"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What is the bishop for?

Episcope is the Greek word for Bishop and apparently people a long time ago thought Episcopal Church sounded more high-minded than Bishop's Church, hence the name. Of course, if you've read much history of the colonial and post-revolutionary origins of the Episcopal Church one might think that picking a fancy name like Episcopal might have been intentional to keep the riff-raff out. We sometimes still get accused of that, but most Episcopal churches I've visited these days are decidedly middling, and not composed of social elites. But I digress. What I really want to talk about is bishops themselves. Given the name and all, they must be important and since we're talking about restructuring the church figuring what they do (or should be doing) seems important.

So, what is the role of bishop? Well, let's start with first principles and look to the Book of Common Prayer itself. If you're not an Episcopalian and you're still reading this, the Book of Common Prayer (or BCP) is really the heart of the matter for all things Episcopal/Anglican. We don't possess a confessional formula and we hold no doctrine developed outside of the first seven church councils. We are church that doesn't look to build windows into people's souls, but we are a church that seeks commonality in prayer and worship. The BCP is the source and pattern of that prayer and worship and so it is what binds us together.

Anyway, back to what is a bishop. Well, the catechism says this (FYI, NOT the same status as the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church)

    Q. What is the ministry of a bishop?

    A. The ministry of a bishop is to represent Christ and his
    Church, particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor
    of a diocese; to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of
    the whole Church; to proclaim the Word of God; to act
    in Christ's name for the reconciliation of the world and
    the building up of the Church; and to ordain others to
    continue Christ's ministry.

And the ordination service of a bishop says this:

    You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the
    Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of
    the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and
    deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all
    things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the
    entire flock of Christ.

Let's break it down.

    1. The bishop has a specific area which he is responsible for, the diocese.

    2. The Bishop's role is to maintain the integrity of how the faith is shared and communicated within that diocese

    3. At the same time, the bishop is expected to make sure that peer bishops are also maintaining the integrity of the faith in their dioceses

    4. The bishop is to call leaders within the diocese to facilitate the work of Christ in the world.

    5. The bishop is to call people whose primary ministry field is not the world, but service to the church itself (i.e, the ordained)

    6. The bishop is to teach, to strive for reconciliation, to evangelize, to be a caregiver and a good role model


So, the Episcopal church imagines the bishop as someone who is intimately connected with his own area of oversight and care, yet also one who looks out to the wider church in order to be colleague and mentor to peer bishops. I read recently that the Bishop of Virginia has so many congregations that it is a stretch to get to them all once every 3 years or so. How on earth could we expect someone to fulfill such a role to so many places and people? Obviously, it isn't possible, and so as diocese have developed over the years, they have created structures and layers to sorta-kinda make it work. They've created bishop's staffs, diocesan officers, deaneries, convocations even assistant bishops. For some reason, the diocesan structure of the church largely follows the same geography of the secular government. If the US Congress saw fit to create a state of Ohio, then the church also created a diocese of Ohio. Unlike the US, as some as the states filled in, the dioceses split into smaller units to keep the bishop closer to the people. Ohio is a good example, now being split into two dioceses. One might imagine that this splitting would have continued n order to keep bishops closer to the people but that isn't what happened. And largely that is because at one time, the rate of growth of parishes was not as great as the rate of growth of the various layers and structures, so that the cost of diocesan offices became a barrier to right-sizing dioceses.


That's more or less where we are today. But now, the church isn't growing – its declining. But similarly, the layers and structures aren't declining nearly as fast. Thus the cost of maintaining the Episcopal structure, relative to the size of the diocese is effectively going up. Its going up so much, that some dioceses talk of merger because individually, they can't maintain the cost of the layers that separate the bishop from the people. Being a contrarian, it seems to me that if we are to have the episcopy envisioned by the catechism and the consecration service of the bishops themselves then we need to align the layers and structures with the number of people served. I don't think we should have fewer bishops (i.e, dioceses) I think we should have less staff and MORE bishops in smaller dioceses. I think it might also be wise to align our structure around metropolitan areas and not states; the political borders of the US are irrelevant to the spread of the gospel. I don't know what the right size of a diocese should be, but I like the number forty – it's very biblical and manageable. Forty parishes seems about right for one person to deal with.


Bishops aren't princes of the church, they don't need palaces and retinues. They need to be getting out amidst the people for whom they are to serve and lead directly and not by proxy.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What is this Church thing anyway?

 There is some conversation going on in the Episcopal Church interwebs right now about the structure of the church (see here).  Mostly what’s driving this discussion, and frankly, most of the discussions about the “future of the church” isn’t a serious rethinking of our ecclesial theology, but rather a serious rethinking of our checkbook and what it can support.  And as much as I can appreciate coming to terms with financial realities, it still doesn’t seem that economics should drive our reflection on the church, what it is and what it does. 

