The Sheep Thief: An Episcopal Story

It’s another year and another opportunity to start it with a “monumental post.”  Unfortunately, as the Anglican Curmudgeon points out, there aren’t many good things to report these days.  Our political system has gone dangerously stupid, completely in thrall to those who judge the merits of any proposal on who proposed it.  The Anglican Communion has come to the realisation that its supposed primus inter pares, Justin Welby, has sold the pass (which I’ve been waiting to happen for a long time.)

With all that, for this post I’m going back to my days at Bethesda (a church very much in the news even now.)  During most of my time there, our rector was Hunsdon Cary, whose relatives got caught in Jon Bruno’s bullying in California.  My father preferred to characterise him as a vacuous Episcopal divine, but he did manage a couple of durable accomplishments during his time: the founding of the Church Mouse (which was really the work of others) and the Boar’s/Bore’s Head celebration, which is just about the highlight of the year at Bethesda.

Our ministers would like to think that their profound theological musings are the most memorable part of their sermons.  In the case of the Anglicans this is especially problematic, but in reality the things that stick are the illustrations, something that you who preach sermons need to keep in mind.  I’m almost positive it’s Dr. Cary’s and it’s remained with me until now.

In an old village they raised a lot of sheep, and they are subject to theft.  One young man tried to make a livelihood out of it, so he was a sheep thief.

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What a sheep thief might have seen in the “old country” while plying his trade, atop Hergest Ridge, 1976.

He eventually got caught, and since they didn’t have the budgets for putting people in prison like they have now, they branded his forehead with “ST”, or “Sheep Thief.”  In a small village that was punishment enough; you were literally “branded for life” and short of taking off for London or America there weren’t many options.

Well, this sheep thief evidently took the comforting words of the Prayer Book to heart and decided to “truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways.”  He spent the rest of his days doing good deeds for people in the village, and gained a good reputation doing so.  When he was very old, while walking about, one young person asked another, “What’s the ‘ST’ on his forehead mean?”

“I don’t know,” was the reply, “I think it means Saint.”

We like to think we live in a “tolerant” time, but the reality is that it’s pretty easy to get your reputation ruined (with the consequences of that following) with one act.  In the sheep thief’s case at least he knew his act was illegal when he did it; these days the rules can change and you can get in trouble for stuff that wasn’t illegal (or considered wrong) when you did it.  And with digital memories it’s hard to shake something.  Human memory may fade but the record doesn’t.

As we start the New Year, the lesson of this illustration–in many ways harder to do now than even when Dr. Cary used it–is that we need to quit flying off at the handle and relying on virtue signalling to show the world that we are “good people.”  One of the serious consequences of the de-Christianisation of society is that we no longer know that only God is good and the rest of us need a Saviour.  That puts our “goodness” on our own efforts, and given the erratic nature of the human condition that’s an impossible order to fill.

It’s probably too much to ask at this stage in history, but at this point we as Christians need to keep the possibility–really, the imperative–of redemption in front of us, even for those whom we dislike and who hate us.  (We don’t need to confuse real reconciliation with just going along to get along, always a temptation in this society.)  Life will be a lot sweeter for us–and for others–if we do.

Steeleye Span: Gaudete

It’s just a tad late in the Advent calendar, but just in time for Christmas: “Gaudete,” sung a capella by the British folk/rock group Steeleye Span.

Getting British rockers (even folk types like Steeleye Span) to sing in Latin was no mean trick, but they did it, and this video furnishes the lyrics.

Guaranteed to freak your church out if you can replicate it.

The Wesleyan Advent Hymn the Wesleyan Pentecostals Don't Sing

It’s the classic hymn for the Second Sunday in Advent: “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending,” done in good Anglo-Catholic style here:

The lyrics were written by Charles Wesley in 1758; more than one tune has been affixed to them, this is my favourite.  It’s about the Second Coming, which is really what Advent is all about: Jesus Christ came once, he will come again.  A better known song with the same theme is “Joy to the World” but it’s been lost in the Christmas carols.

