Sharing suffering and moving towards rejoicing—or, mass graves, cont.

For the last several months, many people who care deeply about South Sudan have watched as the country has descended into chaos. I am among those people. In the last several years, I have made several lengthy trips to South Sudan and am now writing a doctoral dissertation about the role of the church there during the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s.

Here is what it is like to watch the metastasising disaster in South Sudan. My social media feeds now feature news of a friend’s wedding, the birth of a baby—and photos of a mass grave in South Sudan. I receive e-mails from friends in South Sudan asking for help, asking me to help tell their story. (I’ve done some of that in posts like this one, but not nearly enough.) I read news stories and see photos of communities I was in just a few months that are now flattened. I’ve spoken with non-Sudanese friends who also care deeply (and in many cases for much longer than me) about South Sudan and know that they have similar experiences of being connected to the situation but only being able to watch from afar. There are weekly calls and lots of information-sharing to help coordinate a response and be of assistance to our sisters and brothers in Christ. There are fundraising appeals. There are prayer vigils. I do my best to stay in touch with what is going on.

And yet it hardly seems like enough. None of it answers my deep-seated desire to be able to snap my fingers and figure out what to do that can stop all the pain and the horror. I am a person who is strongly oriented around doing.

A few weeks ago, something new entered my social media thread: outrage about comments the archbishop of Canterbury had made about mass graves. I saw those posts and comments alongside pictures of actual mass graves. My desire to do something only intensified but this time it had a new ally, hope: if other people are talking about this, then maybe something can get done!

The hope was misplaced, of course, because there is nothing of the snap-the-fingers type of action that can be done to reverse what has unfolded in South Sudan.

But the contrast between all the Anglican chatter about mass graves and the reality on the ground stayed with me. As we have continued to learn more about recent events in Bentiu—and the horror of the pictures there imprinted itself on my mind—my hope turned to frustration. And that frustration led to a recent post, which articulated this frustration and pointed out this contrast. I don’t think my frustration was very well disguised in how I wrote the post.

That post generated a lot more attention than posts on this tiny little blog usually do. Lots of people asked me what they could do to help. Others told me I didn’t understand how communications worked or that I needed to be in touch with people who know about South Sudan. Still others pointed me to people who are talking about South Sudan. Perhaps all those things are true. Still, I am grateful for all of the comments and especially the genuineness and sincerity which underlay so many of them.

But at the end of the day, I still don’t have an answer. I can tell you to pray. I can tell you to donate money (to ERD, to Christian Aid, to a diocese with a companion relationship in South Sudan, to a diocese directly in South Sudan). I can tell you to advocate to encourage politicians in your country to pay attention to South Sudan. But none of that seems enough. It certainly doesn’t resolve the frustration I continue to feel.

Ultimately, what I have come down to is this: as baptized Christians, we (you, me, South Sudanese, whomever) are all joined in one body. When one part of the body suffers, all suffer. So I want to do what I can from my distance to walk beside my sisters and brothers as they suffer, be attentive to what is happening, and do my best to listen to their voices. That might look different for a lot of different people. I know I can’t walk alongside all the pain in the world. But I can do this in South Sudan while I pray that others do the same in northern Nigeria, Syria, the Central African Republic, wherever, and that I may learn from them.

What I am left with at this moment of pain and horror is the hope that as all suffers when one suffers, so may we all rejoice when South Sudanese reach that point of rejoicing.


The secret to changing the world—all is revealed in the Great Vigil of Easter

If you’re like me, there are lots of things about the world you’d like to see change. I’d like to live in a world that pays less attention to the latest pseudo-celebrity and more to the lives of the poor and marginalized. I’d like to live in a world in which free speech means all voices have an equal chance to be heard, not just those with the most money behind them. I’d like to live in a less violent world, in which the escalating proliferation of weapons can be reversed. The list, of course, goes on and on.

The Christian faith constantly holds forth a vision of a different world in its central sacrament, the Eucharist. When Christians gather to remember the Last Supper, they enact a vision of world in which neighbours actively practice reconciliation with one another, all share with one another what the Lord has blessed them with, and all are ultimately dependent on the forgiving grace of God. On Thursday evening, as Christians remembered the first time this meal was celebrated and heard afresh the commandment to love as we have been loved, we were saying, in effect, “This is the kind of world we want to belong to.”

You don’t need me to tell you that it takes a lot more than good intentions to bring that world about. That’s what Good Friday is about, that time when Christians say, “This is the kind of world we live in,” a world in which God can come to earth in grace and love and be rejected, despised, and scorned. When the love of God comes in contact with the ways of the world, the result is the cross.

