Presiding Bishop book club: theology matters, books matter

Over the last two weeks, I’ve offered reviews of some of the books written by some of the candidates—Tom Breidenthal, Ian Douglas, and Michael Curry—to be the next presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. The project began as a lark, based on something New York Times columnist Gail Collins does with the books of presidential candidates. But I enjoyed the reading and I enjoyed thinking about the candidates in this way. Screen-Shot-2015-05-01-at-10.18.58-AM

The project sparked four additional thoughts that I offer as a coda to this series of posts.

First, theology matters. We don’t often talk about it explicitly in the church but all of us—lay and ordained—have some kind of implicit theology that guides our actions and our understandings. The virtue of these books is that we are able to see some of this theology worked out at length. That offers the opportunity for praise, engagement, and critique of the kind that I wish we had more of in the church.

Second, and relatedly, the genre and venue for these writings is so different that comparing them is like apples and oranges. Still, I am struck by the different theological emphases of the candidates. Take Christology, for instance, or what we believe about the Jesus Christ. Michael Curry has a Christology that emphasizes the incarnation, life, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Ian Douglas talks more about the Trinity than about Jesus. Tom Breidenthal bases his call for Christian nearness on the way in which Christ comes near to us in his life, death, and resurrection. These are important differences in emphasis that I would like us to spend more time thinking about. The future of the church isn’t just in the strategies and policies we adopt but the theology we root ourselves in.

Third, books matter. There are no shortage of blog posts, tweets, and Facebook threads that shape the life of the church these days. Books allow for sustained development of a particular theme that draw us more deeply into the teaching and ministry of the church. Books alone do not a church make, of course, but I hope they can continue to shape our life together. Not all our reading about the church need take place online. (This is a self-interested point to make, I acknowledge, but still an important one.)

Finally, and to repeat what I said at the outset, in no way does this project imply that one has to author a book to be a candidate for presiding bishop. As far as I can tell, Dabney Smith, the fourth candidate, has not written any books and so has not figured in this series. But that does not mean I do not think he is unqualified to be presiding bishop or in some way a less-than-credible candidate. There are many talented bishops who enrich the church with their ministry and who will never write books. But I bet they read a lot of them!

Michael Nuttal, who was the runner-up to Desmond Tutu for archbishop of Cape Town, once wrote that before that election he prayed for a “holy indifference” to the result. That is, if he was called to the position, he prayed for the grace to fulfil it; if he wasn’t, he prayed for the grace to continue his current ministry. It is clear that the slate of candidates to be the next presiding bishop offers a wealth of talent to the church. I pray that each will continue to enrich the church with their gifts, wholly and holy indifferent to the result of Saturday’s election.

Presiding Bishop book club: Michael Curry

This is the third in a series of posts reviewing books written by candidates for Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Two earlier posts reviewed books by Ian Douglas and Tom Breidenthal.

The book is not, perhaps, Michael Curry’s chosen métier. If there is one thing you know about the bishop of North Carolina, it is that the man is a preacher. Based on any number of YouTube videos, it is clear that the sermon is his preferred format. And what a blessing those sermons have been to the Episcopal Church!

9780819229939But this is a series about books. So we turn to his recent book, Songs My Grandma Sang, published earlier this year by Church Publishing. (An earlier book, Crazy Christians, grew out of a sermon he gave at General Convention in 2012. I have not managed to get a copy of that book—it’s out of stock in various places online—and Songs provides plenty of material for reflection.) A number of things are immediately clear.

First, unlike the earlier titles reviewed in this series, this book was authored while Bishop Curry was a bishop. Presumably, being a bishop makes significant demands on your time and leaves little time for writing books. That gives this book a feel that is, in places, fresh and lively but also, in places, slightly repetitive and slapdash. Given that the book was published this year, one can surmise that it was written with some sense of the presiding bishop election in mind. Far more than any other book reviewed in this series, I found myself wondering how much we could read a program for his potential service as presiding bishop in these pages.

Second, the book doesn’t say if these chapters were first sermons but they certainly feel like it. At the very least—and this no doubt accounts for their freshness—these themes were almost certainly first developed in a homiletical context. Bishop Curry takes to heart the dictum attributed to Karl Barth that a preacher should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. He references Malala Yousafzai, the movie 42, and much else that is in the news and culture.