It’s a magnificent hymn, so why don’t those who claim the Wesleyan (albeit John) name sing it?  Probably the same reason they adopted Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology: because the Baptists didn’t do it that way!

I am sure, however, that our contemporary ministers of music can adapt this to their style and instrumentation.  Why?  Because the old High Church types and the smoke machine people have one thing in common: they both like it loud.

Does Anyone Really Believe This Current System is Permanent?

One of side “benefits” of being in the Anglican/Episcopal blogosphere is to get to know “Anglicans Unscripted,” the video interview series hosted by Kevin Kallsen, with frequent contribution by fellow Palm Beacher George Conger.  In a recent episode with Kallsen and the Queen’s former chaplain Gavin Ashenden, they discussed a float in Justin Welby’s parade of inept gaffes, namely his statement during a meeting with the Patriarch in Moscow that he lacked freedom to speak out on issues back in the UK.  In the course of discussing this Kallsen makes this observation:

What Kallsen is saying is that, in Russia, the church understands that kings and governments come and go and the church remains.  In the West, however, the church feels that it has to get with the program so that “society” and “culture” will allow the church the right to exist.  I also suspect that, even with the much shorter history of Christianity in China, the Chinese take the same attitude, which explains why Christian churches in China experience the growth they do even in the face of government and party hostility.

For an American to come to this realisation, let alone verbalise it, is amazing, although I’ve found the debate level in the Anglican/Episcopal world to be at a higher level than many other places in Christianity.  Americans take a notoriously short view of history, which more than anything else makes them inherently provincial.  The really sad truth is that, with more than fifty years of “liberation,” world travel and the fire hose of news that the internet affords, they still have the idea that this system of things will not basically change, which only reinforces the baneful provinciality.

That attitude is the one thing that actually unites both sides of our political scene in this country.   In spite of noises such as the abolition of the Electoral College or the institution of a parliamentary system on one side or amendments against abortion or same-sex civil marriage on the other, both sides see their destiny fulfilled in the current system with the current structure.  That’s a major reason both sides carry on as vociferously as they do; they look on success in politics as an existential necessity.

But countries come and countries go, and the way they’re governed goes with it.  Americans are out of touch with reality when they reflexively oppose any kind of secession (including Catalonia, Scotland, and the best one, Calexit.)  Christians in particular should understand that regimes and systems change (just compare those we have now to those in the Scriptures should make that clear) and that the church needs to fulfil the mission Our Lord put it on the earth to accomplish.  One reason why American Christians are having a hard time understanding (let alone supporting) Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is that the original Benedict Option was made necessary by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, an event which is entirely outside the experience of Americans.  (It’s hard to get Americans to understand what the collapse of the other superpower was really like, which is why we have so much foolish prattle about the Russians.)

It’s time for our ministers to earn their keep and set forth the idea that the church needs to really “be the church” (and not just in the way it worships either) and not constantly beholden to a system which is USD20 trillion in debt.  The results of that realisation may not be easy to carry out in this life, but doing so beats the blowback to what we’re doing now on the other side.

Not Much on Taking Advice: Pentecostals and Anglicanism

Growing up–especially when we lived on Lookout Mountain, something of a fantasy land in itself–I always enjoyed the Disney movies and records I could take in or had.  One of those that’s stuck with me is the song “Very Good Advice” from Alice in Wonderland. The clip from the movie is below:

Today is the Feast of Christ the King where, in addition to celebrating Our Lord’s coming return, we put a wrap on one liturgical year and prepare for the beginning of another with the First Sunday in Advent.  Considering the liturgical year brings me to a topic that, I think, needs to be discussed: the growing interest that some Pentecostals have in Anglicanism and other liturgical/apostolic churches, and specifically my adventure (or lack of it) in this process.

