Saturday, October 31, 2009


Here I am with my colleagues on the Joint Commission of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada at our recent meeting in Edmonton (October 2009). To my left are Paul Johnson and Alyson Barnett-Cowan. Paul is leaving the National Office of the ELCIC and Alyson is off to the Anglican Communion Office in London.
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Be careful what you wish for!

The ecclesiastical air waves have been full of commentary on the initiative undertaken by the present Bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI, to facilitate the integration of dissident Anglican communities within the communion of the Roman church. While some of the provisions are new, the initiative is not new. Since the nineteenth century both individuals and communities have sought re-integration either through submission and absorption as embodied by John Henry Newman or through accommodation of congregations who could not accept the ordination of women and the introduction of revised liturgical rites.

From an Anglican perspective such movement should be greeted with compassion and pastoral respect. Since Anglicans believe themselves to be Catholic Christians gathered in national churches, the decision of some Anglicans to seek communion with Rome is similar to choosing to live in a different neighbourhood that one finds congenial to one's values and lifestyle. However, given that the Roman Church does not share this Anglican perspective on the nature of the visible Church, the submission of Anglican communities to the discipline of the Roman tradition has a different public face.

I want to say that those who are fleeing what they understand to be questionable decisions within Anglican Communion should be careful in what they wish for. When one is running away from what may seem to be a mad dog, it is important to watch where one is going so as not to fall as unsuspecting prey to a lurking wolf.

In today’s Globe and Mail the Dean of Ottawa, the Very Rev’d Shane Parker writes: “For decades, the Anglican Church has welcomed Roman Catholics who feel called to be faithful to a tradition that dates back to St. Peter but who wish to do so in a church that has democratically elected bishops, male and female clergy, married clergy, provision for remarriage after divorce, and the courage to be affected by the dynamic interplay of scripture, tradition and reason. We haven’t made a public announcement for fear of offending our sisters and brothers in the Roman Church.”

Sandra Fairman from Toronto writes in the same issue, “I can see why conservative Anglicans might want to convert to Catholicism. They have inadvertently found themselves in a church where they are being asked to practice the teachings of Christ.”

To the comments of Dean Parker and Ms Fairman I might add that the Roman Church denies any meaningful role to the laity in decisions relating to the faith and order of the Christian community. Anglican clergy who choose to respond positively to the Bishop of Rome’s invitation will discover that they have taken up residence in an ecclesiastical cul de sac. They will not find themselves called to the episcopate and, unless specific provision is made for the theological education of new clergy in the Anglican tradition in a Roman key, subsequent parish pastors will reflect Romanitas rather than a genuine Anglican ethos. The experience of other so-called ‘Uniate’ churches, mostly Eastern Rite churches that have sought integration into the Roman communion while preserving their unique customs and heritage, has not been universally positive. Anglicans seeking communion with Rome may discover that their heritage will disappear within one or two ‘generations’.

So long as Rome considers itself to be the Catholic Church and to deny full ecclesial respect to non-Roman Western Christians, Anglican communities fleeing what they consider to be the ‘mad dog’ of so-called ‘liberal’ Anglicans will discover that they have fallen prey to a lurking Roman wolf who will consume them bit by bit. They will lose their Anglican ethos, an ethos that threatens the existing Roman hegemony. When faced with such a subtle threat, the Roman authorities will work quietly but assiduously to reduce the threat posed by these refugees.

In the meantime I shall pray for the genuine visible unity of the Christian Church, one that respects the diversity of peoples and cultures that have found hope in the Gospel while proclaiming the good news of our faith: Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

Monday, October 12, 2009

But it's not fair!

Feast of SS Francis and Faith
4 October 2009

St Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

In 1975 I graduated from the University of Denver with a bachelor’s degree with a major in German language and literature and a minor in secondary education. I had a strong second minor in French and had been elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa, the older academic honorary society in the United States, in my third year of university, the earliest date that I was eligible for election. In awarding the degree my university granted me the distinction of magna cum laude, a distinction which is something similar to a First in the British university system.

With these credentials in hand I set myself to the task of applying for a teaching position in my home state of Colorado. There were, at that time, sixty-three school districts in the state and I applied to all of them. This was not an inexpensive venture, since all required an official transcript from the University, each purchased at the cost of $2 or $3 in 1975 dollars. Then I waited.

By mid-summer I had received two letters expressing regret that there were no positions available and one letter inviting me to an interview in a district to the north of Denver. I went to the interview, confident in my credentials, only to be told at the end of the interview that I would not be successful in obtaining this position. There was an internal candidate for the job and, all things being equal, she would be the district’s choice.

I drove home in silence for two hours. When I arrived at my parents’ home where I was living, my father asked how things had gone. I gave him the bad news and then said, “It’s not fair. I have done everything everyone has told me to do and I am still stuck working in a department store.” My father looked at me and said, “Where did you get the impression that life is always fair?”

One of the things that makes saints saints is that they understand that ‘fairness’ is not a religious term. They do not look for fairness; they look for holiness and for integrity.