But there is another message of Good Friday: somehow, I am complicit in all this. On Palm Sunday, the congregation sings—as the people of Jerusalem once did—”Hosannah to the Son of David.” On Good Friday, that same congregation continues in the role of the people of Jerusalem during the reading of the Passion, only this time they say, “Crucify him!” We hold back the world from attaining that vision held forth in the Eucharist.Various

And so we come to the Great Vigil of Easter, a service that begins in darkness on Saturday evening. It is the darkness that follows the death of Good Friday, the darkness of a world in which the Eucharistic vision of a transformed world no longer seems possible. And in this service, Christians express the very heart of their faith. We say, “Another world is possible—and we know how to get there.”

The key is in the act that is at the centre of the Vigil: baptism. In baptism, we die the death of Christ, dying to our selves, our brokenness, our ideologies that disfigure the world. And then we are raised to new life with Christ, free from our past and able to live lives shaped by the same grace, mercy, and truth that shaped Christ’s life. Renewed in baptism, we celebrate the Eucharist, proclaiming afresh, “This is the kind of world we want to belong to.” As baptized Christians, we make this affirmation with a new piece of knowledge: in order for the world to change, each one of us needs to change.

The liturgy of the church enacts a particular kind of understanding, a unique way of looking at the world. I’ve been a baptized Christian virtually my entire life and I’ve spent virtually my entire life learning in one way or another all the ways in which I still need to die to myself and be raised anew with Christ. The sacraments aren’t magic. Rather, they are signs of the grace with which, by faith, Christians keep moving towards a new world. But that’s why we need to keep coming back to our Christian communities, keep celebrating the sacraments, keep reminding ourselves of what is possible, keep reminding ourselves of how to get there, and keep inviting others to share in this transformed life. The Christian answer to the problems of the world is not a quick fix but the journey of a lifetime.

Baptism and Eucharist are intimately connected. As we celebrate the risen Christ, we see that connection, see how our world needs to change, and see how, as forgiven, redeemed, and transformed people, we can move towards that new world.

Christ is Risen. May we share in that risen life.

The hierarchical nature of the church and the good news of Jesus Christ

Nine years ago, when Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire, conservative Episcopalians—not to mention Anglicans elsewhere in the world—were adamant that the Presiding Bishop at the time, Frank Griswold, “do something” to prevent New Hampshire from going ahead with the consecration. Bishop Griswold replied that, as the election and confirmation process had proceeded as to canon, there was nothing he could do.

This dispute was, inter alia, a dispute about the hierarchical nature of the church. The conservatives argued there was some level of authority above New Hampshire that could reverse the diocese’s decision. There was—the General Convention, which approved Robinson’s election—but beyond that, Bishop Griswold looked at the canons of the church and said he had no higher powers to “do something.”

Fast forward to the past few months and the debate over the departure of the diocese of South Carolina from the church. Many of those same conservatives are upholding the decision by South Carolina to withdraw from the Episcopal Church. The argument is that the basic building block of the church is the diocese and a diocese has no intrinsic need to be a part of anything larger. This is why the diocese of South Carolina has declared itself to be, essentially, a free-floating ecclesial entity. (This raises questions I thought about in this post.) The liberal Episcopalians who oppose the departure say that, in fact, the church is hierarchical in nature and a diocese isn’t a diocese without reference to some larger entity, in this case The Episcopal Church, a province of the Anglican Communion.

(I am using the words “liberal” and “conservative” here with reckless abandon and as shorthand for larger and more complex positions.)

Debates over the governance structure of a church can appear to be among the most naval-gazing topics of all, fodder for lunch-time debates at seminary, General Convention sub-committees, and not much else. But as this example shows, the polity of The Episcopal Church—and, in particular, its hierarchical nature—is currently under intense scrutiny. Not only is there the South Carolina example, there is the case of the several active and retired bishops who are under investigation because they filed a brief saying that the church was not hierarchical. The House of Bishops weighed in on the nature of the church at General Convention in the summer.

Rather than being so much naval-gazing, I think the questions raised by these debates actually have something to do with the good news the church has to proclaim. So, if you’ll bear with me, I’m going to think about hierarchy in the church, and then think about why or if it matters how hierarchical the church is.

