Remembering the Melanesian Brotherhood on D-Day

inikopuria-473It was only this morning that I realized that the anniversary of D-Day coincides with the church’s commemoration of Ini Kopuria, founder of the Melanesian Brotherhood. It is, I think, an apt coincidence. The Melanesian Brotherhood is a religious order in the South Pacific—you can read more on Wikipedia—that entered Anglican consciousness perhaps most forcefully in 2003 when seven of their members were killed in violence related to civil turmoil in the Solomon Islands. At the time, the attention of many Anglican leaders was focused on the consecration of a new bishop in New Hampshire but the witness of these men was so powerful it demanded attention. I have just finished reading Richard Carter’s In Search of the Lost, a moving account of the months before and after the martyrdom of these seven Brothers. By 2003, the turmoil in the Solomon Islands had moderated and the Brothers had been asked to take the lead on a disarmament campaign. At a time when the police were suspect and international forces were only just establishing themselves, it was only the Brothers who could make a credible claim that weapons needed to be collected and destroyed if peace was to be reestablished. Their trustworthiness was rooted in the life they lived as a community—prayerful, open, honest, mutual. By living the values of the Gospel, they held up a vision of a different kind of community. People saw that and responded. The Gospel is powerful stuff. The death of the seven Brothers came about when one went to meet with a rebel leader and work towards peace. When he didn’t come back, six others went to look for them. For several agonizing months, it was unclear what had come of them. Finally, it was confirmed that they had been tortured and killed.SI_Brotherhood_Funeral (As a taste of the book, you can listen to this interview that Richard Carter gave last year to Vatican Radio on the 10th anniversary of the martyrdoms.) Ini Kopuria, whom the church commemorates today, died long before the 2003 martyrdoms. But the vision of a community that in its way of living challenges the ethos of the world around it remains strong. I have incredible admiration and respect for all who participated in D-Day and for those who fought in the World War II. But I also want Christians to be able, at the same time, to hold up a vision of a different kind of community that is not based on violence, submission, and force. Christians do this best when they are living those values in their own lives. One of the stated priorities of Justin Welby is a revival of the religious life in the church. It is not only in religious orders that Christians are able to show forth this alternate religious community, but given their nature it is a particular charism of such orders. We pray for the success of the archbishop’s efforts so that we can all be enriched by the example of orders like the Melanesian Brothers. Then, together, as the body of Christ, we pray that we may model the other world that is brought about in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.melanesianbrotherschapel

Thomas Bray’s unfinished project

About eighteen months ago, I spent some time at a seminary in Nigeria. Shortly after having a contentious conversation with a group of students’ wives about homosexuality, I peeked into the library. This is what I saw:IMG_1774

I’ve also spent time at a seminary in South Sudan. There, I also found a lot of people who found homosexuality to be difficult to reconcile with Christianity. Their library looked like this:IMG_2652

At Yale, where I went to school, I had access—literally—to millions of volumes and all the latest scholarship. At both these seminaries, the books are relatively few and are overwhelmingly old: there were few that were less than thirty years old. Yet at both places, I found students who were eager to read whatever they could get their hands on.

Think about where theology and the church were thirty years ago on the question of homosexuality. In that context, is it any wonder that we have such sharp disagreements on these issues?

The church commemorated last week Thomas Bray, a seventeenth century priest, who was instrumental in founding the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK.) (He was also involved in founding the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which was instrumental in bringing the church to the American colonies.)

Bray’s idea in founding SPCK was that Christians should have access to Christian scholarship and literature. He envisioned libraries in churches and an educated clergy. SPCK helped start some of the first libraries in the American colonies that focused on church-related material.

When we look at these libraries in places like Nigeria and South Sudan, we are reminded that Bray’s work is not yet done. There are really important insights of the last generation that have not been shared yet with our sisters and brothers around the world, and not just on questions of sexuality. (The Anglican Theological Review’s Seminaries Abroad Gift program is one very small way in which this work is being done.)

The commemoration of Thomas Bray is an opportunity to reflect on a visionary Anglican. But more importantly, it’s a chance to reflect on the vital need to continue his important work.