In Songs, Bishop Curry exegetes the songs his grandmother—the granddaughter of slaves and a devout Christian—sang in her daily life. These are African-American spirituals but also hymns from other parts of the tradition, such as “In Christ There is No East or West” or “God of Grace and God of Glory.” I like the concept. There is a huge amount of theology in our hymns and it is fun to read as a talented bishop draws out that material, weaving in Bible passages, church teachings, and his own family history. Some of this is really very moving, such as the story of his mother’s long illness and death when he was a teenager or conversations with his daughters about becoming a bishop in the Episcopal Church.

But it’s not just exegeting hymns. Bishop Curry has a message to share. I’d describe it as something like this: Jesus of Nazareth shows us a new way of life based on God’s love that we are called to witness to and follow in. “Faith,” he writes, “is not about liberal or conservative leanings but about following the way of Jesus” (p. 117). Jesus, he writes,

came to show us the way to become more than we ever could, or would, be on our own. Another way to say it is that God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the way to be right and reconciled with the God who created us all, and with each other as children of that one God and Father of us all. (p. 13; he says something almost identical again on p. 46 and again on p. 54—it must be important!)

The Bible verses he most commonly cites are Jesus’ summation of the law as love God and love your neighbour as yourself (at least four times) and the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (at least three times).

He describes the outcome of this vision in terms of God’s glory:

Let God truly be glorified

By a world in which children do not go to bed hungry

By a world in which creation is reverenced and cared for

By a world in which love is the law by which we live

And where we have learned to lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more.

This is a compelling vision. Reconciliation is at the heart of what Jesus was about. God truly is a God of love. The lion and lamb will lie down with one another.

And yet, and yet, and yet. As I read this book, I felt a question building up within me. When was Bishop Curry going to move beyond outlining the what (the compelling vision) and on to the how? The Christian tradition offers more than just a vision. It offers the means of achieving that vision through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To return to the first block quotation above, Bishop Curry writes that Jesus shows us “the way to be right and reconciled” with God and neighbour. Yes, yes, and yes. AND Jesus actually effects that reconciliation in his death and resurrection. But crucifixion and resurrection receive astonishingly little attention here, though there are no shortage of hymns and spirituals about these central events.

There are a couple of moments when this silence is obvious. In summarizing the teachings and ministry of Jesus, Bishop Curry concludes, “Here is the foundation of it all. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” (p. 54) and proceeds to quote Jesus’ summary of the law. Excellent! But what is the unique significance of Jesus here? When Jesus offers that summary, he is quoting the Old Testament law where both commandments initially appear. Why is Jesus so special that we should follow in his way?

Later, Bishop Curry writes:

“God came into the world to change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends. God did not come into the world to leave it the way God found it. God came to change it, to change us, to change our society, to change our global community, and to show us the way of transformation, the way of new life, the way of the reign and kingdom of God in our midst.” (p. 127)

Yes, yes, and yes. But how? These are questions that are at the centre of the Christian tradition and are at the heart of what makes the Christian gospel truly good and truly new.

But they are not generally answered in this book. What we get instead is repeated exhortation to follow in the way of Jesus. Good. I aim to follow in the way of Jesus. But what helps me follow in the way of Jesus is not repeated exhortation to be more than I already am but God’s grace made known through Christ and the consolation, encouragement, and hope that it brings. Exhortation, on its own, is quickly wearying.

As I was reading this book, I was reminded of the books of the current presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. In reviewing two of her books a few years ago, I made a similar argument: she wonderfully painted the vision of “God’s dream” but was less strong at showing us how to get there. Based on his writings, Bishop Curry represents continuity with this theological vision.

It may be that having a different presiding bishop from a different background bearing this message (and offering different emphases) will be a tremendous change. Songs was fun and easy to read. I share the vision. But I was also left feeling I wasn’t getting the whole story. More than anything else, that left me disappointed at a missed opportunity.

UPDATE: And Bishop Curry was elected! It is an undeniably exciting moment in the history of the church. Watching Bishop Curry in action this week in Salt Lake City confirms what I wrote in the first paragraph of this review: the man is an inspiring preacher with a powerful and clear vision. The Episcopal Church is in for a wonderful ride.

Presiding Bishop book club: Ian Douglas

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing books written by candidates for Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. An earlier post reflected on Christian Households by Tom Breidenthal, bishop of Southern Ohio.

Ian Douglas, bishop of Connecticut and candidate for Presiding Bishop, has a long history of researching and writing about global Anglicanism and the mission of God. These are themes I’ve heard him speak about a number of occasions and they are themes that are at the heart of his published writing.

