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Thursday, May 19, 2011

New Wine

Last night, I met with a group of students who are part of the Chaplaincy at a local university. Smart. Committed. Passionate about their faith and their church. Intellectually curious. I just love this age group.

They are considering being members of the campus organization of Christians - mostly a group of evangelicals who are equally smart, committed and passionate about their faith and their church.

Intellectually curious? Well, in terms of religion? Not so much. They have the answers, you see. They've even written them out in a Statement that everyone has to sign before becoming a member of the group.

Hmm . . . where have we seen this before?

The Statement reads very much like the 39 Articles which Episcopalians can find in the back section of the Book of Common Prayer. Nothing surprising, really, so there really shouldn't be any problem signing on, right?

Umm . . . well, among some other troubling statements on The Statement, there was this little piece:
We believe in the universal sinfulness and guilt of all people since the Fall, rendering them subject to God's wrath and condemnation.
Okay, class, let's compare and contrast with what the BCP Outline of Faith (commonly called the Catechism) has to say about Human Nature:
Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God's creation, made in the image of God.

Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.

Q. Why then do we live apart from God and out of harmony with creation?
A. From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices.

Q. Why do we not use our freedom as we should?
A. Because we rebel against God, and we put ourselves in the place of God.

Q, What help is there for us?
A. Our help is in God.

Q. How did God first help us?
A. God first helped us by revealing himself and his will, through nature and history, through many seers and saints, and especially the prophets of Israel.
Not exactly the theology of "original blessing" but neither is it the "total depravity" of Calvinism. Just somewhere in the middle. Where Anglicans live. You know. On the Via Media.

So, why sign onto such a document? Well, two reasons. The first is that this organization really controls the vehicle for Christian evangelism on campus. During Orientation in the Fall, incoming students who might be looking for a place to be spiritually nourished currently will not find Episcopalians listed among their options. Neither will they find Lutherans.

Until recently, they wouldn't have found the Roman Catholics, either - well, not there in the material, exactly - but they just signed on as 'affiliate members' because the statement didn't say enough.

Imagine! I've always found dueling arrogance to be so unattractive, don't you?

The other, more compelling, reason is that these students really 'get' the whole thing Jesus was praying about us all "being one". They have already decided that they can not sign onto "The Statement", but they think it's important to their faith to be an 'affiliate' part of an organization of Christians with whom they do not agree on everything.

I'm thinking a few Confirmation Class teachers did a good job somewhere.

This affiliate status is not without its problems. Example: What happens if the student they appoint as their liaison to the group, as affiliate members, were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender? There's nothing in The Statement about that, explicitly, but we already 'know' their position on the issue of sexual orientation.

Well, asked one student, with an unmistakable smirk on his face, how would they know our sexual orientation unless we told them?

Wait, said another student, that sounds too much like, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and I just can't subscribe to that.

Besides, said someone else, might it not be a witness to our faith NOT to be affiliated with this group? Is there not a way that we can make our voice just as loud as theirs so folks will find us?

I have seen the future of The Episcopal Church and I tell you, it is good. It is very good, indeed.

So, why was I there? Good question. I'll be damned if I know - except that I was invited by their chaplain to 'give them some language' they could use with the members of this evangelical group about what it means to be Episcopalian/Anglican and part of a religious institution that contains both Reformed and Catholic theology and praxis.


I mean, that's the problem, isn't it? Evangelical Christians and Anglican Christians don't share a common language of faith. That's because our world views are so very different. This is primarily due to the fact that we start at such very different places in The Garden.

I've been having these conversations with Evangelicals for a long, long time about a variety of issues and I've never discovered a way into a common language.

I'm sad to admit this, but, after 25 years, I'm convinced that it simply is not possible.

I understand. They start in The Garden and read the story, on some very basic level, as The Truth. I start in The Garden and read the story, on some very basic level, as a Myth. A cherished myth, to be sure - one that gives me a starting place to begin to understand the unfolding, unfinished story of God's relationship with us in creation. But, that's the point: it's an unfolding, unfinished story.

Check out the differences between The Statement and The BCP Outline of Faith:

From the folks who wrote The Statement:
We believe in the divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness, and infallibility of the Bible as it was originally given; it is the only written Word of God and has supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.
From the BCP Outline of Faith:
Q: Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?
A: We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.

Q: How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?
A: We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.
Well, there it is, then. How do you have a conversation with someone who, as Gracie Allen would say, insists on putting a period where God has placed a comma?

I must say that the part about "the only written word of God" also makes me cringe. I mean, the arrogance of that is loud and clear and absolutely breathtaking.

My best response, I realize now, was purely Anglican. If you try to engage in a conversation with these folks about their 'doctrine' when we have an "Outline of Faith", you'll either bump heads until you hurt each other, or you'll continue to talk politely past each other.

Either way, as Mark Twain reportedly said, it will be a bit like trying to teach a pig to sing. You'll only get frustrated and it will annoy the pig.  I don't think the point of Christianity is to be either frustrated or annoyed. It's all about repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation.

