The Reconciling Work of Baptism

A man was once rescued off a desert island after 20 years all alone.  As the rescuers came ashore, he ran out to meet them, so very excited to see another human being for the first time in two decades.  “Come, come!” he shouted with joy, “You must see the civilization I’ve built during my isolation.”  He brought them to a row of three buildings.  The first building, he pointed to proudly and said, “This is my home.  It isn’t much, but I built is with my own two hands.”  At the next building, he brought them inside to show them all around.  “This is my church.  In 20 years of being lost on this island, I’ve found my faith in God brought me hope when it was easy to feel hopeless.”  Finally, they stopped out front of the third building.  The man pointed over his shoulder and said, with a bit of a scoff, “This is the church I used to go to.”

On the night before he died, Jesus prayed over his disciples.  He prayed that they might be protected by the Father.  He prayed that they might be guided by the Spirit.  And, he prayed that they might be one as Jesus and the Father were one.  Despite the prayers of Jesus himself, somehow, from almost the very beginning, the Church that tries to follow the Way of Jesus has been broken.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church were written to address, among other things, disputes over who was worthy to receive communion that threatened to tear it apart.  The letters of John were sent to deal with a group of Christians who claimed to be the only true believers and were willing to cast all other followers of Jesus into outer darkness.  By the early fourth century, Christians were killing one another, each claiming to understand the nature of Jesus better than everyone else.  Fast forward to the 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia and the number of different Christian denominations in the world was counted at a whopping 33,830 (thirty-three thousand eight hundred thirty).  I know of a few new Anglican denominations that were founded in the United States since then, so that number only continues to grow.  We are so very far from the dream Jesus articulated in that prayer at the Last Supper, it is lamentable.

As William Reed Huntington, my spiritual mentor from the turn of the 20th century, would ask, what kind of damage have we done to the Kingdom of God when we spend our time and energy fighting amongst ourselves over things that the world sees as frivolous like music, vestments, candles, debts versus trespasses, or the age of baptism?  How can the Church possibly be an agent of blessing in our communities when we are so caught up in being right that we are willing to walk away from those whom Christ would have us call sisters and brothers?  As we heard in the prayer Jesus prayed, our unity as Christians is meant to be a symbol for the world of just how deep and wide God’s love is for the whole creation.  Our disunity keeps the world from knowing that out of love, God sent Jesus, the very Son of God, to live and die as one of us, thereby saving us all from death in sin.  I’m pretty sure that all those who live outside of the Christian faith can see is yet another group of human beings who have totally lost the ability to live together in our differences.

Even as our disunity may feel disheartening, there are glimmers of hope on days like today.  As we welcome into the Body of Christ Turner Hawkins this morning, we do so hopeful of a future in which all Christians are able to work together toward the building up of the Kingdom of God.  [At 10 o’clock,] In just a few moments, we will act out that hope of unity by making a lifelong commitment to young Turner.  Mother Becca will ask us, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?”[1] In the split second between that question and the answer “We will,” I hope we can ponder for a moment about what that promise really means.  As a child in a military family, young Turner will likely know several different congregations in his lifetime.  His family may worship in an Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama, but he’ll spend plenty of time at his Presbyterian pre-school.  He’ll be raised alongside children whose families are Baptists, non-denominational, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, you name it. The promise we make today is not merely on behalf of the 10 o’clock crowd who will bear witness to this joyous event, but we commit alongside godparents, alongside grandparents, Vicki and David Cole, and their usual 8am crew, alongside Episcopalians and Anglicans, and alongside Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians around the globe who may one day be called upon to support Turner’s growth in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

I am under no illusion that this simple promise is going to fix the shredded fabric of the Body of Christ that is denominationalism.  Today’s baptism will, I hope, have a profound impact on Turner and his family, but it can’t bring all of Christianity back under one roof.  It can, however, have an impact on us as individual disciples of Jesus.  What if supporting Turner in his life in Christ means modeling behavior that can lead us back toward unity?  We can model unity by holding our identity as Episcopalians with humility.  We can change the way we talk about those who live out their Christianity differently than us.  Rather than looking down our noses at “those evangelicals” or “those Baptists” or “those Roman Catholics,” perhaps we can show Turner what it means to work toward unity.  We can seek ways to work alongside our siblings in Christ in tackling larger issues in our community like poverty, hunger, racism, addiction, and income inequality.  We can show Turner what it means to be one in Christ by loving our neighbors, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

In baptism, each of us given the gift of the Holy Spirit whose mission is to lead us into all truth.  On this day, as we rejoice in Turner receiving that same gift, may we strive toward unity and work to make the church that Turner inherits something closer to the dream Jesus had for it as he prayed for his disciples on that most holy night.  Lord Jesus Christ, help us to be one as you and the Father are one so that we might be models of your love in a world that desperately needs it.  Amen.