51Y2ZAFFLEL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Bishop Douglas’s first book was based on his doctoral dissertation and published in 1996 as Fling Out the Banner! The National Church Ideal and the Foreign Mission of the Episcopal Church. (Now out of print but used copies floating around the Internet.) It is, ostensibly, a history of the Episcopal Church’s efforts to send people overseas in mission, from the origins of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (still the official name of the corporate church entity) to the growth of foreign mission as the United States became a growing power on the world stage through to mission in light of the dramatic changes in society after World War II and on to anxiety about mission that came to the fore in the 1980s and 1990s.

We have a weak historical memory in the Episcopal Church and I am grateful for works like this that recall and record the stories of now largely anonymous or forgotten figures in the history of the church. Bishop Douglas pays particular attention to the role of women in foreign mission, which is appropriate for many reasons, not least of which is that it was through foreign mission that many women in the 19th and early 20th centuries found a way to assert themselves in the church. There is also good material in here about more senior figures in the hierarchy and Douglas is very good at recalling their debates. In the mid-2oth century, for instance, Walter Gray, bishop of Connecticut, and Stephen Bayne, bishop of Olympia, engaged in ongoing debate about the position of the Episcopal Church in the world. As Douglas summarizes it:

Although both were American bishops, they had profoundly different understandings of the Anglican Communion and the place of the American Episcopal Church in it. Although Gray would not admit, he saw the Anglican Communion as an extension of the Episcopal Church. In this he was not wholly dissimilar to the British view of the Anglican Communion, except that the Episcopal Church, USA, was now the ‘mother church.’ Bayne, on the other hand, was a genuine internationalist. He sought an Anglican Communion made up of true equals where no single church had power over the others. He raised the question: Would the Episcopal Church, and other sending churches in the Anglican Communion change their attitudes and theologies of mission to accommodate the realities of the modern Anglican Communion? Could the Episcopal Church, in particular, move beyond the missiological imperatives of its national church ideal?

This debate has obvious echoes and reverberations in our own time, if only we can remember our history. Douglas, who now sits in Gray’s cathedra, comes down on the side of Bayne, something that has been clear in his ministry since long before he became a bishop.

What strikes me about this book now is the way in which it is also a history of organizational change. Bishop Douglas traces the growth of church institutions that not only sponsored foreign mission but also began to coordinate the activities of the church—the National Council, which became the Executive Council, and others. Along with that went the development the “National Church ideal,” the understanding of the Episcopal Church as being closely associated with a particular sense of American-ness. You can read the book to get a sense of the whole argument, which I commend to you. But I am struck that the Episcopal Church is again in a period of institutional change that is also challenging its sense of its self in the American social and religious landscape. As we are learning, the desire for institutional change is not linked to the reality of institutional change, something that, we learn from this book, has been true at other points in the church’s history.

51LnSn02-2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Bishop Douglas has also edited at least two other volumes. One, co-edited with Kwok Pui-Lan and published in 2001, is titled Beyond Colonial Anglicanism: The Anglican Communion in the Twenty-First Century. This book may be a decade-and-a-half old but many of the essays are still well worth reading. In his essay, “The Exigency of Times and Occasions: Power and Identity in the Anglican Communion Today,” Douglas defines Anglicanism as “the embrace and celebration of apostolic catholicity within vernacular movements.” (p. 35) But this identity is comprised by the legacy of colonialism as well as “the ongoing dominance of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of modernity.” (p. 29) He concludes by quoting Max Warren’s dictum, “It takes the whole world to know the whole gospel.” (p 41) Indeed, it does, and Bishop Douglas has always been pushing the church to consider what we have to learn from one another.

A separate volume, Waging Reconciliation: God’s Mission in a Time of Globalization and Crisis, published in 2002, originates in a session of the House of Bishops about globalization that happened to take place a few days after September 11, 2001. Bishop Douglas’ contribution is called, “Restoration, Reconciliation, and Renewal in God’s Mission and the Anglican Communion.” He compares the contention in the Anglican Communion with 9/11:

Up until the summer of 1998, however, most Anglicans in the West could pretty well ignore these radical shifts in the Communion and thus avoid the hard questions of identity, authority, and power. In a similar, yet more extreme manner, up until September 11, 2001, most United States citizens could pretend that we were insulated from the pains and evils of the world. Our cultural, economic, and political hegemony shielded us from deeply engaging the realities of our increasingly multicultural and plural church; just as, in the case of the hijackings, it shielded us from the realities of death and destruction caused by militarism, terrorism, or economic injustice. (p. 218)

This is a bold claim but one that has a measure of truth. As Stephen Bayne urged us to, Anglicans are being called to look past our own individual realities and towards a sense of genuine mutuality? Douglas calls the Anglican Communion a “truly global Christian community of difference” (p. 219). I share this vision (as I have argued in a book of my own). I am grateful for Bishop Douglas’s sustained effort to take as they are all Anglicans—including and especially those with whom we disagree—and look for the bonds that tie us together, baptism above all else.

