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: 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)

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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.