[1] Book of Common Prayer, 1979, 303.

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Unity

In November of 1905, the Rev. William Reed Huntington, Rector of Grace Church, New York and umpteen time General Convention Deputy, known affectionately as the First Presbyter of the Episcopal Church, preached a sermon on church unity at the Inter-Church Conference on Federation.  In that sermon, he lamented the fractured state of Christianity in the United States.  He laid before the audience three motivations for unity in the Church: intellectual, moral, and economic.  Intellectually, he feared that among Protestants, the question of authority that had been settled, at least to his mind, at the Reformation were being ripped open again.  The infallible title that had been removed from the Papacy in the 16th century had, over time, been placed upon the Bible, which Huntington thought, and I agree, was the source of entirely too much division.  Morally, Huntington wondered what damage the rifts among denominations would inflict upon American society.  If we are too busy arguing and being ugly toward one another, how can we have any positive influence upon the world in which we live?  Finally and reluctantly, WRH asks what kind of stewardship it is to have so much redundancy in faith communities.  Here, we find the money quote (pardon the pun) for this sermon, “The multiplication of half-filled meeting-houses and half-famished ministers in little country towns, is a sight to make the angels weep…”

More than 100 years later, not much has changed.  In fact, the rate at which disunion is expanding seems only to ever increase.  Now-a-days there are 84,000 ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and just under half as many, 33,000, denominations in the United States.  We are, it would seem, hopelessly divided, doomed to a future of angels weeping over dilapidated churches, opening their doors to four faithful souls, only on Christmas and Easter.  How is it, that we have fallen so far away from the prayer that Jesus prayed over his disciples on the night before he died, “that they may all be one”?

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Having studied the late Reverend Huntington quite extensively, I think his assessment of the situation is quote accurate, even a century later.  The question of authority and where it rests is a wound that is constantly being ripped open again and again, and it is such a fools errand to study.  Whether we place authority in the Church, the Pope, or the Bible, we have missed the point entirely.  For all authority comes from only one source, not made by human hands or intellect, but begotten of the Father, Jesus the Christ.

The question of authority will not be answered by “certain elaborate philosophies of religion, systems of theology, bodies of divinity,… or in the observance of complicated forms of worship, intricate liturgical arrangements, heavily brocaded rituals; but one through Him whom John the Baptist pointed as the Lamb of God, whom Simon Peter owned to be the Christ, whom fifty generations of believers have called Blessed.”

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus seemingly prepares to ascend to the right hand of the Father, he says to the group gathered on the mountain in Galilee, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  God therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Jesus delegated some authority to the disciples because he wouldn’t be present in bodily form any more, but with the promise that he would be with them, and us, always, we can be certain that authority will forever rest upon his shoulders.  If, somehow, we could all agree on that, perhaps the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for would be possible.

The Glory of the Trinity

William Reed Huntington, in a series of lectures that were published in 1870 as The Church Idea, posited a future for Protestantism in American that was called “The Church of the Reconciliation.”  His basic premise was that some 350 years after the Great Reformation and the many theological squabbles that followed that the Protestant denominations in America were so similar to one another, that it wouldn’t take much for them to reunite as a Pan Protestant American Catholicism.  Rather than getting caught in the weeds of doctrine, Huntington suggests that the historic creeds are all that is needed as a shared doctrine of the Church of the Reconciliation.

