From Pentecost to Liturgy and Back

My friend Robert Easter at Sanctifusion has thrown me some very deep questions in the course of a discussion:

I was talking about you to a young man who is in the process of shifting form Church of God to Anglican.  Something about the ancient ties and the Nicene writers.  When we look at it, I think the sacramental and the pentecostal are the two strands of the Faith maybe the closest to each other, and to the basics of the Faith.  Read some stuff from the Desert Fathers, Cappadocians, and earlier scholars and they seem all to be more of either one than anything else around today, and too much of either to quite be the other!

…how do you divide the Pentecostal “essentials” of the inner-life / holiness focus from the sacramental & liturgical aspects that are just as original, and apparently seen by the Fathers as essential to holiness?  My own thinking is about the passive / consciousness-driven / spectator kind of thing we see nowadays on Sundays, and particularly the differences in the messages of a common cup and loaf against the “individual servings” of nasty Welch’s and unsalted cracker bits.  Which is more effective in conveying , “this is My Body” either in terms of proclaiming Jesus’ Resurrection, or our unity in Him?  In my own opinion, whether as a Pentecostal or an Anglican I can’t tell, but I would think that even passing around a slice of Wonderbread and  a bottle of Nehi Grape would be closer to the plan than what is “common” today…

When I consider the scope of this blog–which reaches from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism to Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism–I sometimes think of the old saying, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”  But I’ve got myself into this and now my bluff is called, so I guess I should try to address some of these questions:

  1. The thing that ties Pentecostal Christianity to the Patristic (Roman Empire) Era is a common belief in a God who takes an active role in people’s affairs, and who hears and answers prayer.  This can be extended to much of Christianity that came after the Empire fell.   The fact that the two forms of Christianity took different church polities, forms or worship and even concepts of church should not obscure this central fact.  Reformed Christianity and much of what followed it attempts to turn Christianity into a mechanistic business, where the place of the elect (and the lost) is clear cut and immutable and everything else doesn’t really matter.  This, to my mind, is not God’s plan.  I explore this relative to Anglicanism in my piece Charismatic Anglicans: the Missing Link.
  2. The occupational hazard of churches with a sacramental system is that they get to the place where they think that the sacraments themselves confer all that’s needed for the faithful in this life and the life to come, irrespective of the state of the faithful’s heart and life.  Roman Catholicism has wrestled with this and we see this in its worst form today in Affirming Catholicism.
  3. The weakness of the Holy Communion in Pentecostal churches today isn’t as much a product of the form we receive it in as much as the weak Eucharistic theology that Pentecostal churches inherited from the Baptists.  There is no scriptural justification in a purely symbolic Eucharist, and since non one else involved in Pentecost has the guts to admit this, I might as well.  The other end of the pole–transubstantiation–has its problems too, as its advocates tend to overplay its benefits, even in the face of unworthy reception.
  4. Contrary to what many say, it’s certainly possible to have truly Pentecostal worship in a liturgical context.  It has been done.  It can be done.
  5. I think the true measure of a great church is in the way it wins non-Christians to Christ and subsequently disciples them.  The change of a life is the central event in a Christian’s life.  Putting liturgical form–or anything else, like “social justice”–ahead of this is a mistake.  Once you keep your focus on changing lives and then maturing them in a discipleship process, your worship (liturgical or otherwise) and everything else will improve.  The reason I am in a Pentecostal church today is because it emphasises that and has the converts to prove it.  I always got the impression as an Episcopalian that total conversions were either in bad taste or impossible due to human factors, and Roman Catholicism’s penchant for gradualism is well known.

Frankly, one reason I produced my fiction is to explore these knotty issues.  In many ways they are more easily explored in a story line than a theological discussion.  And the one part that gets very deep into the clash of ecclesiastical cultures is online.

The House of Bishops and the Deadly Meaning of “Until”

In his Anglican Action blog, Ralph Webb, Director of Anglican Action at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) noted the most significant detail of the "Mind of the House Statement" from the recent Episcopal House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans:

I (Webb) asked Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori why the mind of the house statement said:

"We … pledge not to authorize for use in our dioceses any public rites of same-sex blessings until a broader consensus emerges in the Communion, or until General Convention takes further action" (emphasis my own)

instead of: "unless a broader consensus … unless General Convention …"

as the primates’ communique said.