“Epistemological Humility” and Gregory of Nazianzus

The church yesterday commemorated the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus. (The Episcopal Church apparently marks Gregory’s day on May 9; not sure why it is different.) Gregory is one of the great theologians of the early church and is remembered for his many contributions to the way we think about God. For instance, he argued that we should think of the Holy Spirit as fully divine, which I always like to note because it allows me to mention the Pneumatomachi, or Spirit Fighters, who sound like a cartoon superhero gang but were really people who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

But what I appreciate most about Gregory’s theology is his emphasis on what we might call “epistemological humility.” That is, we should be careful about how and what we say about God. No matter how good your theology, it can never fully wrap itself around the mystery and wonder that is God.

In his famous Theological Orations, Gregory compares himself to Moses ascending Sinai. When he reaches the peak, he saw

as it were, shadowy reflections of the Sun in water, reflections which display to eyes too weak, because too impotent to gaze at it, the Sun overmastering perception in the purity of light. Thus and thus only, can you speak of God…. For were a thing all heavenly, all super-celestial even, far more sublime in nature than ourselves, far nearer God, its remoteness from him and from his perfect apprehension is much greater than its superiority to our low, heavy compound. (28.3)

God is such a different kind of being from humans that our knowledge of God will always be imperfect and incomplete. As a result, any inquiry about God begins in an odd place: with the recognition that no matter what we do, our inquiry will never reveal everything we want to know.

This is not to say that we can’t say anything about God; Gregory is a theologian after all and his recognition of his own fallibility doesn’t prevent him from expounding on the nature of the Trinity. But in order to do theology, Gregory argues, we have to be “purified,” that is, we have to be constantly converted to closer relationship with God.

One of the trickiest issues in the church, I think, is how easy it is to rely on the hermeneutic of self-justification and to interpret divine revelation in a way that suits the way we are already living. This obviates the need for the transformation that is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. As we commemorate Gregory, we might recall that rather than transforming God to meet our expectations, we might perhaps transform ourselves to meet God’s.

Remembering George Bell

The Church of England today commemorates George Bell, Bishop of Chicester during World War II. Bell is remembered, inter alia, as a bishop who opposed the Allies’ bombing campaigns in World War II and, it is thought, was passed over for the see of Canterbury as a result. You can do worse than read the Wikipedia entry for more on Bishop Bell.

Today I’ve been reading reflections from Paul Zahl and Rowan Williams about Bell. Both are brief and both worth reading, particularly for the way they connect Bell’s opposition to the war to elements of Christian witness in today’s world. Here’s a bit from Williams’

But Bell also knew that we could only be who we are at home with ourselves and with God, if we knew where our homeless and displaced brothers and sisters were; hence his concern for the refugees and the landless. And God’s challenge to us once again—’Where are you? Where are your brothers and sisters?’ —is a challenge about how we as believers in Jesus Christ answer for the lives of those who are being driven from their homes, their livelihood and their security by the terrible violence of our age.

At a previous commemoration of Bell a year or two ago, I remember mentioning him to a senior priest in the church. “Who’s that?” this priest responded.

So today I’ve been thinking about those who have gone before us, who (for whatever reason) were passed over for career advancement, and have now gone into obscurity. George Bell was a faithful minister of the Gospel in his context. How can we do the same?

It is appropriate, perhaps, that Bell’s commemoration falls as the Crown Nominations Commission makes it final deliberations as to who the next archbishop of Canterbury shall be. When that name is unveiled (whenever that may be), quite a lot of attention will focus on the person chosen.

But I hope that we also remember the long list of people who were considered and not selected, and, even more importantly, the long list of people who were never in a position to be considered. There’s lots of faithful witness at all levels of the church, forgotten, overlooked, and passed over for a variety of reasons. We do well to remember it.

Flexibility and change in the Episcopal Church: The Commemoration of William Reed Huntington

In the debate over a potential covenant for the Anglican Communion, you might see mentioned from time to time the idea that Anglicans already have a covenant of sorts: the so-called Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886/1888. You can read all about it in your Book of Common Prayer (p. 876) but it has four elements:

  • Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary for salvation;
  • The creeds as a sufficient statement of the faith;
  • Dominical sacraments (baptism and Eucharist) rightly administered;
  • Historic episcopate locally adapted.