“In the Church of the Reconciliation no more ought to be demanded of the laity, on the score of theology, than an affirmative answer to the question, ‘Dost thou believe all the articles of the Christian Faith as contained in the Apostles’ Creed?’ and no more ought to be demanded of the clergy than assent to the same articles of faith as they are more exactly stated and more fully expanded in the Nicene Creed.”[1]

The fullness of our understanding of the Trinity, for Huntington, was found in the Nicene Creed, for clergy, and the Apostles’ Creed, for laity.  In the almost 150 since, some have suggested that even that is too high a doctrinal bar.  I’m not willing to lower the bar beyond the historic creeds, but I do understand the feeling of Dorothy Sayers, who sixty years after The Church Idea articulated the feeling most of the clergy and laity I know have about the doctrine of the Trinity

Q.: What is the doctrine of the Trinity?
A.: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.” Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult—nothing to do with daily life or ethics.

rublev-trinity

So what is the basic requirement of belief in the Trinity if the doctrine can’t be articulated by metaphor, can’t be understood by mortals, and can’t possibly sum up the fullness of the Godhead?  I think the Collect for Trinity Sunday tells us all we need to know:

“Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity…”

Acknowledge the glory and worship the Unity.  There is nothing in there about comprehending the mystery.  Noting about properly articulating the difference between homoousios and homoiousios. Orthodoxy flows, it would seem, from orthopraxis.  In acknowledging the beauty, splendor, and magnificence of the fullness of the Godhead through worship, we accomplish all that is properly required for Trinitarian belief.  The rest, as Dorothy Sayers might say, is for theologians to mess around with.

So here’s your task, dear reader, on Trinity Sunday.  Show up at church, worship the fullness of God’s majesty in the midst of the mystery and God might just answer our prayer to one day see God in his full and eternal glory.

[1] The Church Idea, 171.

DMin Thesis Proposal

Today I officially became a Candidate for the Doctor of Ministry Degree at the School of Theology at The University of the South.  For the two people who might be interested in my full thesis topic, I’m posting the proposal here.

“William Reed Huntington Meets Brian McLaren and The Episcopal Moment”

            In 1870, The Rev. Dr. William Reed Huntington published a series of essays explicated his vision for the unity of the Church in America entitled The Church-Idea.  That text began with these words, “Dissatisfaction is the one word that best expresses the state of mind in which Christendom finds itself to-day.  There is a wide-spread misgiving that we are on the eve of a momentous change.”[1]  It does not require a great deal of understanding about the state of the Church in 2014 to realize that Father Huntington’s word continue to echo loudly through the decaying buildings of American Christianity.  Huntington saw the possibility of momentous change as an opportunity and spent his life and ministry attempting the change the future of Protestantism in American.  Nearly 140 years later, non-denominational pastor, leading voice of the Great Emergence, theologian, and author, Brian McLaren, stood before the 76th General Convention and declared the opening of The Episcopal Moment saying, “I believe this moment of Episcopal crisis is also a moment of Episcopal opportunity.”[2]  The argument of this thesis is that both William Reed Huntington and Brian McLaren are correct in their assertions that The Episcopal Church is uniquely poised to meet the religious and spiritual needs of a changing world.

My essay will be approximately one hundred pages, fulfilling the requirements for a six credit hour project.  It will begin with two chapters laying out the religious climates in which Huntington and McLaren find themselves.  The chapter on Huntington’s era will be based on his writings, General Convention Reports, and a few other historical resources.  Scholarship on the current era is prolific, however, I plan to focus my attention on the works of McLaren and his contemporaries: Diana Butler Bass, Phyllis Tickle, Karen Ward, and because McLaren first posited the idea of the Episcopal Moment while in England, the home of Fresh Expressions, some attention will be given to the work of Bishop Graham Cray.  Having established the similarities and differences between the American Church post-Civil War and post-modernity, I will turn my attention to what each of these men had to say about the future of the Church.  The third chapter will focus on Huntington’s Church-Idea and his subsequent work to bring forth a pan-Protestant American Catholic Church under the umbrella of what would become The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, including a brief look at Huntington’s work to revise the 1789 Book of Common Prayer.  Chapter four will focus on McLaren’s speeches beginning with his presentation to the Lambeth Conference in 2008, through his General Convention sermon in 2009 and the subsequent tour of Diocesan Convention and Commencement addresses, culminating, hopefully, with a one-on-one interview of his current thoughts on the matter.  The final chapter would then be a proposal of the way forward, utilizing the work of both great thinkers to suggest a way in which The Episcopal Church might seize this Episcopal Moment with the aid of Huntington’s Church-Idea and become a Church for the 21st century.

