Humanity’s Utter Depravity

Despite the protestations of my Anglo-Catholic sisters and brothers, I am very comfortable calling Anglicanism a Protestant denomination.  It may not have been true in 1549, but by the time Thomas Cranmer published the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, he had spent entirely too much time with Martin Bucer, and the Protestant Reformation of Continental Europe had made its way across the English Channel.  Thankfully, however, Cranmer’s affinity for Eastern Orthodoxy, his coming of age under the rule of Henry VIII’s strongly Roman Catholic thumb, and the tumultuous nature of the monarchy in 1550s England from Protestant Edward to Roman Catholic Mary to Settlement-minded Elizabeth, kept the worst of the Continental influences, like Calvin and Zwingli, from taking Anglicanism beyond being Protestant and becoming fully Reformed.

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My language in the previous paragraph betrays the fact that I am grateful for our avoidance of some of the excesses of Continental Protestantism, I do realize that there are times that Anglicans find their theology lacking some fullness because of it.  One such example came to mind to me this morning as I considered the second half of Peter’s Confession which we will hear read on Sunday.  Last week, Peter declared Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  This week, just seconds after that declaration, Peter’s mind has already been drawn away from things heavenly and become focused on human things.  There might not be a better example of humanity’s utter depravity, a topic Episcopalians avoid like the plague, than Peter’s immediate about face in this moment.

As faithful Christians, we strive to follow the will of God.  We engage in prayer, we read the Bible, we interact with other disciples, all in the hopes of discerning God’s will for ourselves and for the world God has created.  Like Peter, we have moments when we nestle into the bosom of God, and there we find revelation.  The mind of God is slowing revealed to us, again and again, as we return to the Father.  Again, like Peter, it seems we almost immediately slip away again.  We get prideful about how our own work brought us to deeper understanding.  We get nervous that God might call us to do something we don’t want to do.  We get envious of those who seem to hear God more clearly.  No matter how it happens, it seems that the utter depravity of humankind is distinctly highlighted the closer we get to the heart of God.

It seems to me that we should name this condition.  It is in ignoring it or being afraid of it, that we give our proclivity toward sin its power.  Instead of avoiding the reality of our sinfulness, what Calvin called our “total depravity,” we should see it, name it, and welcome God’s help in moving beyond it.  While Episcopalians ever get comfortable with our total depravity?  I doubt it.  Reformed Christians, we are not.  However, the more we do come to terms with our sinfulness, the more we are able to lean into God’s grace by taking up our cross, laying down our depraved lives, and following Jesus.

Death, Resurrection, Acts 8, and #GC77

I didn’t have a chance to blog yesterday for several reasons, not least of which was that yesterday I handed in the final paper of my first summer as a Doctor of Ministry student at The School of Theology at The University of the South.  The assignment for this paper in Dr. Chapman’s “Types of Anglican Theology” course was to “put the insights of one of the historical figures or movements we have studied into conversation with a contemporary concern.”  If the topic is approved, my DMin thesis will be a study of William Augustus Muhlenberg and William Reed Huntington as an historical starting place for the ongoing conversations around an emerging Christianity for the 21st century (see Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass and Tony Jones, among many others).

I decided to write a micro thesis for this paper, taking Huntington’s 1870 book of essays, The Church-Idea, and comparing it to Diana Butler Bass’ most recent book, Christianity after Religion, looking at the theme of death and resurrection, especially as it played out around The 77th General Convention.  What struck me in my study was that even the most faithful Christians fear death.  We hold tightly onto dying bodies for as long as physically possible, instead of embracing the model of our Savior who dead and was raised.

“I tell you for certain that a grain of wheat that falls on the ground will never be more than one grain unless it dies. But if it dies, it will produce lots of wheat. If you love your life, you will lose it. If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life.” (John 12:24-25, CEV)

The paper is available for download, here, but if you aren’t into 12 pages of block quotes, I’ll give you the conclusion.

As we have seen, when the Church finds herself in the throes of death, her leaders are often called to find the first principles. In the eighth chapter of Acts, the fleeing disciples preached the word. In 1870, William Reed Huntington sought to create A Quadrilateral. In 2012, Diana Butler Bass wrote of practicing the art of imitating Jesus. At the 77th General Convention, a group of leaders gathered to say, in this moment of perceived death, we will seek resurrection. We will not let fear motivate us, but rather will seek the Spirit. We will not be ashamed of the Gospel, but rather will seek the share the Word of God with a world desperate to be loved.