The presiding bishop responded that "until" was Windsor language. I concurred and asked if any bishop objected to the use of "until" as opposed to "unless," and she replied, "no." She could not recall any opposition to this major shift in wording.

That’s incredible. Let’s remember that while the Windsor Report said "until," the primates deliberately changed that word to "unless."

There’s a huge difference here. The primates asked the House of Bishops for assurances that they would stop consenting to the consecration of bishops in a same-sex relationship unless the mind of the Communion ever changed on these matters.

For those of us who have listened to liberals in and out of the Episcopal Church, the use of "until" is all too clear. They’re waiting for something, aided by their duplicity and delay, to change the Communion’s mind on the subjects of same-sex blessings and openly homosexual bishops and clergy from what it is to what they would like it to be.

To illustrate the point, the novel The Final Decision ends with the funeral of the heroine’s mother.  The Catholic priest officiating recalled his one encounter with the deceased:

I was in my office one day when she (the deceased) came to see me; she has the distinction of being the only member of the Committee for Personal Liberty to have ever darkened my door. She wanted to talk about Terry (the heroine). It was a difficult conversation; she accused me of having programmed her into a cult and deprived her of basic human fufilment. I found that hard to believe given the lifestyle she had led. Our dialogue was an exercise in futility; we ended up talking about our opponents in the difficult political climate we were in during that time. That didn’t help things; she finally ended the debate by telling me the following: ‘You cannot win this struggle of yours. Neither can my daughter. The world is going our way. It will never return to yours.’

The idea that the deceased was expressing here is one of historical determinism.  To those who adopt it, history is going only one way (ours,) and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it.  Such an attitude is an inheritance from Marxism, which made it a centrepiece of the ideology.

Now it should be obvious that what the Episcopal Church is setting forth isn’t orthodox Marxism, or even a realistic path to economic equity.  Marx would never approve of much of what they are doing, especially their pro-homosexual agenda (as Marx’s correspondence with Frederich Engels makes abundantly clear.)  However, irrespective of the agenda they’re touting, be it social or economic, liberals and leftists always seem to come back to historical determinism to buttress their argument or at least make them feel better about themselves.

But the fate of Marx’s own followers should give us pause about historical determinism.  It started in Marx’s own lifetime; he bitterly protested the rise of the Social Democrats in his native Germany, who moved towards the mixed economies prevalent in Europe today.  In those countries which did give his system a chance, ending the exploitation of surplus value only ended its production, which ran the economy down and bankrupted the country (as took place in the old Soviet Union.)  Today we see the largest "bastion" of Marxist-Leninist thought–the People’s Republic of China–in the hands of what it used to call "counter-revolutionary double-dealing capitalist roaders" on the way to building the largest economy in the world.

Those liberals in the Episcopal Church–and that’s just about all that’s left–need to take heed from their Marxist predecessors.  History is not a straight canal but a winding river:

So sung:
O so vast, O so mighty,
The Great River rolls to sea,
Flowers do waves thrash,
Heroes do sands smash,
When all the dreams drain,
Same are lose and gain.
Green mountains remain,
As sunsets ingrain,
Hoary fishers and woodcutters,
And some small rafts and calm waters,
In autumn moon, in spring winds,
By the wine jars, by porcelains,
Discuss talk and tale,
Only laugh and gale.
(opening song to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms)

It’s a river that also changes course, as the Great River (the Huang-He) and others have done.  And, of course, there the great Builder himself that can and will alter things as he sees fit.

The left needs to see that theirs is not the only "game in town," lest they too be swept away.

The Paradox of GLBT People and the Church

One thing that has buffaloed me from the start of this fiasco over TEC, Gene Robinson and the very strong existence of the GLBT in this and other historically Christian churches is this:  why would anyone want to join a church whose Scripture explicitly casts as sinful their defining way of life?  It’s true that liberal churches have a talent of explaining the Bible away, usually employing higher criticism.  But they still have to make that effort, generation after generation.  And in a society where secular people are well entrenched in its upper reaches, having a religion would seem to be a positive nuisance to those who themselves are well entrenched in its upper reaches.