This website has been around for over two decades and I’ve been on social media (first Facebook, then Twitter) for almost half that time.  Much of what’s driven that has been my participation in the “Anglican Revolt,” so much of what’s here is aimed in that direction.  It’s almost innate for me to discuss Anglican/Episcopalian and Roman Catholic things because I was raised in one and spent much of my early adult life in another; my intellectual formation (and first entry into the Charismatic/Pentecostal world) came largely from my years as a Roman Catholic.  And I’ve gotten into some interesting dialogues with my Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox visitors, some positive, some not as much.

Engaging my Pentecostal friends in a dialogue has been another matter altogether.  With a few exceptions, the general response from that direction has been silence.  In the meanwhile I see them posting things such as nice Anglican churches, interest in liturgy and even evidence that they sneak into an Episcopal Church from time to time.  After my father’s experience in trying to get through the shoals of the Bahamas without a native guide, I thought that they might like one as well, with perhaps some “good advice.”  But by and large they have not, preferring to risk hitting the reef and going to the bottom.

There are a couple of things that need to be said at this point.

The first is that I’d be the first one to admit that there are many problems with Pentecostal/Charismatic churches these days.   Coming from a tradition of spontaneity and Spirit-led worship,  worship in many of these churches is a well-programmed floor show.  There’s too much emphasis on income generation and system maintenance, which (unBiblical though it is)  is a lot easier to carry out in the demographic of, say, the Episcopal Church than it is with most Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.  And, of course, there’s always the political element, although in this country both sides of the debate have too many of their eggs in the political basket.

The second is that, relative to those of us who are products of liturgical/apostolic churches, people who are raised in a Pentecostal church are products of an alternative universe.  That means that they often don’t “get” what they’re looking at, or how might be used to improve their own situation.  For example, I have yet to see a cogent explanation from any Pentecostal about what a “sacrament” is, or what it’s supposed to do, or why they’re important, or how sacramental theology differs substantially from what we’ve been regaled with up until now.  And potential cognitive dissonance extends to other topics.  For example, with Advent coming up, how do you plan to turn the Christmas season into an Advent one after years of Dickensenian conditioning?   How do we do Lent when many of our congregations have already run off and done the Daniel Diet in January?  Will we ever ditch Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology?  Or how do we incorporate the move of the Spirit into liturgical worship?  (Having experienced this myself, I really thought that people would be interested in it, but silly me…)  Instead of tackling these questions head-on, what I see these days is Pentecostal thinkers papering over the problems with post-modern fudge (which, sad to say, is too much like Anglican fudge, with potentially the same result.)

Unlike some people, I don’t have any problem investigating “how the other half lives.”  In some respects that’s what I’ve done here for a long time.  What bothers me is that others that do aren’t interested in the experience and observations of those who have trod the path, even if they had started from another place and took the path in a different direction.

And that leads me to something that bothers me even more: that these investigations, for some at least, are a part of moving up.  Pentecostal churches have two things that most of American Christianity only dreams of: the preferential option of the poor and ethnic diversity.  Nevertheless, in spite of rhetoric to the contrary, it seems that some who trod the Anglican/Episcopal road want to end up in a place which, really, has neither, because their own life situation no longer matches the state of their church.  And that, of course, will draw them into the struggles which have convulsed the Anglican/Episcopal world for the last half century.  Which side will they choose?  I am fearful, if for no other reason than that they will project their own problems with their own past into the conflict.

But, as I said at the start, many eschew the native guide.  Like Alice, they peer into the Gothic cathedrals and churches “through the looking glass” not realising what they’re really peering into is a palantir.  Those of us who have slogged through the battles with the likes of KJS and now Justin Welby know what’s coming but theological Siegfrieds know no fear at their peril.  They and their churches will end up pointless and they will, like Alice in the video at the start of this post, will end up crying in the dark, wishing they had taken some good advice.

Evangelicals Took Over the Church of England? So What?

