2009-12-17

Thoughts on the Presiding Bishop's Visit


On the weekend of December 12-13th both Canterbury House SMU and Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church (hereafter SMAA) were visited by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori (hereafter +KJS) and the longest-ordained bishop in the Anglican Communion, Bill Frey (hereafter +Frey). At SMAA, +KJS and +Frey talked about "Who is Christ for me?" and "Who is Christ for the world?". In this, +Frey represented a voice of "conservative" Anglicanism, particularly with his long standing association with the charismatic renewal movement, and his teaching experience at Trinity School for Ministry (an Evangelical Episcopal Seminary). +KJS, on the other hand, was a voice of "liberal" or "progressive" Anglicanism, with an emphasis on social and ecological justice, which has been one of the hallmarks of her ministry as Presiding Bishop. It was great to see two bishops who represent two different strands in the Anglican tapestry come together to discuss the Person at the Core of Anglicanism: Our Lord Jesus Christ.

After the discussion at SMAA, we hosted +KJS for a community wide Eucharist at Canterbury collegiate chapel. This was followed by a visit from +Frey on Sunday night. Both preached and celebrated Eucharist with our young adults and others who were gathered each night. Since I got to see and hear both of them up close and personal, I have been asked by many people what I thought, especially about +KJS. For those who may not know, some in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas tend to have a bit of opposition toward the Presiding Bishop and the "National Church", so it is with some controversy that +KJS was here. So, for those who want to know what I thought, read on:

Regarding the Presiding Bishop Visit to Canterbury on December 12th:

As far as her visit to Canterbury goes, the event went awesome. +KJS did an excellent job of interacting with the young adults and making my folks feel special, especially as she stood in a circle talking to them for about 30 minutes. Out of the whole weekend, this pastoral interaction pleased me the most. They were very excited to have her come, just as they were excited when former Archbishop George Carey came to visit last November, when the Archbishop-elect of Uganda came last Spring, and when +Frey came the following night. In fact, since +KJS was here on Saturday and +Frey was here on Sunday, for largely identical services, these events gave my students a great experience of the breadth of Anglicanism.

In addition, +KJS was very pleasant, and actually showed a sense of humor which I had not seen before. Her homily was spot on, and could have comfortably been preached by any Creedal clergyperson in the world. It was solid and clearly rooted in the spirituality of Advent and Christ's Incarnation. Her liturgical style was quite a bit "lower" than I practice. But, she is a graduate from a "low church" seminary after all. Her vestments were, as always, festive and interesting. [;-)] My folks played their parts well, and the music was fabulous. It was a great night all around. It was a delight to show Christian hospitality to our Presiding Bishop, and to receive it right back from her.

As far as the +KJS / +Frey discussion at SMAA goes:

You know, I have mixed feelings about this weekend. I am firmly Incarnational and Trinitarian (=Creedal), so I think some of her statements were a bit soft in the discussion. At the same time, I have gone to seminary with students and professors who are Unitarians and Pantheists, and her statements about Jesus' divinity were much, much further than they would be willing to go. She was clearly in the Trinitarian/Incarnational camp, but with a hesitant, empirical, "scientific" cast to the way she expressed it.

She affirmed Jesus as the "Divine Architect" and "The Second Person of the Trinity", as well as affirming a few times that it was the entire course of Christ's life that was salvific. In this, she explicitly affirmed Christ's historic birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection. In her argumentation style, I was actually reminded of how +William Temple carefully constructed his arguments in a scientific manner. Thus, I am fairly comfortable with her Christology, although I personally would speak in a less reserved manner about Jesus as both our Lord and God. However, at the end, when she was asked about the bodily resurrection, she recounted the Biblical narratives of Jesus appearing and eating with the disciples, and then said "that is how they experienced it, but I was not there". I was not satisfied with her lack of specificity, and the lack of personal ownership she expressed in that answer, and wish she had gone further.