The basic question comes down to something like this: how far up does the hierarchy of the church go? Everyone accepts the need for a bishop in a diocese. But do those bishops and those dioceses have to be part of some larger organization, like the Episcopal Church? And do those larger organizations have to be part of something larger, like the Anglican Communion? What does it mean to “be part” of something larger? What opportunities and constraints come with this?

The first thing to say is that there is a lot of hypocriscy on this issue. We’ve already seen some of this at work in the South Carolina instance. But that’s far from the only example. For instance, it is widely acknowledged that many priests and some bishops practice a kind of “open communion” in which people who are not baptized are invited to receive communion. This is in direct violation of the canons of the Episcopal Church. The teaching that baptism precedes communion was upheld by General Convention this summer. Yet it seems unlikely that anyone’s practice has changed as a result. The hierarchy of the church says one thing; clerics ignore it. Discipline for canonical violations is fine, seems to be the message, just so long as it is not for us.

Here’s another example: some of the same people who say South Carolina has to be part of something larger assert with equal vehemence that hierarchy stops at the water’s edge. That is to say, there is no hierarchy above the provincial level in the Anglican Communion. Anglicans from elsewhere in the world better not start interfering with the church. Conservatives, of course, have been happy to appeal to varying levels of hierarchy beyond The Episcopal Church in search of support for their views.

The prevailing situation, then, on the hierarchical nature of the church seems to be a hermeneutic of self-justification. This results in a condemnation of the other side and an exoneration of oneself. In a situation like this, how is one to proceed?

We might start by noting that hierarchy dates to the early church. Very quickly in the development of the church (when there were a lot more bishops, each overseeing a smaller area than they do now), a handful of cities—Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantiople, and Jerusalem—came to exercise a kind of authority over Christians in other places. These were the metropolitan sees, which is why you sometimes hear a senior bishop referred to as a metropolitan. He (or she) has authority over other bishops in his (or her) area. Hierarchy has been a part of the ordering of the church catholic from an early date.

(Importantly, of course, the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church is not a metropolitan. He or she—as Bishop Griswold demonstrated—has no canonical authority over other bishops. But the idea of a local church belonging to something greater than itself is pretty old.)

Appeals to tradition, however, are hardly sufficient, especially when I am sure people more learned than me could quickly add complexity to my short sketch of the early church. Conversely, we might note that the claim advanced by many South Carolina supporters that a diocese is the basic building-block of the church has an intrinsic merit. Anglicans have traditionally affirmed four items as the ground for ecumenical reunion: a belief in Holy Scriptures, the creeds as a sufficient statement of faith, the dominical sacraments, and the “historic episcopate locally adapted.” This is known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Clearly, those four elements of what it means to be a church are present in a single diocese. Why the need for hierarchical structures at all?

I answered that question in a previous post: a single diocese cannot perpetuate its episcopate. You need three bishops to make one bishop. That’s why groups of dioceses get together as provinces to set rules for how those three bishops will get together to do just that.

So it’s clear that hierarchy is a) part of the history of the church, b) necessary for the church as Episcopalians and Anglicans understand it, and c) a subject on which self-serving interpretations can quickly come to dominate. In a situation like this, it’s very easy to get drawn into naval-gazing.

But let’s not! There’s good news here but this post has gone on long enough. Stay tuned for the next post.

The curious case of the bishop who didn’t celebrate the Eucharist

Here’s a picture of the Rt. Rev. Stephen Conway, the bishop of Ely in the Church of England.

By chance, I’ve been to two services in the past week at which he’s presided: one, a re-dedication of a refurbished church, the other, the installation of a new rector.

What was interesting to me is that at neither service did Bishop Stephen celebrate the Eucharist. I can’t remember the last time I saw an American bishop conduct a service at which he or she did not celebrate the Eucharist.

I was reminded of a comment my (English) liturgy professor once made in class: the American church, he said, had a case of “Eucharistic inflation.” That is, we celebrated the Eucharist at every possible juncture. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer makes it the “principal” service on Sundays and that thinking has spread to lots of other services such as, for instance, re-dedications and installations.

There are very good theological reasons for doing so and I do not for a minute want to minimize the significance of the Eucharist. Nor do I want to suggest that the Eucharist is not an important part of my (daily) devotional life. However, it occurred to me that if Episcopalians celebrated the Eucharist less, we might not be in such a knot about communion and baptism. We might also be able to lift up the many other significant services that form our life of prayer together. It seemed perfectly appropriate at the installation not to celebrate the Eucharist. There were many members of the community there—including the mayor and several other secular representatives—who were not necessarily religious types.