A bigger question for all of us is, what exactly do we mean we say something like “the church?”  Avery Dulles wrote a neat little book called Models of the Church which has been very helpful to me in thinking this through.  Basically, he describes several models; the church as…
                 ·         An institution
                 ·         The mystical body of Christ
                 ·         A sacrament
                 ·         A herald
                 ·         A servant
The correct answer is C, a sacrament.  No, just kidding, the correct answer is all of the above.  But in thinking about how the church goes about doing these things it is helpful to make distinctions because to my mind there can be a helpful distinction between the church as an institution and the others.  And in our current discussion it is the institutional aspect of church that is the cause of so much handwringing.  If all of our structure fell away tomorrow, the gathered people of God would still be the mystical body of Christ, a sacrament, a herald and a servant.  And, to be honest, in short order it would reconstitute itself as an institution. 

 So let’s just set aside some idea that we’re ever going to NOT be an institution.  Any movement that desires to maintain the integrity of its founding impulse will erect an institution to do so.  And as for me, protecting the integrity of the message of hope in Christ’s life, death and resurrection is important, so I’m willing to accept an institution as the cost of doing so.  And more importantly, I am willing to pledge myself to that institution and hold it accountable to the integral message it exists to serve.

 So, the question before us is, how do we structure our institution so that it can best serve its role of maintaining the integrity of the gospel as it empowers and equips the baptized to be the body of Christ, a sacrament, a herald and a servant?  When we say we want to be “missional” or whatever the latest buzzword is; isn’t that what we’re talking about?

In other words, how best can we support one another to be Christ in the world?  We need the structure that best serves that purpose in our culture at this time.  The church of 50, 500, or 1500 hundred years ago isn’t the model (though there are things to learn from them) and the church in Tanzania, or Vanuata, or anywhere else isn’t the answer either (though there is much to learn there too).  With any luck, I’m hoping to address some aspects of this question over the next few days; thinking about what kind of institution might best fit our theology and ecclesiology and maybe even thinking about where our checkbooks (does anyone still use checks?) might fit into all this.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Do not Fear those who kill the body

I apologize for being neglectful.  Classes have begun again and I am settling into a new, and very full, routine.  I have several ideas for entries backed up, but other things are a priority, though I will get to them as soon as I can.  Below is my sermon from last Tuesday nights's community eucharist preached at the seminary.  The occassion was the commemoration of Sts Boris and Gleb, saints in the Orthodox tradition.  Sadly they aren't included in the Episcopal Church's calendar of saints, but as assistant Sacristan I successfully lobbied to include them this year.

The sermon

Boris and Gleb were princes of the Kievan Rus, sons of Vladimir the Great.  The chronicles blame their brother, Sviatopolk the Accursed  for plotting their assassination. Boris learned of his father’s death after he returned from battling eastern invaders.

Boris had been the heir-apparent  And when he learned that his brother had taken the throne, many urged him to replace Sviatopolk, but Boris said, "Be it not for me to raise my hand against my brother.  Now that my father has passed away, let him take the place of my father in my heart." Regardless of having stepped aside though, Sviatopolk insisted on having Boris executed and plotted to kill him.

Gleb, who didn’t know yet that his father had died, was sent for by Sviatopolk who pretended that their father was gravely ill and asking for Gleb.  Gleb rushed to his father's death bed.  On the way, their other brother Yaroslav learned of Sviatopolk's treachery and urged Gleb not to meet him. But that night, while praying, Gleb too was murdered.

In the gospel reading from Luke tonight we hear Jesus say; “do not fear those who kill the body.”  

But if you’ve ever read any Russian history,  you will know that killing your brothers/uncles/cousins/fathers was the, more or less, standard methodology for determining leaders.  I suspect then, that fearing those who might kill you was, generally, a key survival strategy, along with its corollary – kill those who might kill you before they get the chance. 
So, it is not their murders,  but Boris and Gleb’s rejection of this accepted reality that really stands out and marks their martyrdom. 

Boris and Gleb were most likely pagans at birth and into their early childhood at least.  Their father Vladimir had ordered the conversion of his kingdom a couple of decades earlier as part of marriage treaty with the Byzantine emperor. 
And that two princes would have taken their new faith seriously enough to make such consequential decisions in the face of a powerfully conflicting social paradigm is, to me, remarkable.  Over and over again in the story from Luke,  throughout the gospels overall really, is the message to not worry. 

“Do not be afraid”  that could almost be Jesus’ catchphrase. 
(Often followed, of course, by “you of little faith.”) 