So, try to stay in that middle ground - the one between where they are and you are. Agree to disagree on some things and work in the areas where you both agree. You both love Jesus. You both want to bring Jesus to the world and the world to Jesus. Talk about that. Indeed, invite them to your fellowship so they can see how it is you understand and try to live the Gospel. Go to their fellowship meetings so you can see how it is they understand and try to live the Gospel.

That is a very noble posture. I think it would gladden the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Or, take a stand on your own. Members of the church have done that throughout the history and tradition of the church. It happened to Galileo when he insisted that the world was not flat. He lost his life for it but the church did apologize for that. Okay, so it was thousands of years after his death, but they at least admitted that they were wrong. That's pretty big. Huge, in fact, for a group that considers itself infallible in matters of faith - scientific evidence not withstanding.

The church supported slavery for thousands of years, based on what scripture has to say about the matter. Indeed, some Episcopalians - and even some Episcopal bishops - owned slaves. The church was also wrong about left handed people, and people with mental illness or epilepsy, and whether or not women were fully human.

In each case, some courageous members of the church stood up and said, "Hey, wait a minute. That's not right." And, they left the institutional church rather than support something they felt was evidence of a corruption of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther did that when he nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg to protest the church's sale of indulgences.  And, with that, the church was reformed. Well, one part of it was, anyway. Another part still is not.

There is great nobility in taking a stand for what you believe about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think courageous acts like these also gladden the Sacred Heart of Jesus, even if it means that we are not 'all one'. Well, we're still united in our love of Jesus, just not in the same room or church or expressing it in the same way. 

If you sacrifice the essentials of what you believe and compromise your integrity, what value is their in your unity?

Even so, the worst thing to happen would be to do nothing - neither try to affiliate with zealous Christian evangelicals nor take a passionate stand for what it is you believe.

Believe Out Loud
The gospel calls us to live our beliefs out loud so that others can hear the call of Jesus. The dictum that teaches us to 'get along to get ahead' rarely works. Eventually, it will collapse on itself - as mediocrity always does.

The Gospel we read at the community Eucharist last night was from John 14:1-9.  Jesus says that in God's house there are many mansions or rooms.  

I couldn't help but notice, on my way out of the building, that there was a separate Kosher kitchen. And, a separate Muslim Prayer Room. All within the same building.

I smiled as I remembered that C.S. Lewis once described the Anglican Communion as "the roomiest room" in all of Western Christendom.

As I was driving home, I realized that the soup I was served at their supper stood as an apt metaphor for what happens when you try to be all things to all people.

I was told it was Portuguese soup. Yum, yum. As a good Portuguese girl with roots in Fall River, MA, I was really looking forward to some hearty, peasant food on a rainy, bone-chilling night in Boston.

Well . . . . so . . . . see. . . there are vegetarians in the group. So, the 'stock' was a container of prepared vegetable broth. Some chopped, previously cooked potatoes and onions were added to the broth - just before serving. Then, some kale was added and cooked al dente.

I don't think I've ever eaten Portuguese soup that wasn't at least a day old. You know, when the potatoes get mushy and the kale is limp and all the seasonings have a chance to marinate.

Never mind. On the side was a small bowl of sliced chorizo - a spicy Portuguese sausage that one could add - along with a small container of some crushed hot peppers that were sooOOoo hot the cook said she got a chemical burn when some of it splashed on her hand.

You know, it wasn't bad. I mean, it looked pretty much like Portuguese soup. It smelled pretty much like Portuguese soup. But, I have to tell you, it was decidedly not Portuguese soup.

I don't think the Vegetarians were thrilled, either. I noticed they ate more of the cheese and bread than the soup. Come to think of it, I've never really known people who drink non-alcoholic beer to rave about the stuff.

Better, I think, to have made REAL Portuguese soup and then some REAL vegetarian soup like tomato or cream of asparagus. Separate and equally attractively served.

Vegetarian and carnivore Christians alike could then sit together at the same table, share fellowship and conversation and be fed and nourished and satisfied without arguing about the nutritional benefits of a vegetarian diet or wax rhapsodic about the quality of beef, pork and chicken.

The whole conversation, I'm thinking in the gloomy light of yet another dismal rainy day in Cambridge, is a microcosm of what's going on in the Anglican Communion right now in terms of the Anglican Covenant.

Until last night, I was willing to entertain the thought that it might not be so bad if General Convention voted to "accede to" or "affiliate with" the Anglican Covenant, vs. "sign on to" and "accept" it as part of our identity.

Not so much today.

I don't know what those students will decide to do, but they certainly helped me clarify what I think we, as the Episcopal Church and a member of The Anglican Communion need to do about the Anglican Covenant.

I keep thinking about what the Catechism says about Human Nature: "We are made in the image of God. We are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God." 

And, I keep thinking about that vegetarian Portuguese soup.

It sounded like a good idea. It wasn't bad. It just didn't satisfy everybody.

Maybe nothing can.

The best we can do is to live authentically in the best way we know how.

And then, everyone can eat hearty and be fed and nourished.



cheekbass said...

Brilliant, thank you Elizabeth!


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, John. It was great to be with the students last night.