Perhaps the conversation about communion and baptism is, inter alia, a chance to think about opportunities not to celebrate communion and who we include—and who we exclude—when we do and when we don’t. What would Eucharistic deflation look like?

After all, if a bishop can happily conduct services without celebrating the Eucharist at every turn, can’t we learn something from that?

“If you are not baptized, please sit down”

I was recently looking through my notes from my trip a year ago to China and I found this story I had forgotten.

One Sunday I visited one of the major, sanctioned Protestant churches in Beijing. The congregation stood while the pastor prayed over the communion elements. Then, just before the distribution, the pastor made an announcement. “If you are not baptized, please sit down.” About a third of the congregation did so. They watched while the rest of us received communion that was passed through the pews. None who sat down seemed offended. No one stormed out in a huff. This was how things were. They were not baptized yet but looked forward to the day when they were.

So what’s the difference between this church in Beijing and your average Episcopal congregation, where I can never imagine something like this happening?

One difference—and there are many—is that folks are beating down the door of this church in Beijing. I had to wait in line twenty minutes to get into that service. The sanctuary could probably hold 1000 people and it was standing room only that morning. In the Episcopal Church, perhaps, we’re so desperate for folks to come in, we don’t want to do anything that will turn people away.

I’ve written before about how the “open communion” conversation in the Episcopal Church is about much more than the relationship between communion and baptism. However that may be, I was struck to find this story in notes this morning.

What would we think about an Episcopal rector saying the same thing on a Sunday morning?

“I don’t understand what happens!”

I once heard a story about an older woman who reprimanded her priest for giving communion to young children. “Father,” she said, “you can’t give them communion. They don’t understand what happens!”

To which the priest replied: “Mrs. McGuillecudy, I don’t understand what happens!”

I think of that story often as I read about—and participate in—the conversation in the Episcopal Church about the relationship between communion and baptism.

Beyond “open communion”

As if the current raft of controversies isn’t enough, the Episcopal Church is moving towards open debate about the relationship between the Eucharist and baptism. The other weekend, I attended a gathering in the Diocese of Connecticut on this issue.

What struck me at the gathering was not so much the arguments about the issue at hand (which I’m not going to rehash here, although I do find that this article has a helpful new take on old questions) but that each speaker acknowledged in one way or another that the questions raised by this debate go much deeper than the relationship between the Eucharist and baptism.

I think this is right. This conversation is bubbling up in the church at this particular time not so much because of a sudden, pressing need to re-evaluate the church’s historic teachings on baptism and the Eucharist but because it is a useful proxy issue for countless other conversations the church needs to be having.

As I see it, the debate about baptism and the Eucharist is also about the following (and this is a non-exhaustive list):

  • What is the church’s relationship with the culture in which we find ourselves? One way of asking this is to wonder about the relationship between the claim to “radical hospitality” and “anything goes” nature of our world.
  • People are wounded. The way the world works exacts a huge cost on people. I think of this anytime I hear people preach a theological anthropology that stresses the goodness of people—we are all “magnificent creations of the divine” as I heard recently. Rather than stressing the way in which Jesus brings about change in our lives, the church is in a position of preaching that we are all really just OK and we can all be “radically included.” We preach that because so much of the world says otherwise.
  • Relatedly, what do we do not want in church? As one of the speakers at the event said, “If you ran a church that was ‘radically inclusive,’ you’d probably be in jail.” How do we say “no” in the church?
  • I have a hard time imagining that we would be having this debate if church attendance was growing. In this light, proposals for open communion can look like a desperate attempt to get people to stay in church, out of fear that if we tell them they need to be baptized first they’ll never come back. How do we avoid approaching ministry from a position of fear about church decline?
  • Do we value theological coherence in the church? If we do, I have a hard time seeing how we can square the baptismal ecclesiology that has been so prevalent recently with open communion. I suspect we don’t value coherence so much as we value “bums in pews”… and we’re willing to do anything we can to get them there. What would an ecclesiology that takes no account of church size look like?
  • How is our liturgy related to our witness to the world? Do we have to have Eucharist at virtually every service (“Eucharistic inflation” as I’ve heard it called)?

Whatever the outcome of the various resolutions that are pending on this question, it seems unlikely that there will be much change in practice. Those who do now give communion to those who are not baptized will likely not change. If the canons are changed, it seems unlikely that congregations supporting the traditional teaching of the church will change either.

But what could change is that the church could have a larger conversation about some of these larger questions. Rather than getting lost in a welter of confusion over a question that really isn’t going to change much, maybe we could start addressing some of the serious underlying issues.