The man behind the Quadrilateral was William Reed Huntington, whom the Episcopal Church commemorates today. Huntington was a parish priest, long-time deputy to General Convention, and advocate for ecumenical reunion in the United States. In fact, it was his desire to see the church united that led to the Quadrilateral. These were the elements Episcopalians had to see in another church to be reunited with them. The Quadrilateral remains a factor today, explaining why the Episcopal Church can be in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but not, say, the Presbyterians, who have a much different understanding of the ministry of the episcope. (Huntington was also a priest for many years in Worcester, Massachusetts. Although the Diocese of Western Massachusetts didn’t exist then, it’s more proof that it may be a small diocese but still one that punches above its weight.)

Efforts to use the Quadrilateral as the basis for intra-Anglican unity are a category mistake. The Quadrilateral is about ecumenical relations. And there’s good reason for this. If we say that the Quadrilateral is essentially a proto-Anglican Covenant, then we’re saying that our relations with the Anglican Church of Southern Africa or the Anglican Church of Canada are no different than our relationship with the ELCA or the Moravians. We may sometimes feel that way but the whole idea of the Anglican Communion, as I interpret it, is that those churches that have a historic relationship have some sort of special relationship that is distinct from that shared with other members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Now you may think, as I largely do, that the proposed Anglican Covenant is unnecessary. But don’t say that Anglicans already have a covenant. Huntington had something entirely else in mind when he was devising the Quadrilateral.

Sometimes the Quadrilateral is seen as a bit too firm and an obstacle to reunion, particularly the part about bishops. But what I like about Huntington was his advocacy for  flexibility and change in other parts of the church’s life to facilitate ecumenical reunion. He thought, for instance, the church could be a bit more open to liturgical change. To this end, he spent a lot of time on prayer book revision.

Huntington’s commemoration, then, poses several questions to the church in this time of change: what do we think is worth preserving about our church? What can we more readily compromise on?

“God is the interesting thing about religion.”

The Episcopal/Anglican world commemorates Eveyln Underhill today, a noted author and proponent of contemplative prayer and the importance of the spiritual life. Her book Mysticism, now more than a century old, is still an important reference on that topic.

Recent graduates of Berkeley Divinity School likely know Underhill better for a letter she wrote to then-archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, in 1930. Our dean was fond of quoting one bit: “God is the interesting thing about religion.”

Odd as it may seem, It is very easy, for those involved in the life of the church, to lose sight of this basic fact. In seminary, we can get distracted by the shiniest new theological idea,  debates about theologies of ordination, or whatever. In the governance of the church, we get distracted by the particulars of resolutions and committees. In the day-to-day life of congregations, we get distracted by the pressures of keeping the lights on, the church clean, and the brass polished.

All of these things are important, of course, but they can tend to obscure our focus on what Underhill puts, self-evidently, at the center of religion: God. To my way of thinking, Underhill’s comments give added impetus to my earlier proposal for this summer’s General Convention: begin the thing with a retreat. The complete text of Underhill’s letter is online and I think it has important reminders for the church, particularly in a season of contentious conventions and governance meetings.

The Church wants not more consecrated philanthropists, but a disciplined priesthood of theocentric souls who shall be tools and channels of the Spirit of God: and this she cannot have until Communion with God is recognized as the first duty of the priest. But under modern conditions this is so difficult that unless our fathers in God solemnly require it of us, the necessary efforts and readjustments will not be made…. God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend Him. We ask the bishops . . . to declare to the Church and especially its ministers, that the future of organized Christianity hinges not on the triumph of this or that type of churchman’s theology or doctrine, but on the interior spirit of poverty, chastity and obedience of the ordained. However difficult and apparently unrewarding, care for the interior spirit is the first duty of every priest.

Read the whole thing (it’s a page and a half). In an age of managerial rectors, is the answer to church decline more “theocentric” souls? And is that an issue that can be addressed by a Convention resolution?