There are, of course, many preconceived notions within my thesis, as there are within the theses of Huntington and McLaren.  There will not be the time in the essay to engage in a full sociological study of religion’s place within the larger cultural shifts of our time, although some review of the basics will certainly be in order.  Additionally, the basic premise of the essay is that it is addressed to a church willing to change.  This is a very large assumption, and I fully understand that; however having been one of the eight hundred plus deputies who voted with unanimity on Resolution C095[3], Structural Reform, at the 77th General Convention, I firmly believe that the Spirit is at work in The Episcopal Church, calling us forward to preach the Good News in the 21st century.  One final limiting factor will be the availability of documents pertaining to McLaren’s Episcopal Moment idea.  Several Diocesan Journals are lacking the text of his presentations as is his personal website; however it is my intention to spend at least four weeks in the Northern Virginia area in the summer of 2015, with the hope of meeting Mr. McLaren face-to-face at some point.

My primary areas of interest during my doctoral studies at The School of Theology have been Church History and Liturgics.  I stumbled upon this topic of study during the summer of 2012 when The Rev. Dr. Mark Chapman gave two lectures entitled, “American Catholicity and the National Church.”  As I listened to Dr. Chapman’s presentation of the passionate work of Dr. Huntington, I realized that I had heard similar ideas in a class at Virginia Seminary in 2005 taught by Dr. Diana Butler Bass.  As I have studied the past, it has become clear that it offers innumerable insights into the future.  I hope to build on my understanding of the history and liturgical flexibility of The Episcopal Church to suggest that the future for The Episcopal Church and Mainline Christianity in general is much less dire than some would suggest.  It is my sincere belief that if the leadership of The Episcopal Church, most notably the General Convention, specifically the House of Bishops, takes heed of the advice of Huntington and McLaren, we can capture The Episcopal Moment.  I offer this paper to the wider church in the hopes of producing new wine to pour into the new wineskins of the 21st century.

 

Tentative Bibliography

The Book Annexed to the Report of the Joint Committee of the Book of Common Prayer. New York: E. & J.B. Young & Co., 1885.

Butler Bass, Diana. Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Kindle Edition, New York: HarperColins, 2012.

Chapman, Mark. “American Catholicity and the National Church.” Lectures to The School of Theology at The University of the South. Sewanee Theological Review Easter 2013 Volume 56:2. P. 111-148.

Cooke, Mary Huntington. A Few Memories of William Reed Huntington. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Riverside Press, 1910.

Cray, Graham. mission-shaped church. London: Church House Publishing, 2004

Cray, Graham and Ian Mobsby, eds. Fresh Expressions and the Kingdom of God. London: Press Norwich, 2012.

Croft, Steven and Ian Mobsby, eds. Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition. Norwich, England: Canterbury Press, 2009.

“Emerging church leader Brian McLaren on Lambeth, mission and reconciliation.” An interview with Christian Today on July 26, 2008. (http://www.christiantoday.com/article/emerging.church.leader.brian.mclaren.on.lambeth.mission.and.reconciliation/20926.htm) accessed February 11, 2014.

House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church. “Report of the State of the Church.” The Report to the 76th General Convention. 2009.

House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church. “Report of the State of the Church.” The Report to the 77th General Convention. 2012.

Huntington, William Reed. “American Catholicity.” Sermon, Trinity Church, Boston, MA, May 16, 1865. Transcribed by Wayne Kempton, Archivist and Historiographer of the Dicoese of New York.  Accessed August 15, 2013. http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/wrh/american_catholicity1865.html.

Huntington, William Reed. A National Church. New York: Scribner’s, 1898.

Huntington, William Reed. A Short History of the Book of Common Prayer; Together with Certain Papers Illustrative of Liturgical Revision. New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1893.

Huntington, William Reed. The Book Annexed: Its Critics and Its Prospects. New York, 1886.

Huntington, William Reed. The Church Idea: essays toward unity. New York: EP Dutton and Company, 1870.