Some of that answer can be found in David Hillard’s UnEnglish and Unmanly: Anglo-Catholicism and Homosexuality.  This is an interesting study that explains a lot of the early history of how we got to where things stand in the “Western” Anglican provinces.

One thing that everyone can take a lesson from is this: any church that puts a strong emphasis on an aesthetic or emotional appeal is especially vulnerable to the kinds of things described in Hilliard’s paper.  That should be sufficient warning to Pentecostal churches which, the deeper they get into society, the more they will be faced with challenges such as this.

A Semi-Marxist View of the Baptismal Covenant

One recurring issue in Episcopal/Anglican life is the "Baptismal Covenant" that appears in the 1979 BCP.  (For a look at it, click here.)   This has been Peter Toon’s cause célèbre for a long time, and now it’s been picked up by Gary L’Hommedieu.

Now it seems that Rowan Williams has joined in the chorus.  As L’Hommedieu notes:

"I have a clearer understanding of the polity of TEC and some of the assumptions that the bishops of the TEC make about the Church and its polity. Some have spoken to me about the baptismal covenant, as it works here, its importance, and how the concepts they take from the covenant make it easier to come to conclusions here that others cannot come to world-wide." (The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, House of Bishops Press Conference, New Orleans LA, September 21, 2007)

Although it’s an eye-opener, it’s what you would expect of an Affirming Catholic.

There are two problems with this.  The first is that most of the Anglican Communion doesn’t put out a contract on its own members like the Baptismal Covenant (I still call this thing "the contract on the Episcopalians.")  So we have yet another "instrument of disunity" (as if we needed one more.)

The second is something I’ve hit on repeatedly: the Episcopal Church’s elitist demographics compromise any attempt at the social justice enshrined in the Covenant.  I discuss this issue in The Preferential Option of the Poor and (from a Roman Catholic standpoint, Peace, Justice and Catholic Education.)

Put in a Marxist sense, as long as so many of TEC’s membership exploits other people’s surplus value, the whole business of social justice will ring hollow at best.  And that includes most of the much-vaunted GLBT community within TEC.

And they wonder why they’re having so much trouble getting credibility with the Africans…

Kendall Harmon’s Radical Solution

Kendall Harmon’s radical solution for the Episcopal Church, i.e., the bishops absent themselves from Lambeth, is an interesting proposal.  But it’s unlikely to get much traction where it counts.  Let me look at this from a more political standpoint.

First, any kind of withdrawal from Lambeth–voluntary and temporary though it might be–would be interpreted as a de facto withdrawal from the Communion.  And the TEC does not want to withdraw (or be expelled) from the Anglican Communion.  Too much of TEC’s "brand identity" is tied up in being a part of the Communion, and that connexion gets mentioned repeatedly in the litigation to hold onto the property.

Second, such a withdrawal would also be an admission of guilt, that TEC’s action in ordaining Gene Robinson just might not have been a good thing to do (you can fill in the blank as to why.)  And that is something that TEC just will not admit, even if they believed it.  It is typical in our society to take strong positions and then spend all of our time concealing them in order to show how much comity we have.  Such is what I call "fanaticism without conviction," and one of these days I’ll get into this in more detail.

Finally, it would take the Americans "out of the loop."  And if there’s one place Americans hate to be, it’s out of the loop, irrespective of whether that loop is where they’re supposed to be or not.

Kendall Harmon’s idea presupposes a reasoned, Christian approach to the problem.  What it would do, however, is induce shame in TEC’s "reappraisers."  As any observer of the Middle East knows, shame leads to a shame-honour reaction.  Even with liberals.  That’s why this proposal is like a Republican President’s budget is with a Democratic Congress: dead on arrival.

After half a lifetime…

Richard Kew’s piece After half a lifetime… confirms one of the things I mentioned in my email to the elf, specifically the problem of the seminaries:

It was when I started travelling around the church that I got to visit the seminaries that I started to discover how they functioned and what they perceived their role to be. Also, for a decade I happened to be officed in a seminaries so could see what happened there first hand. Gradually it dawned on me that my understanding of the nature of theological education was not what was going on in most of these places. There was little laying a firm foundation in Scripture, classic theology, philosophy, church history, and so forth, thereby equipping the next generation of ordained leaders for pastoral and missional ministry, but was more about propagandising the student body into seeing life, ministry, and God in a particular culturally-conditioned kind of way.