The eighth chapter of Acts gives us the example of Philip who, in the hostile environment of Samria, under fear of persecution “told the people about he Messiah.i” He performed miracles, cast out demons, and healed the lame. “There was great joy in that city,ii” Luke tells us, and this author hopes that you are convinced that even in our time of great hardship, of fear, of transition, and, in some ways, of death, here too, through the power of the Risen Lord, with humility and elasticity, with practice and a sense of humor, there can once again be great joy in The Episcopal Church. Our hope finds all its meaning in the resurrection and is based “in the certainty that ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’iii

iActs 8:5 (NRSV)

iiActs 8:8 (NRSV)

iiiThe Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 507.

the Trinity really is THAT important

As I may have mentioned already, thanks to the support of my parish, my rector, and most importantly, my wife, I begin study for a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degree at The University of the South in Sewanee, TN, two weeks from today.  I’ll take two classes a summer for the next four summers and finish off the program with a Project Paper in the 150 page range.  I’m excited and nervous all at the same time.  The prereading list, as the date looms, has me nervous this morning.  The two classes I’m taking this summer are ANGL625: Types of Anglican Theology and CHHT630: An Introduction to Ancient Eastern Christianity.  I’ve read 1 of the 2 required books for Anglican Theology (the 2nd is only 89 pages long).  I’m currently on page 217 of 504 in the one required text for Eastern Christianity and smack in the middle of the Nestorian Controversy.

I’ll save you the gory details and say this as we prepare for Trinity Sunday: Though a theological construct aimed at helping humanity put words around the vast otherness of God, the Trinity really is THAT important.  So important that debate over the minute of each Person has caused split and schism from almost the very beginning. Too many preachers, afraid of looking foolish, shy away from trying to help their people understand the systematic theology that underlies Trinitarian Theology, but the Church is not helped by an ignorant laity.  In fact, the vast majority of Church squabbles prior to 1517 were based on one leader’s heretical interpretation of the Trinity gaining traction with the membership.

To be fair, the lessons for Trinity Sunday, Year B don’t give you much to work with in preaching the Trinity, but please, dear reader, don’t ignore its centrality to understanding of God completely.  If nothing else, invite your people to spend a few minutes with the Council of Chalcedon where the battle between unity and duality came to a head.  A place to start, if you’d like to dive into the depths of the Nestorian battle is the “Definition of the Union of the Divine and Human Natures in the Person of Christ,” Act V of the Council, which can be found in the Book of Common Prayer on page 864.

Yes, the Trinity really is THAT important.

Fruit Takes Time…

… But the progress is visible.

For my upcoming DMin class on Anglican Theology, I’ve been knee deep in the controversies of Anglicanism for the past several weeks.  One that continues to flare up time and time again is the division between low-church-evangelicals and high-church-anglo-catholics.  Tied up in these debates are our understanding of the Church, our treatment of the sacraments, our vision of the Kingdom, and, at least for the evangelicals, our ability to witness to a true conversion experience.  That moment when grace, amazing grace, changed your life forever.

I get that.  Even though I was raised in the church and have no real recollection of a time when God was not present in my life, I can still tell you about the car ride up Manheim Pike when I realized that through Jesus, God was inviting me into a constant relationship with him.  However, because of my life-long experience of slow and steady faith, as well as my near constant sneezing because of the pecan tree in my front yard, I understand that fruit doesn’t just appear out nowhere.  It takes water.  It takes sun.  It takes suitable soil.  It takes pollination.  And most of all, it takes time for fruit to grow.

Fruit doesn’t grow in an instant, but the progress toward fruit is visible and measurable.  Bud becomes flower, flowers get pollinated, fruit begins to develop and in due time, the fruit ripens to perfection.  When the progress is not visible, we know something is wrong.  The same is true in the life of faith.  When progress stagnates, reverses, or is invisible, something is missing.  In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is clear that most times, when fruit production slows, it is because the branch has departed from the vine.  To clarify the metaphor, when we aren’t producing fruit, it is because we aren’t abiding in/with Jesus.

Fruit takes time, and care, to flourish.  Jesus offers us both.