Huntington, William Reed. The Four Theories of Visible Church Unity: An Address delivered at The Boston Session of the Church Congress, Friday, May 14, 1909. Transcribed by Wayne Kempton, Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2010.

Huntington, William Reed. The Peace of the Church. New York: Scribner’s, 1891.

Huntington, William Reed. The Permanent and the Variable Characteristics of the Prayer Book. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Henry B. Ashmead, 1878.

Huntington, William Reed. Popular Misconceptions of the Episcopal Church. New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1891.

Huntington, William Reed. The Swift Ships. New York: A.G. Sherwood, 1901.

Huntington, William Reed. The Talisman of Unity. Thomas New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1899.

Huntington, William Reed. The Theocratic Republic: a sermon preached before the Twenty-Fifth National Conference of Charities and Correction in Grace Church, New York, Sunday, May 22, 1898.

Huntington, William Reed. Watch Words: “Brave Words and True”. New York: Knickerbokcer Press, 1909.

Huntington, William Reed. Whole Church: a Plea for the Four Temperments. New York: James Pott & Co., 1895.

The Journals of the General Convention 1870-1909.

McLaren, Brian. “Address to the 187th Commencement of the Protestant Episcopal Seminary in Virginia.” Sermon, Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA, May 21, 2010.  Accessed June 21, 2013. http://www.brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/commencement-address.html.

McLaren, Brian. “Address to the Diocese of Washington.” Sermon, The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Washington, DC, January 31, 2009.  Talty, Ann V., ed., Journal of the One Hundred Fourteenth Annual Meeting of the Convention of the Diocese of Washington (2009): 164-168.

McLaren, Brian D. A Generous Or+hodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/Protestant, liberal/conservative, mystic/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian. El Cajon, California: Emergent YS, 2004.

McLaren, Brian D. Finding our Way Again: the Return of the Ancient Practices. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2008.

McLaren, Brian. “Changing Contexts: Breaking Open Our Models for Evangelism.” Lecture Notes and PowerPoint Slides, The 2008 Lambeth Conference, London, England, July 22, 2008.  Accessed August 14, 2013. http://brianmclaren.net/archives/resources/downloads/lambeth.html.

McLaren, Brian. “Foreword” to “Seizing the Episcopal Moment: A Manifesto of Hope for the Episcopal Church.” Karen Ward on Anglimergent (May 10, 2009 blog). Accessed August 14, 2013. http://anglimergent.ning.com/profiles/blogs/seize-the-episcopal-moment-an.

McLaren, Brian. “We Live in a Strange Time in Relation to the E-Word.” Sermon, The 76th General Convention, Anaheim, CA, July 16, 2009. Accessed August 14, 2013. http://www.brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/home-from-laanaheim-texts-of-tal.html.

Memories of William Reed Huntington, Doctor of Divinity. Hartford, Connecticut: Church Mission Publishers, 1929.

Northup, Lesley Armstrong. The “1892 Revision” of the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. Ph. D. Dissertation at Catholic Univeval, 1991.

Pagitt, Doug and Tony Jones, eds. An Emergent Manifesto of Hope. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2008.

Prichard, Robert. A History of the Episcopal Church, Revised Edition. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999.

Sydnor, William. The Prayer Book Through the Ages: A Revised Edition of the Story of the Real Prayer Book. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 1978.

Schell, Donald and Karen Ward. “Seizing the Episcopal Moment: A Manifesto of Hope for the Episcopal Church.” Karen Ward on Anglimergent (May 10, 2009 blog). Accessed August 14, 2013. http://anglimergent.ning.com/profiles/blogs/seize-the-episcopal-moment-an.

Suter, John Wallace. Life and Letters of William Reed Huntington. New York: The Century Co., 1925.

Tickle, Phyllis. Emergence Christianity: What it is, Where it is Going and Why it Matters. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2012.

Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2008.

Woolverton, John Frederick. Willaim Reed Huntington and Church Unity: The Historical and Theological Background of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral Ph. D. Dissertation at Columbia University, 1963.


[1] Huntington, The Church-Idea, 9.

[2] McLaren, “We Live in a Strange Time.”

[3] The full text of 2012-C095 is available here http://www.generalconvention.org/resolutions/download/269-1342046451 (accessed February 11, 2014).