Both of these essays call for a renewed focus on mission as a way forward for all Anglicans. Bishop Douglas argues, as he has in numerous other contexts, that our true focus needs to be on the action of God in the world (“God’s mission”) and that through this focus, Anglicans can find their way to unity. I am sympathetic to this argument. But I would want to raise three queries.

First, it’s not always clear in this writing why unity is important. Perhaps, fifteen years ago, we could take for granted that Anglicans agreed unity is important. But I think that the situation has reached such a point that many people are very happy to say to one another, “I have no need of you.” (Precisely the thing we can’t say to one another in the body of Christ, but that’s for another time.) Before talking about ways to unity, we need to be talking about why our counter-cultural Christian unity in a divided world is so central to our witness to the world.

Second, I want to be sure that the call to mission does not come off sounding like a call to more work. I’ve written about this in a previous post but to quickly summarize: Episcopalians tend to be people with disposable time and income (at least relative to the population as a whole). Perhaps they can hear the call to mission and see how it fits into their lives. But it’s not clear how a single mother with two children or a elderly retiree on a fixed income might hear this message. The Christian life cannot simply be about what we do. I don’t think that’s what the call to mission is about. But I do worry that it can be interpreted in that way.

Third, when we put all our focus on mission, what are we obscuring? The mission of God is heavily Trinitarian, for instance, but less strongly Christological. There’s nothing inherently problematic about that, but it does make me ask why. Is “mission” language more comfortable for us than “evangelism” language, for instance, or God language easier than Jesus language? Does mission language still have the necessary edge that makes us, in the way of all good theology, uncomfortable? Or is it trying to domesticate religion to make it more palatable? These are not works in which Bishop Douglas would answer these questions but they are questions that arise for me and are worth pursuing further.

***

My not-so-hidden plea in the previous post for a copy of Michael Curry’s books found its mark. A review of his writing will be the next in this series.

Presiding Bishop book club: Tom Breidenthal

The New York Times columnist Gail Collins has an occasional series in which she (humorously) reviews books written by presidential candidates. When the candidates for presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church were announced in May, I noticed the publications listed on the booklet introducing them and thought it would be interesting to learn about these men through what they have already written. This is not to say that one needs to have written a book(s) to be presiding bishop or that writing books makes one a good presiding bishop. It merely seem an interesting way into thinking about these candidates.

9781592448869First up, then, Bishop Tom Breidenthal of Southern Ohio and his book, Christian Households: The Sanctification of Nearness. (He’s written other things, too, but this is the first one I found in the library; there are used copies on Amazon from a few dollars.) It was first published in 1997, when Breidenthal was a priest and professor at General Theological Seminary, and reissued in 2004 by Wipf & Stock. (Let us all now praise W&S for their heroic work in keeping in print important theological resources—and publishing my first book.)

Let me say right off the bat that I loved this book. As someone who knew next to nothing about Breidenthal before his nomination, I found this book a gift and surprise. He wonderfully sets forth a vision of the Christian life that is challenging and inspiring, and which I will no doubt fail to do justice to in what follows.

Before I get to that vision, let me also say how struck I was by the role that Bishop Breidenthal occupies in this book: he is both a priest and a theologian. That is, he is deeply concerned with the flourishing of the Christian community and he understands that that flourishing is best informed and led into being by a familiarity and understanding of the Christian tradition we inherit. This sounds obvious, but it is always worth underlining. Tom Breidenthal draws on authors as diverse as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Simone Weil, and many others without sacrificing comprehensibility or “relevance.” Here is an author who can make a sophisticated argument based on exegesis of the New Testament in Greek that can also be understood by people in the pews.

I mean no disservice to this book by saying that it is basically an explication of what it means to love one’s neighbour. Breidenthal structures this around the idea of the Christian life together or what he calls “households.” Households here are understood not simply as a husband, wife, and children but any pattern of Christian life, including same-sex unions, monastic life, single life, and church life. The key idea that links all these varied patterns of life together is in the sub-title: nearness.