But the reason Jesus keeps telling us this  isn’t because belief in God is a magical formula to prevent bad things from happening,  but because this life is full of bad things happening all around us.  
Jesus is reminding us though, that fear is a perversion of the abundance which God gives us, because what mostly drives our fear is loss-loss of perceived security or safety, loss of our illusion of control

I’m pretty sure when Jesus says that the poor and mourners are blessed it isn’t because they’re in the midst of joyous abundance but because in their vulnerability and deprivation their illusions of control are ripped away and they are closest to the realization that in the final analysis all we have is God.  There is nowhere else to place our trust and our hope.
And what we begin to sow here, in this life, is the plant that will be our existence in the next. 
"Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” 
What we do and how we live, here in this life creates the path whose trajectory will carry us, or not, into the new kingdom. 

Boris and Gleb, at least in this one moment as told in their hagiographies, knew this.  To believe in Christ demands that we do as Christ, otherwise we’re just hypocrites.

Do not fear those who kill the body.

We may not believe ourselves to be as bloodthirsty or savage as 11th century Russian nobles, but at the heart of our society and our culture lies the very same fear. 
Generally, I would say that the fear of being killed is a kind of national obsession.  Polls continue to show large majorities of Americans believe that violent crime is out of control even though crime rates have gone down significantly and steadily for three decades;  and fear of terrorism has been a demon goading the national psyche for nearly ten years now, marshalling a massive response that has fundamentally altered our way of life.  I don’t wish to detract from the terrible tragedy of the events of 9/11 or minimize the very real possibility of terrorism, but in truth the potential danger of terrorism isn’t very high – more people will die in automobile accidents this month than were killed on 9/11. 

But we too seem to believe, like those Russians that the best strategy to vanquish our fear is to kill or eliminate our potential enemies before they have a chance to harm us.  Conservative estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of deaths have resulted from our retaliatory wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

What is the cost of our fear?  

How far are we willing to go to vanquish our fears?

Much like Sviatopolk the Accursed, America maintains a posture of aggressive defense that is psychically unhealthy and spiritually deadening.  And not just as a nation on the international stage, but as individuals as well.   At most school bus stops, parents outnumber kids because of fear.  At the airport, we must tolerate high levels of personal invasiveness because of fear.  Even much of what passes for Christianity in America is fear based.  Drive out of Columbus on any interstate you come across billboards shrilly telling you to REPENT.  Accept Jesus!  Not because Love is the only way, but because if you don’t you’ll be punished!

We are a hard-hearted people.

Do not fear those who kill the body.

I don’t think that God really desires anyone to be a martyr, but martyrdom can be the consequence of the Christian confrontation with Evil.  And our willingness to engage in this conflict, truly understanding what the consequences could be, is at the heart of our calling as Christians, and especially as Christian leaders. 

Now I don’t think too many of us will ever be called upon to lay down our lives for our faith.  But of course one never knows.  Last week we remembered the Martyrs of New Guineau, and one among those missionaries who died was Harry Dott, a student who walked the same halls, sat in the same classrooms and even worshipped in this very chapel – like us.  His memorial plaque is right over there.

Nevertheless, I do think that we are being called at this time to be martyr-like missionaries of God’s love to a fearful people.  What are we willing to give up to take Christ’s message of hope to a fearful people? 

What price are we willing to pay?  Not to set aside our fear, but to embrace hope in the face of fear.

How much of ourselves are we really prepared to give to this calling? 

Martyrs almost always have a chance to escape their martyrdom, if they choose.   They only need abandon their faith and seek the false security the world offers.  Most of us here have discerned a call to priesthood.  And according to the prayer book the ministry of a priest is to represent Christ and his Church. 

To represent Christ and his Church. 

Pondering such a responsibility should give us all pause.  It is easy to forget in the midst of discernment processes and diocesan beauracracy, that we are taking on the staggering responsibilities of being pastors to God’s people.  And that means a great deal more than the ins and outs of daily parish administration.

This calling that we claim is something marvelous and noble.  We are called to make of our lives a sacrament, to be a visible sign of God’s grace.  We are called, like Boris and Gleb, to hold up the norms and expectations of our culture to the light of Christian Truth.
Like Boris and Gleb, it is up to us to take our faith seriously enough to make decisions and take actions in the face of a powerfully conflicting social paradigm.

What we do matters!  What we do and say has consequences.  And those consequences are of cosmic importance, souls literally hang in the balance. 

We must be apostles of hope, of healing, and of peace to a hard-hearted people gripped by fear.  We must grab the hands of any who will offer, bend the ear of any who will listen,  stand firm with any who are oppressed or intimidated and everywhere and in every way proclaim good news.

 Ministry is hard, standing with people in the most emotional moments of their lives is hard, teaching the faith in a doubtful world is hard.  Preaching is hard.  This is no easy task we’ve signed on for.  The best priests I know have a kind of gentleness but also a durable toughness about them that undoubtedly was cultivated in some rough ground.  We too must be willing to work the rough ground.  We must be willing to sacrifice status and standing to do what is right.  We must be willing to choose love and reconciliation when every fiber of our being calls for hatred and revenge.  We must be those people willing to stand before the self righteous crowd and ask “who amongst you will throw the first stone?”

We must not be afraid.