In these seminary settings some students rebel, a few are capable of cutting their theological and intellectual teeth in a constructive manner, but significant numbers swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker, and in the process often seemed to lose their first rich passionate love of the Lord Jesus Christ. A significant element of this prevailing seminary process is that it is predicated upon a hermeneutic of suspicion when handling the Scriptures, coupled with a sense of disdain for the wisdom of those who have journeyed the Christian way before us, and the notion that we now know better. When coupled with the desperate shortcomings of the Commission on Ministry system in most dioceses it is not difficult to see why leaders cannot lead, and the faith is not growing and blossoming as it ought.

I cannot agree with him about the following, as I explain elsewhere:

I have also become much more sacramental. I was formed to believe in the power of the Word, so wouldn’t have minded if we had had Communion just once a month. I am now grateful that the norm is to gather around both Word and Table each Sunday, the one preparing for the other, and the other reinforcing the one. Some years ago I went to be with a former Southern Baptist on his first Sunday in his Episcopal parish. I was looking forward to sitting at his feet as he opened Scripture – and to this day I remember the text: Romans chapter 7! However, it was not his preaching that left the most indelible impression that morning, but the humble reverence with which he presided at the Eucharist. The pre-America me would never have been able to admit such a thing.

May God bless him as he departs Tennessee and returns to the land of the Molly Dancers.  In some ways, he has found out what Cecil Sharp did: to recover the British heritage, you must come to these parts first.

The Options Run Out at the Episcopal Church

Recently I was contacted by one of the "elves" at Titusonenine, the weblog of the Rev. Canon Dr. Kendall Harmon (which I reviewed back in May.)  Same first child of Iluvatar inquired about my idea concerning the Episcopal Church and its Anglican alternatives.

My response should not surprise readers of this blog:

What I am about to say is not only based on my years in TEC, but also being directly involved in church politics, an experience that always changes your perspective…
To my mind, from a reasserter standpoint TEC is toast.  The problems the church is experiencing have been in the making for a long time, starting in the seminaries and working its way out through the parishes and ultimately the bishops themselves.  It is very unfortunate that the ordination of an openly homosexual bishop is what it took to bring things to a head, but such is the way of churches.  In many ways the beginning of the end took place when the church lost its nerve regarding James Pike.
Beyond that, TEC is a centralised institution, and centralised institutions tend to encourage a stronger collegiality amongst their officials.  It’s much harder to "rock the boat" in a centralised church when it’s going in the wrong direction as opposed to a congregational church.  Now the reasserters simply don’t have the votes to reverse the changes on a churchwide basis, either in HOB or in GC.  I have come to admire people like Kendall Harmon and his diocese for taking the stand they do, but I think that they are swimming against the tide.
As far as the invasion by the Communion is concerned, it’s great but the proliferation of jurisdictions doesn’t bode for a very orderly development or organisation.  And there’s always the Anglo-Catholic/Evangelical divide to complicate things.

And nothing coming out of the HOB this week in NOLA has given me reason to believe otherwise.

Rowan Williams and Hermeneutics

The Blogging Parson’s piece on Rowan Williams and hermeneutics goes a long way to explain the Archbishop of Canterbury’s position–or more precisely his lack of one–in the current Anglican Communion row over homosexuals in the episcopate.  But it also is an opportunity to stop and think about one of the most important issues in Christianity–the role and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.

The advance and acceptance of higher criticism was the main fuel behind the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of a century ago which led to the bifurcation of Protestant Christianity.  Williams’ optimistic view of the Scriptures (their incompleteness as an opportunity for perpetual growth and reinterpretation) reminds one of the Book of Mormon’s take on the Fall: it’s great because it’s a chance to move up again.

There are a large number of problems with higher criticism.  Much of it was formulated in the context of German philosophy rather than the realities of the Middle East, which meant that it had to be revised when people (such as Roland de Vaux and his École Biblique de Jerusalem) actually went there and, in some cases, did some serious digging (literally.)  Moreover it’s hard for anyone who has written a book (or even edited it cut and paste style, as I did for Pile Buck) to understand how, with all of the theories of multiple sourcing for both Testaments, the text could have ended up in a coherent state.

