from it.

One pastor up north had a series of sermons entitled, “Trading Your Title for a Towel,” referring to the foot-washing in John 13.  When he quit his church to take another one, he should have entitled his last sermon, “Throwing the Towel In.”  Let’s throw the towel in on calling everyone “doctor,” stop worrying about our “inferiority,” and be the men and women God wants us to be.

A Pesky Detail the “Religious Left” Overlooks on the Mission of the Church

In an excellent piece on the divide between the Remain-supporting clergy and the Leave-leaning laity of the Church of England, Giles Fraser makes this observation:

The job of the church is not to be a faintly Left-wing lobbying group for a slightly more redistributive tax policy or a more European focused Brexit deal. The job of the church is to point to this “other country”, God’s kingdom, and to set family, church and nation under its domain.

Religious left people love to decry “Christian nationalism” amongst their opponents, but they’re blind to the fact that they’re more often than not shilling for another form of nationalism (in this case the Procrustean and undemocratic EU, something Fraser explains elsewhere) and not for the true internationalism that the Christian Church as a whole was meant to have by its Founder.

Adopting that true internationalism will force people across the board in Christianity to abandon their pet secular goals, but that will be for the better, too.

My Response to Fleming Rutledge (@flemingrut) on Stewardship

In the run-up to Advent, the eminent Episcopal theologian Fleming Rutledge has posted an interesting piece entitled “Jesus’ Parable of the Money in Trust.”  It’s an interesting and informative piece, informative not only in its Biblical exegesis but also (doubtless unintentionally) about the Episcopal Church itself, and the changes wrought from the days when multi-generational Episcopalians (as I started out to be) gathered to worship “Gawd” on Sundays.

First the key takeaway: Rutledge is entirely correct to call out laity and clergy alike on the confusion wrought by the word “talent”:

As you can see, the master does not give out what we call “talents,” as in “gifts and talents.” The master gives out money. It’s unfortunate that the English word “talent,” meaning natural ability, is the same as the word for the gold coin in the original parable. As soon as we start talking about “talents,” we’re going to lose sight of the point altogether. We need to get “talents” out of our minds. This parable is about money. There’s this little slogan that Episcopalians use during stewardship season; I’m sure you’ve heard it—“time, talents, and treasure.” I don’t know who invented that, but in my perspective of the wider church, it’s done more harm than good. Putting time, talents, and treasure together distracts our attention from the real issue, which is money. For one thing, we don’t use the word “treasure” when we talk about money. Having those three “t”s sounds clever and quaint, but it also sounds irrelevant. It makes it too easy for us to avoid the issue of money. The slogan is ineffective because it lets people off the hook. If we can divert attention to time and talents, which aren’t very threatening, we don’t have to think about what really makes us nervous, namely, giving up some of our money. Over the years, various new titles for the parable have been proposed to correct the misunderstanding about “talents.” The best one is “The Parable of the Money in Trust.”[3] That we can understand.

Anyone with a decent classical education will spot this: the talent was a measure of the weight of gold in the Greco-Roman world, not a human attribute.  Having just marched through several books of Livy, the number of talents paraded in triumph becomes mind-boggling after a while.  Rutledge is right: in the narrative of the talents, we’re talking about money.

I think, however, that the biggest change that’s taken place is not in the correction of our understanding of what Our Lord was talking about when he referred to “talents” (and I would interpret the parable a little more broadly than she does, for reasons I will discuss.)  What’s changed more than anything else is the way Americans in general and Episcopalians in particular look at money, and that, IMHO, is what has made it possible for Rutledge to set forth the thesis she has done.

Particularly as a product of a multi-generational Episcopal background (on my paternal grandmother’s side) Episcopalians saw themselves as the keepers of a nice, aesthetically pleasing, old-money religion free from the intrusions of tasteless nouveaux-riches making a statement and getting away with it.  From a religious standpoint, Episcopalians were free from fulminations  before the offering of money-grubbing rednecks across the tracks.  Ironically, that was a major attraction for people like my mother, who was trying to escape (with mixed success) her dogmatic Baptistic past, not only about the money but about everything else.  Ironically the Episcopal Church gave cover to the many upwardly mobile people after World War II who wanted the supremely respectable form of Christianity without having to fight the uphill battle of changing the churches they were raised in.  The Episcopal Church’s greatest growth period was from the end of World War II to the mid-1960’s, a growth fuelled in part by that desire, and it’s been a bumpy ride downward ever since.

In any case, the hegemony of the “old money culture” has been swept away, not only by the social upheavals of the 1960’s but also by the Boomers’ stunning volte-face in the wake of that decade towards a “get rich” mentality.  Today we have people who have accumulated enormous sums of money in a short period of time being lionised as the moral guides of our society, additionally able with their new-found wealth to spread money-favouring patronage.  Their self-image as the moral guides of society is undeserved,  but in these United States, we’re obsessed with the money because that’s what it’s become about.

In this way, the traditional Episcopal paradigm about money, Biblical or not, has been blown away for good.  That demise is accentuated by the simple fact that, as the Episcopal Church has declined, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have risen.  Especially with the latter, generous stewardship is not only encouraged, it’s expected.  It’s a revelation to many traditional Episcopalians, but churches which expect a great deal from their congregants fiscally also expect much–and generally get it–with other aspects of their congregants’ lives.  The “time, talent and treasure” triple of traditional Episcopalianism is  package deal: you get one, you get the rest.

This is one place where the Episcopal Church’s elevated demographics have worked against it: in general, the higher the income level and wealth, the smaller portion of it goes to any kind of charitable work, church or otherwise.  (I’m excluding the business of foundations, which aren’t Biblical either and are a source of patronage.)  And that goes for the rest of the contribution, too.  For all it’s social justice striving of the last half century, the Episcopal Church has not quite figured out how to transform the preferential option for the poor into the preferential option of the poor.  Had it done so, it would have also changed the commitment level of its congregants, too.

It’s interesting that Rutledge notes the following:

Affluent churches have a particular challenge in this regard. Building up large endowments is a hedge against an uncertain future. An endowment needs wise, shrewd management, that’s for sure. But it is human nature to be overly cautious in this regard. We don’t typically look for ways to give away money. Consequently, we’re likely to be uneasy about Jesus’ message. Instead of recognizing it as our charter of freedom, we feel it as a threat. So we cling to what we have and we don’t risk anything. The more comfortable we get in our churches, the more likely we are to hang on to our money, so that it just goes round and round in a tight little circle.

As the Episcopal Church’s membership has declined, its reliance on endowed money has increased, with the occasional looting of the endowments.  Rutledge’s call for better money stewardship amongst the parishioners can be seen as a response to that reality.  If the rest of the church world can get along without over-reliance on endowments, why can’t we?  It’s a serious question, but until the Episcopal Church figures out how to attract new people with a new level of commitment, that question will go unanswered.

And the biggest danger of emphasising the money aspect of this parable is that some will take it as reducing Christianity to giving in the offering plate.  I don’t think that’s Rutledge’s intent.  That reduction is the biggest fault of prosperity teaching: it reduces our relationship with God to a money transaction, and that’s patently false.  As noted earlier, the Christian’s commitment to God is a total one.  Although this parable is about money it’s also about more.

I think that Rutledge has given us a valuable contribution to the understanding of this parable.  But I also think that this understanding does not need to be taken out of context in the current climate in the US about it being “all about the money.”  It isn’t.  It includes that, but it’s much more, and the sooner we all recognise that fact, the better.