In the discussion, she spoke of Jesus going to hell and "turning it upside down to look for Judas". I realize where she was trying to go with statements about Jesus emptying hell, and going in search of Judas, which are rooted in Alexandrian-Cappadocian theology of Apokatastasis in the 3rd-6th centuries. For those who do not know, Apokatastasis is an Eastern Orthodox, Christ-centered, redemptive vision of hell and ultimate reconciliation of all Creation in Jesus Christ. She, along with +Frey, also drew heavily on the Eastern Orthodox idea of theosis/deification, in which salvation is primarily a personal union with God, by which the individual comes to share in God's life through Christ without "merging" or loosing personal identity. A favorite Orthodox analogy is how a sword may be plunged into a fire so that it glows and takes on the fire's energy, without actually merging and becoming the same as the fire. We are the sword, and we come to be infilled with God's energy as we draw near to Christ in Word, Sacrament, and Prayer.

However, I don't think she clearly laid the groundwork to explain and use these concepts. For instance, she quoted Athanasius "God became human so that humans might become divine", and said things such as "[Jesus] is the ultimate sacrament of God" embodied in a human person. These ideas could be (and have been!) misinterpreted by people that seem to have little familiarity with the Orthodox Theological sources she is drawing from. I will confess that I personally am sympathetic to the Incarnational, Apokatastatic Trinitarianism that we find in the Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory,Gregory, and Basil) as well as Athanasius' "On the Incarnation", as well as Irenaeus' recapitulatory atonement theories. So, even though +KJS did not fully or clearly explain what she was referencing, I am sympathetic to that theology for many of the same reasons I am sympathetic to theNicene Creed and its unique construction (for instance, using homo-ousias instead of homoi-ousias, etc.). Both were authored by the same group of people: The Alexandrians and Cappadocians.

Her comment on "Green Jesus" and Christ's mission of Liberation to ALL Creation was perhaps her least explained reference. It is clear that Jesus is a prophet of Liberation (and also God Incarnate!), when we read references like Luke 4.18-19. If I were trying to make her point, I first of all would not use an adjective (Green or otherwise) to describe our Lord. He is who He is without adjectival attribution. Second of all, I would make the point that God's justice for individuals is tied to creating more just structures in society, and that in turn is connected with how we, as societies, steward the Creation that has been loaned to us by God.

Then I would probably then argue that the inherent basis of Consumer Capitalism is the "profit motive", which is nothing other than the vice of greed writ large in nice handwriting. I would point out that we need to establish another basis for our economic and political system than this vice (maybe love or justice?), lest our whole economic-political system will implode upon our heads with thunderous crash. And then I would tie that back into the process of Evangelism, in which we bring individuals and communities into relationship with the God who is Love (not greed!) through Jesus Christ. So, on the "Green Jesus" I applaud the idea she was trying to get at, even if I would not use her route or wording to get there.

Swimming beneath the surface of +KJS's lectures seemed to be a profound discomfort with ontology and metaphysics, and her value of concrete action which liberates real people in real situations. I think she comes by this honestly from two directions: Both as someone trained in science, and who has "come of age" in postmodernity. Both the strength and weakness of her training as a scientist is that such training necessarily focuses on the particular, the empirically measurable, and the quantifiable. Thus, it is with great reserve that she theologically jumps from particularity toabstract forms, metaphysics and ontology. This kind of "bottom up" view of theology is common among the great scientist-theologians of the Anglican tradition, notably +William Temple, and more recent folks like John Polkinghorne+.

In addition, she seems clearly affected by the postmodern critique of ontology. If the scientific critique of ontology is that it tends to explain more than the evidence warrants, the postmodern critique is that such explanations tend to be an ideological mask that power hides behind to oppress others. And, anyone who is honest will see the validity of both critiques, taken in measure. Often, static ontologies of eternal unchanging structures lead to violence against those who will not conform to "The Ontology" (as can be clearly seen in examples ranging from Catholic hierarchy to Marxist liberation to Nazi fascism to Cutthroat Consumerism). Static ontologies make what is "really Real" into some unchanging, unseen system, which is then appropriated by those who can use it to legitimize their oppression and exclusion of "the other". This leads to a cultural/worldview system which stuffs Reality into the "box" of the ontology, thereby cutting off limbs of the Body to make it fit.