An eye-opener, indeed:

Fifty years later there’s good reason for evangelicals to believe Stott’s argument ultimately won the day. For instance, unlike his more liberal predecessor, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is a charismatic evangelical (and a member of Holy Trinity Brompton before he was ordained), and his counterpart in York, John Sentamu, comes from an evangelical background too. As Rev Dr Ian Paul, who sits on the Archbishops’ Council notes, while previous generations of evangelicals ignored senior establishment posts, today’s evangelicals are taking them on, so when it comes to its senior leadership, “the Church of England is more evangelical than it’s ever been”. According to Dr Paul, the growth of the Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and New Wine networks is further evidence that evangelicals are having a strong impact on the Church. And the trend looks set to continue. Evangelicals now account for 70 per cent of ordinands entering training. A generation ago, the figure was just 30 per cent.

On the other hand…based on the last Welby-directed Primates’ meeting, it should be obvious that what’s being “evangelised” isn’t the Gospel.

There’s no question that the language and methodology of evangelicalism has affected just about all of Christianity, including the Episcopalians (who used to think such things were in bad taste) and #straightouttairondale Roman Catholicism.  But what’s the good news?  That we can live in like fashion to those whose first purpose is to get laid, high or drunk?

One thing that would simplify things or everyone is to make a clean separation of civil marriage from marriage in the church.  That has its problems but it would take some of the pressure from churches to make their idea of marriage conform with that of the state’s.

Stripped of a real Biblical ethic, “evangelicalism” is simply another b-school method of filling pews and offering plates.  God’s church deserves better, but getting that isn’t easy these days.

Healy Willan's Missa de Sancta Maria Magdelena

It was the “standard” rendition of the Holy Communion when I grew up at Bethesda-by-the-Sea, and the paid youth choir did a proper job of it.  This rendition comes from St. John’s Cathedral in Detroit.

It remains one of the most moving “masses” (that term didn’t sit well with many Episcopalians) I have ever heard, and remains a favourite.

Note that the priest is ad orientem, which can get people into trouble in some places.

The Strange Consequence of Luther's Concept of Justification

Bossuet, in his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches, I, 7, gets to the point:

Justification is that grace which, remitting to us our sins, at the same time renders us agreeable to God. Till then, it had been believed that what wrought this effect proceeded indeed from God, but yet necessarily existed in man; and that to be justified,—namely, for a sinner to be made just, it was necessary he should have this justice in him; as to be learned and virtuous, one must have in him learning and virtue. But Luther had not followed so simple an idea. He would have it, that what justifies us and renders us agreeable to God was nothing in us; but we were justified because God imputed to us the justice of Jesus Christ, as if it were our own, and because by faith we could indeed appropriate it to ourselves.

The defect in the Lutheran concept of justification is that it is unnecessary to internalise God’s grace as long as our name was written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.  Growing up Episcopalian, I saw too much of the result of that kind of thing: people whose lives had little evidence of alteration by the Gospel, even though the New Testament demands such a transformation.  The Roman Catholic concept of “Christ alive in us” (the concept set to music at the start of this album) is better, although it’s wrapped in a defective ecclesiology and obscured by the Roman Catholic concept of merit.

What we’re really after is to make that internalisation the centrepiece of Christian life, and from that standpoint the Reformation is either the first step or the greatest obstacle.

Justification by Litigation Doesn't Work, Either

Certainly didn’t for the Episcopal Church in their “recovery” of the San Joaquin diocese:

What would you say of a trustee who spent $6.8 million of his trust fund’s money to recover just $1 million? Is that a healthy example of how a fiduciary should carry out his duties?

You probably already guessed before I tell you: the trustee in question is the Episcopal Church (USA); the trust fund is ECUSA’s endowment (some $366 million as of the end of 2016); the $6.8 million was loaned by ECUSA’s Executive Council to the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin to keep it propped up during its ten-year lawsuit to “recover church properties”; and the $1 million is all that the Diocese of San Joaquin is now able to repay after having been handed more than 25 properties by the crazy California courts.