What other questions does this issue raise for you? And what else would you like to see the church discuss?

How do we argue in the church?

I once met an Orthodox woman who was flabbergasted to hear that in some parts of the Episcopal Church, Mary is not venerated. “I know there can be different practices on the Eucharist and other things,” she said, “but I just don’t see how you can be a Christian and not venerate the Virgin Mary!”

I thought of that woman the other night when I had a conversation with a very good friend of mine about communion with the unbaptized. This is the practice of sharing communion with all who come to the rail, regardless of whether they are baptized or not.

My friend, who opposes changing the practice, said, “I can’t see the point of having a conversation with someone who disagrees with me on this subject. It just seems so obvious what the answer is.”

My friend also supports the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. I pointed out to him that his comment is more or less what has been said by those who oppose changing the church’s teachings on homosexuality.

Everyone draws the line in a different place. Mary. Homosexuality. Communion. We all (and I include myself here) have issues on which we are unyielding and absolutely convinced of our own rightness.

We’ve had a decade or more of trench warfare in the Episcopal Church on sexuality (which continues). It has conditioned us to think of a major liberal / conservative divide in the church. What is interesting about the communion debate is the way in which it complicates this divide, as my friend demonstrates. This actually fills me with hope.

I hope that in this conversation about communion we will learn again how to disagree with one another. I hope we learn that the liberal / conservative understanding of the church is not set in stone and, in fact, doesn’t do a very good job of capturing its full diversity. I hope we can learn that Christian unity is not about ensuring that everyone believes and does the same thing. Rather, Christian unity is about recognizing a pattern of faithful living in another person, a pattern of living that shows that one’s life has been transformed by Christ.

It is very easy in any debate—sexuality, communion, Mary—for the stakes to escalate quickly and for anathemas to start being thrown around with reckless abandon. (It has always been so in church history.) What if, in this conversation about communion, we could start by focusing on our patterns of faithful living and pursue ways of building these ties? What would it be like for people who disagree on communion to come together for prayer, instead of debate? As much as I am filled with hope, I fear that Tom Ferguson is right and the communion question will quickly become one which “will just become another flashpoint as we organize ourselves into our little mini-communities, desperately trying to find the people who are like us, and, hence, the true Episcopalians.”

I’m not saying that conversation on this topic, and many others, is not necessary. But it’s striking how quickly we think debate can be the only thing we need to do in the church when, in fact, it’s a small part of what it means to be a Christian wrestling with a difficult topic.

The way in which the church argues can be a key part of our counter-cultural witness to the world. Maybe on the communion question we can begin to get it right.

“Moral Realism” about Christian service

In his column today, David Brooks encourages those in my generation committed to service around the world to develop a sense of “moral realism” by reading novels by folks like Hammett and Chandler:

There’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on….

A noir hero is a moral realist. He assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. He makes no social-class distinction and only provisional moral distinctions between the private eyes like himself and the criminals he pursues. The assumption in a Hammett book is that the good guy has a spotty past, does spotty things and that the private eye and the criminal are two sides to the same personality.

Christians say something similar, only we use words like sin, grace, and forgiveness. Christians know that “corruption, venality, and disorder” begin at home, within ourselves. The point that I make in my new book, Grace at the Garbage Dump, about my years as a missionary in South Africa, dovetails neatly with what Brooks has to say: we can be committed to changing the world all we want, but unless we are also committed to changing ourselves then we will get nowhere.

When I first showed up for work in a shantytown community in South Africa, I was committed to making the world a better place, “solving” the problems of global poverty and poor health. Naturally, with an attitude like this, I fell immediately and repeatedly flat on my face. It wasn’t until I began to realize that my attitude towards and outlook on the world and my work needed to change. I had to be willing to confront my fears head-on, instead of burying them in a welter of emotions about world change. I had to be willing to build an actual relationship with someone who seemed markedly different to me and whom I wanted to treat not as a person but as an object whose problems needed to be solved.

Historically, the Christian tradition has seen baptism as the moment when we are received, forgiven, and transformed by God in Christ. We remember this moment each time we celebrate the Eucharist. In my Episcopal Church, however, baptism is now seen as a moment of “commissioning” to join in God’s work in the world. This is right, more or less, except I get the sense we’re sometimes leaving off the part about the personal transformation and focused solely on the world’s transformation. When we do that, we end up eliding a huge part of the Christian tradition and becoming more or less like the folks Brooks is writing about.

The world needs to change, true. But change begins at home.