Beyond that, Williams’ idea that the experience of the church can mould its understanding of the Scripture only makes practical sense if that experience is univocal.  And that’s where the problem comes in: it’s not.  The Communion’s current stance is a perfect example of that problem.

  • For liberals in the U.S. and Canada, their experience is moulded by the upper middle class world of TEC/ACC, where homosexuals are important players.  Rejecting them would mean ostracism from the circles they treasure, so they cave, rather than following a world-rejecting Gospel.
  • For conservatives in Africa, their experience is moulded by their contact with Islam, which abhors GLBT people and their lifestyle.  Accepting homosexuals would mean war with Islam.  The Africans’ ace in the hole, however, is that the Scriptures are consistent on the subject of homosexuality, rejecting it in the Old Testament and repeating this rejection in the New.

And what about those of us who come from backgrounds with a strong secular component?  What does the “experience of the church” mean to us, who live in a world of hard politics and economics?  If churches such as TEC or CofE would answer that question reasonably, they might see a pick-up in membership.

“The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Isaiah 40:6-8, KJV.

The search for God is the search for the transcendent and permanent.  It’s inevitable that people will interpret Scriptures in the context of their own experience.  But William’s “moving target” hermeneutics is only a theological version of running Rusty.

Move to empower laity raises church ire

The idea of the Anglican Archdiocese of Sydney (Australia) to empower the laity raises the ire of many churches. It’s an issue that has some peculiarly Anglican implications, but it’s also interesting for many of the rest of us.

The "empowerment" they’re proposing is allowing lay people to celebrate the Holy Communion, which traditionally is a no-no in the Anglican world.  Actually most churches reserve for their ministers the authority to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, irrespective of their theology of the church.  And this isn’t challenged in most places either.  The problems that these Australian Anglicans are wrestling with are a product of two trends in the Anglican world, one fairly recent and one of long standing.

The first is that many Anglican churches have made the Holy Communion the central order of worship.  This is largely the result of Anglo-Catholic and Affirming Catholic influence.  In the past Holy Communion, in common with other Protestant churches, was celebrated every so often (monthly, sometimes less) and the normal service was Morning or Evening Prayer.  The 1662 Book of Common Prayer specifically allows lay people to celebrate the Morning and Evening Prayer (even giving suitable modifications.)

Where Morning and Evening Prayer are still the central orders of worship in Anglican life, lay celebration is certainly possible.  But as long as Anglican churches insist on making the Holy Communion normative, they will not only be on the horns of the dilemma the Archdiocese faces, but they will also be a block to many visitors (since most Anglican churches still have closed communion.)

The second trend is the fact that the bar of entry into the Anglican ministry (I still hate calling them priests) is too high.  Anglicans are too hung up on extensive formal education that may or may not prepare them for practical ministry or even give them a sound theological education.  The classic example of this is the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  Everyone knows he’s a brilliant academic, but his leadership capabilities leave a lot to be desired of (although he is in reality in an impossible situation.)  I’m no advocate for institutionalised ignorance, but much of what is taught in seminaries these days–liberal and conservative alike–is not useful for real ministry or even basic management or people skills.

If it were not such a long business to obtain an education that people–lay and clergy alike–would sniff at contemptuously, the idea to accommodate the laity with the Holy Communion would not even be considered.

The Archdiocese needs to reconsider its options in this case.

When God Pulls the Plug

Jim Workman’s piece in The Living Church Foundation on "Turning Away from God" is a good treatment on the subject of institutions and God, and certainly relevant for the present state of the Episcopal Church.  But it’s also a reminder to everyone that institutionalism isn’t God’s original plan for his people.

God established the proper centre of worship at the temple in Jerusalem.  The major flaw with the Northern (Israelite) Kingdom is that they moved that centre of worship to places such as Bethel.  Had they done otherwise, they would have had to acknowledge the political supremacy of Judah, which they were not prepared to do.  Eventually they wandered in and out (mostly in) of idolatry, and eventually they fell.

But the temple wasn’t an absolute guarantee for Judah either; when it prostituted itself through idol worship to the neighbours, God used same neighbours to destroy the temple and the Southern Kingdom.  God can and will pull the plug on any institution if that institution is not faithful to him and his commandments.

It’s that simple.