Nearness is a fundamental concept for Bishop Breidenthal because the neighbor is the one who is near. The kingdom that Jesus preached is “about nearness, because it is about Jesus, who embraced connection more completely than anyone else…. Christ, who begins by offering us community with him, has come not to deliver us from community, but to give new life to the communities we already have.” (p. 6) Christ’s nearness makes a theological claim on us. “The kingdom of God is the realization of a redeemed nearness that takes us beyond privacy and beyond ordinary justice into the enjoyment of a familiarity that knows no bounds.” (p. 12)

But nearness is not just geographic or spatial. Nearness, as understood by Breidenthal, is part of our everyday life with a whole host of people.

“Whether we like it or not, then, we are always at the mercy of the event of nearness. Anyone, at any time, can suddenly emerge from the crowd or the newscast and change my life with a glance or a word…. At any moment and at any time the tactful and protective reserve that we maintain in our dealings with most human beings can be torn asunder…. We tend to view such chance encounters as exceptions to the distance that ordinarily separates us from one another. But what if the occurrence of nearness indicates our true condition—that is, our radical availability to one another? Then the distance that so often seems to divide us is mere pretense—a pretense which denies the close connection every human being shares with every other human being.” (p. 24)

Understanding nearness in this way significantly broadens what it means to love one’s neighbour.

“God commands us to assent to nearness. I am to embrace the fact that everyone, however distant he or she may be in time or space, however removed from me economically or socially or ideologically, is, in the final analysis, close by, because everyone made in the image of God is called to the same worship and the same joy. When it is truly catholic (that is, universal), the church is a body of believers who have accepted this universal connection and are trying to realize it in their lives.” (p. 26)

I’ve included these long quotations from the text because I think they illuminate some of what Breidenthal is getting at in this book and some of what I find so appealing. This is a vision for a church that is continually reaching out to others not out of a misplaced sense of charity or noblesse oblige (all too common in the Episcopal Church) but because we understand those others to be integrally related to the flourishing of our lives in Christ. The neighbour becomes part of myself such that the us/them distinction breaks down and we are simply and equally people before a loving God. This is a powerful understanding of Christian mission.

The central ethic of the Christian household (again, conceiving household in the broadest possible terms) is “care,” a word he roots in a really wonderful and intelligible Greek exegesis I won’t recapitulate here. A central part of care is attentiveness. He defines care as “an expression of the believer’s struggle against inattentiveness. We are not only to glance at the neighbor and look away, but to attend to the neighbor—otherwise how can we ever see past our own prejudices about one another and the distortions of our own projections?” (p. 84) Here, he quotes Weil, to assert that “attention is the cardinal Christian virtue because it requires a self-forgetfulness and a focus on the other.” (pp. 84-85) In a world in which we all seem so eager to keep rushing on to the next thing, the idea of attentiveness helpfully slows us down and actually keeps us in the moment of the encounter of nearness.

There is material on celibacy and the monastic life and marriage and child-rearing. And there’s a chapter on what he calls “same-sex unions,” a phrase which seems awkward twenty years on. (Why not just say marriage? It’s a reminder of how things have changed—and a reminder to be aware of the context in which authors write.) Breidenthal sees such unions as a household and so builds an argument based on what he has already laid out about such households. He concludes, “noncelibate homosexual life lies within the parameters of the Christian moral vision…. the same-sex union deserves recognition by the churches as an authentic form of Christian householding.” (p. 132)

If I had a chance to talk to Bishop Breidenthal about this today, I would want to ask him how he understands householding in the global world in which we live. How does nearness work when the Internet, travel, and so much more brings us ever nearer to one another without apparently giving us the tools to encounter that nearness in the way that Jesus is calling us to? It’s a strength of this book that I think Breidenthal could extend the material here to take account of the changing ways in which we now live.

We talk a lot in the church about how to present the Christian message in a changing world. I think that this is precisely what this book does. I find the emphases to be inspiring and attractive, particularly in a world that is so marked by division and fragmentation. There is a lot in this book and I commend it to you whether Bishop Breidenthal is the next presiding bishop or not. It is a vision of the Christian life that is open, expansive, and forever reaching out to all we encounter. As he writes in conclusion: “May God help us to see that Christ brings nearness and nothing else—there is no grace that does not call us to a crowded but abundant feast.” (p. 162)

***

Bishop Breidenthal has also written other books, which I won’t be able to read before the election in a couple of weeks. The enterprising Episcopalian in Oxford could also track down his doctoral thesis on Hannah Arendt and offer the Episcopal Internet world a review.

Next up in this series: Ian Douglas, possibly followed by Michael Curry if I can get a copy of his Crazy Christians before it is too late.