Because we read from it so seldom, we may not have realized that our first reading, a portion of ‘The Song of the Three Young Men’, is a song attributed to the three young men of the book of Daniel who are thrown into a fiery furnace. This is the song that they supposedly sang as they were in the midst of the flames. If you remember the story, you will know that the king has decreed that everyone must worship the god that he has set up. These three young Jews who have shown their fidelity to the law of Moses in every particular refuse to worship this god. As a consequence of their faithfulness, they are thrown at the king’s command into the fiery furnace. As they are being thrown into the furnace, the king taunts them, saying, “We’ll see now whether your god will save you or not.” Then, in one of my favourite verses in all of the scriptures, one of the young men says, “Whether God saves us or not, God is still God. We will not obey you, so do your worst.” They are not interested in fairness; they are interested in being faithful and in maintaining their integrity.

Francis of Assisi was not interested in fairness. His poor father spent thousands in to-day’s money trying to make his son into a somebody. His father outfitted Francis with the best armour, sent him off to war and Francis returned a failure. Francis’ decision to sell all that he possessed and to serve the poor sent his father into a public display of paternal anger that has echoed through the centuries. But Francis was not interested in becoming an up and coming young merchant. Francis had found something else that was more important to him. He didn’t love his parents any less, but he found something that he loved more. And off he went.

We remember Francis not because of his preaching to the birds and his hymns that ap-peal to our romantic sensibilities; we remember Francis and all the saints because they sought faithfulness not fairness. They are interested in maintaining a personal integrity that may come at the expense of what the world thinks is fair. They are not seeking to be rewarded nor are they afraid of being punished; they only seek to be who they are in God’s eyes.

Fairness is a concept that operates on the basis of the principle that we get what we deserve: if we are good, we are rewarded and if we are wicked, we are punished. But the question that my father implicitly asked me and that the lives of the saints strive to answer is this: Why do we choose lives of religious faith? Is it possible to choose to live a righteous life even if the carrot of reward and the stick of punishment seem to be unpredictably applied? Is it possible that the old saying, “Virtue is its own reward”, is, in fact, true?

The people of Samoa are among some of the most faithful Christians in the world. Is it fair that a tsunami strikes their islands? Will a tsunami render that faith void? The people of Indonesia are some of the most faithful Muslims in the world. Is it fair that a major earthquake strikes their islands? Will the earthquake render that faith void? The Roman Catholics of Cape Breton are among the most faithful in the world. Is it fair that yet one more of their pastoral leaders has been arrested for allegedly possessing child pornography? Will the arrest of one of their bishops render that faith void? The short answer is “yes”. I do not doubt that these events will cause some to turn away from their faith believing that events have demonstrated that the kosmos is not fair. Others, I hope, will come to a different answer: Whether things go well or ill, I will remain faithful to the path of righteousness that has guided me thus far. I will remain faithful because the glory of God is not shown in rewards to the righteous and in punishments to the wicked. The glory of God is shown in a human being fully alive. I will continue to follow this path, because it is the way that I become fully human, my true end as God’s be-loved.

My friends, let me speak plainly. The people of this parish, from its foundation to the present time, have lived faithfully in this community. We have served and continue to serve the people who live within and outside our parish boundaries with constancy and generosity. We have tended and continue to tend those who are ill in body and soul with love and gentleness. In a fair world we would be thronged by those who sought to join us in this way of life. But the world is not always fair. The future of Anglican ministry in this part of Greater Vancouver is not yet clear and we are not sure what role we as the people of this parish will play in that future.

What is clear to me, however, is this. We are not a community that exercises our religious faith in the hope of reward nor in the fear of punishment. We are a community that lives our faith because we know that it is what makes us fully alive, persons made in the image and likeness of God, who choose faith rather than expediency, who choose generosity rather than self-interest, who choose to serve rather than to be served. We are struggling and we are conscious of the challenges, but we still believe that God is working in us and through us. Our suffering may not be as dramatic in the grand scheme of things when compared to earthquakes and tsunamis, but our response is the same: Whether things are good or ill, whether we succeed or fail, we will bless God who has shown us the path of life, the way to be truly human in a world full of counterfeits.

That is why we remember the three young men in the fiery furnace and St Faith and St Francis. We remember them not because it’s fair but because they manifest that life of integrity, that search for genuine humanity, that still eludes many people. The tragedy of contemporary society in North America, I believe, to quote an old country song, is that people are ‘looking for love in all the wrong places’. They are seeking to be truly human, but, unfortunately, what is being offered to them is false. The way of Christ, the way of humility, is the only way I know to be fully human and it is at odds with a world of fairness. Christ teaches that the more we give, the more we acquire at the end. The way of Christ is that when we are wronged, we for-give. This is not fair. All the values of the Christian way of life are contrary to a world of fairness, but they are essential to be genuinely human. And that is what we are here for.

When the anonymous Christian sat down to write what we know as the Letter to the Hebrews, he knew that his readers were discouraged and tempted to abandon the faith that they had adopted. The first generation of believers was beginning to pass away and the world did not appear to have changed significantly. Persecution of one form or another had begun to break out against the followers of the way of Jesus. To this dispirited group he wrote: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 11.23-25)

So let us confess our hope together. Let us encourage one another to love and to do the work that we have been given to do. Let us meet together to hear the word of life and to share in the body and blood of Christ. Let us come together, not to be rewarded nor to avoid punishment, but to become who we truly are: the beloved of God, fully alive. Amen.