There are several ways of explaining why the Episcopal Church has spent around USD40,000,000 to recover its property in this millennium of struggle that is the Anglican Revolt.

One way is to note that much of TEC’s “pastiche” is rooted in its historic properties (like this one) and that it needed them to “keep up the day” or keep its “brand.” But that puts the lie to a whole generation of social justice warriors such as this who wanted to break the church out of the “phony” suburbs and make it both relevant and reaching out to people beyond TEC’s elevated demographic.  (Face it, though: the course of the left since the 1960’s has been to backtrack from a real economic justice agenda, and we have the income inequality to show for it.)

Another is to say that TEC needed these properties to forward its “evangelistic” efforts.  And it’s true that property on the ground is useful in this endeavour.  But TEC hasn’t had a really good plan for growth since it appealed to the upwardly mobile in the 1950’s, and to say otherwise is to be  in denial, which certainly has motivated many to do foolish things.  The lack of practical growth plan is, from an economic standpoint, the key problem with its scorched earth litigation strategy: we got the property back, now what?  And how do we pay for it?

Yet another is to note the blind hatred that TEC’s left has exhibited towards those who didn’t agree with the pansexual agenda actively promoted in the church.  That was very much in evidence during the years Katherine Jefferts-Schori was Presiding Bishop, and say what you will, she was more up front about that than her male predecessors and successor.  But that kind of hatred doesn’t become people who a) come from a supposedly “nice” religion and b) profess and call themselves Christians.

And this last point goes hand in hand with the American tendency to put way too much confidence in litigation and its successful outcome.  Americans are drilled in the absolute rightness of their legal system and the “rule of law” that supposedly goes with it.  Winning a lawsuit not only brings victory to the issue at hand; it also morally vindicates the successful plaintiff, and moral vindication is what life is all about in these United States.  The best way to describe this mentality is childlike, but that doesn’t stop people from pursuing a lot of stupid litigation.  (That masks much of the élite table tilting that has gone on with Episcopal property litigation, but that’s part of the game too, I suppose.)

It’s not a pretty picture.  The main result will be the sell-off of properties to pay the lawyers and other expenses, and that can bite back, as Jon Bruno will tell you.  As we approach the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, we can argue about justification by faith vs. works (not a really good dichotomy) but we can be sure that litigation doesn’t justify anyone.

Was Augustine Really the Worst for Christian Theology?

One of the real shockers of recent American Christianity was the conversion of Hank Hannegraff, the “Bible Answer Man,” to Greek Orthodoxy.  That was upsetting to many who had followed his Bible answers for many years, but it was especially upsetting to the Reformed types, who basically acted like he had left Christianity.  (That sounds like what Sunni Muslims sound like when describing Shi’a Islam, but I digress…)  I thought that violent of a reaction strange.  Didn’t the Greeks work out the divinity of Christ against the Arians while the West basically watched?  Didn’t they define the two natures of Christ at Chalcedon?  Aren’t the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds of Eastern origin?

Some light on that kind of panic comes from Alexander Viet Griswold Allen’s book The Continuity of Christian Thought: A Study of Modern Theology in Light of its History.  (I’ll bet that Frank Griswold, Sufi Rumi’s disciple and former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, is a relative, but I haven’t checked it out.)  Allen is today mostly forgotten, but the Anglican world would do well to remember him, both for his good points and his bad ones.

Allen’s basic premise is that Augustine and his theology, with is focus on original sin and depravity, predestination, the eternal state of the blessed and damned, and the role the church in all of this was the finishing touch in making Latin Christianity what it was, which was much different from Greek Christianity.  Today, of course, Reformed types back pedal Augustine’s role in the formation of their idea. But such is somewhere between ignorant and duplicitous, and most of then know it: as this blog points out:

I actually believe that the contrary is true; what Augustine actually taught is being ignored and with the resurgence of Calvinism (an offshoot of Augustinianism) needs to be studied carefully. If you don’t think that’s true I invite you to look for books critical of Augustine. The only ones I have found were originally published no later than 1914.