I rehearsed this fairly standard scientific and postmodern critique of static ontologies to make it clear why some, such as +KJS, feel uncomfortable setting down "Absolute, Objective, Metaphysical Ontologies" which declare how Reality MUST be, prior to ever encountering Reality as it really is. But, perhaps there is a way out. What if ontology is dynamic, and not static? What if there is indeed a "Metaphysical Absolute", but one which is relational, active, and living? I would propose that the way through the scientific and postmodern critique of ontology, which was embedded in +KJS's theology, is found precisely in the Metaphysical Ontology of the Trinity.

The ontology of the Holy Trinity would lead one to the belief that "Ultimate Reality" is not something static, but Someone who is dynamic, relational, living, interpenetrating, dancing, emerging, and self-giving: Someone who is Love. In short, the dynamic ontology that grounds the Universe is none other than the Triune God, who eternally loves in perichoresis shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and overflows into the creation and redemption of all things. This idea is made most accessible for me by Roman Catholic Philosopher Peter Kreeft in lectures such as thisand this. This emergent, dynamic, relational, Triune ontology provides a sure metaphysical basis to ground "traditional" theological concepts like Incarnation, the Body of Christ, and sacraments, as well as more "contemporary" theological concerns like liberation, inclusion, and justice.

Overall, what interested me about the lectures was how +KJS was so rigorously Scriptural (in the first lecture) and so rigorously traditional in the Eastern Orthodox sense (in the second lecture). And +Frey was based almost entirely in personal experience. These roles were "reverse" of what we would expect from a "conservative" and a "liberal". In fact, +Frey made some theological moves that are typically very "liberal", such as saying:
  • In regards to judging the salvific status of non-Christians: "We have to let God be God…"
  • In regards to missionaries going to "unreached" places to share the Gospel: "[Christ] is already there, often anonymously."
  • "If our Trinitarian theology is even remotely correct, we can't run into God without bumping into Jesus."
  • "[Jesus] came to destroy religion and open the Father's heart to the world."
All of this is pretty radical. And both of them ended in an expansive vision of Christ's Personal and Global redemption, with a strong emphasis on Social Justice. I loved that. By the end of the lecture, it seemed that in most ways, both +Frey and +KJS were describing the same Jesus, but using two different languages (and as we know, when we compare any two languages, such as Greek and Hebrew, we find that each has it's strengths and weaknesses in what it can express and what it has trouble expressing).

With that said, I know she had her "Dallas persona" in full play, and not her "New York persona". It would be a sin against charity to speculate on which persona of hers is more "genuine", if either, so I will leave that to God. But I will note that she, like nearly everyone I know including myself, does change her persona depending on who we are speaking to. For instance, my collegiate sermons are different than my sermons to older folks which are different than my sermons to kids. In addition, this blog article has undergone four different major revisions as I sent it to various people, and finally prepped it for "public" posting.

The thing that did not come up this weekend was, of course, Church politics, gay unions, gay ordination, women's ordination, how the "National Church" handles dissenting groups, and how dissenting groups handle non-dissenters (and each other!). That, of course, colors how one looks at the whole thing. I honestly don't have much to say about that other than that I think all sides involved exhibit exceptional degrees of gracelessness and truth manipulation, through gossip and public legal action (this among Christians!). For instance, here is one example and then another, among countless that could be named. So, I am not attracted to any "party" in this debate. If I go further into specifics, it will only result in being labelled by both sides as one of the other sides, so I will decline to go further. The best I can do is work where I am at, with the people God has given me, to help them know Jesus and grow into all his fullness. So, that is what I will do, so help me God.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.