Allen himself outlines the difference between Greek and Latin Christianity as follows:

The Greek theology was based upon that tradition or interpretation of the life and teaching of Christ which at a very early date had found its highest expression in the Fourth Gospel; while the Latin theology followed another tradition preserved by what are called the synoptical writers in the first three gospels.  The fundamental principle in Greek theology, underlying every position which it assumed, was the doctrine of the divine immanence–the presence of God in nature, in humanity, in the process of human history; in Latin thought may be everywhere discerned the working of another principle, sometimes known as Deism, according to which God is conceived as apart from the world, localized at a vast distance in the infinitude of space.  By Greek thinkers the incarnation was regarded as the completion and the crown of a spiritual process in the history of man, dating from the creation; and by Latin writers as the remedy for a catastrophe, by which humanity had been severed from its affiliation with God.

The last point is crucial, because in converting to Orthodoxy Hannegraff had (whether he realised it or not) inverted his whole idea of man’s relationship with God from the Augustinian/Reformed concept.  Little wonder the latter thought he had left the faith.

Allen’s solution to this problem was to shift back to a more Greek (sometimes called Athanasian) idea, and the road he chose was through Schliermacher.  Unfortunately for Allen and those who thought like him, this sunny concept of life and Christianity received a cruel blow in the trenches of World War I.  Also, its open endedness is a setup for passing outside of Christianity of any kind, something that liberal Episcopalians were blind to and which facilitated another catastrophe, namely the crisis of the 1960’s and beyond and the exodus from the church that followed.

Allen himself admits that Augustinian/Reformed types put a lot of starch in their shirts:

Once more in the history of Christianity, in our own age, an ecclesiastical reaction has been and still is in progress, which is based on the same principle that inspired Augustine and Loyola.  To the mind of a writer like De Maistre, seeking to impose again on the modern world the authority of an infallible pope as the highest expression of the will of God, the theology of Aquinas, even though illustrated with the brilliancy of Bossuet’s genius, seemed like shuffling, vacillating weakness.  Carlyle, who at heart remained as he had been born, a sturdy Calvinist, presents in literature the spectacle of one who finds no institution that responds to his ideal: everywhere appears weakness, disorder and confusion, accompanied with shallow talk about liberty; he bewails the absence of the “strong man” upon whose portrait in history he gazed with fascinated vision, whose coming he invoked as the one crying need of the time.

We see such attitudes coming back into fashion in #straightouttairondale Catholicism and the resurgence of the Reformed types.  But is this dichotomy which Allen describes all we have to choose from?  The answer is no.

Allen suggests an old antithesis, namely that God is either imminent or transcendent.  That was put in front of me growing up Episcopalian.  But it’s a false dichotomy, especially for someone who was converted in this way.  The simple truth–one I discovered in Aquinas–is that the omnipresent God is not created and we are.  That, in turn set up the compelling reason that God himself should enter his creation as a man and win our salvation, because his uncreated goodness is enough and our created goodness isn’t.  We don’t need total depravity for us to need God, we just need to lack the resources to get to God, which we do.

Allen rightly observes that, with the Augustinian/Reformed idea of absolute predestination, Jesus Christ is in many ways unnecessary, as long as God wills it.  (If that sounds Islāmic, it should.)  Some people who inherited the separation of the Reformation have tried to fix that problem, most prominently John Wesley, starting as he did with Anglicanism’s loophole, to say nothing of this.

To answer the original question, “Was Augustine the worst for Christian theology,” the answer is no.  He has his faults but he has his strong points as well.  In the same vein, as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses on the door, we need to recognise that the Reformation is in itself not a completed work.  It was not the end of making the Church right but only the beginning.