Thursday, April 27, 2006

There Can Be Only One

Reflections on the Bishop Walkabouts

The race for bishop of California is on. The "walkabouts," a grueling series of 4-5 hour public meetings, six in as many days, between the seven nominees for bishop and California Episcopalians began on Monday night. Approximately 650 people came to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco the first night, and nearly 400 at St. Paul's, Oakland the next. I moderated break-out sessions at each, with the nominees rotating through each room in 30 minute intervals to answer questions.

I'm glad I attended two walkabouts, because my impressions of the nominees changed as a result of seeing them in a different setting and in a different order of appearance. It was quite different to meet in the nave of Grace Cathedral with a "small group" of 150 people as compared to a classroom at St. Paul's School with 30-40 people. I found that, in the more intimate setting, some of the nominees rose in my estimation, while others did not fare as well. Moving beyond a first impression was really valuable.

The Nominees

Overall, I was impressed with the quality of the nominees. All are accomplished priests (or bishop, in Mark Andrus' case), with obvious gifts for episcopal ministry. I was also impressed with the diversity of the nominees, and I don't mean by that the fact that they span the usual politically correct categories. The are all very different people.

Robert Taylor is modest in his demeanor, understated in his speech, gentle in manner. Jane Gould is confident, direct, and bold. Eugene Sutton is spontaneous, almost flip; relaxed, yet passionate. Donald Schell is intense, forceful, and loquacious. Bonnie Perry is pure energy: kinetic, dynamic, fully present. Mark Andrus, too, is fully present, but a grounded rather than live wire; serene yet engaged. Michael Barlowe is focused, methodical, well prepared.

I dwell on these matters of disposition and style, because the differences among them in terms of theology are minimal. Schell, Andrus, and Barlowe are probably the more intellectual of the lot; the others struck me as more pragmatic and politcally savvy in the best sense of the word: but all of them are smart people, no doubt about that. All are deeply committed to compassionate Christian service to the world, to social justice, to Anglican comprehensiveness in liturgical and theological matters. The differences are in leadership style and, I daresay, in their ability to combine the contemplative and the prophetic dimensions of lived faith. With regard to the later, I believe Andrus clearly stood out from the rest.

The social location and life experience of the nominees is also of some interest, I believe, in thinking about their ability to lead in the context of our diocese. Taylor, as a native white South African and immigrant to this country, has a compelling life story and demonstrated capacity to understand and navigate racial and cultural diversity; a sensitivity to the outsider that I suspect gives him moral gravitas. And yet, that is true of all of the nominees in one way or another, particulary Sutton as an African-American in a church shockingly oblivious to its own culture of white privilege. Both of the women have had to struggle with the sexism endemic to church and society (including the tendency for people to confuse them during the walkabouts; a problem that for some mysterious reason didn't plague the men!). And the gay and lesbian nominees have been treated as "issues" rather than as people by many in our church, when they haven't been vilified outright. Surviving such experiences either makes one cynical or compassionate; they have chosen the better path.

It is also interesting to note the ways in which the two "straight white men" have taken risks in solidarity with outsiders in church and society. Andrus has been a strong advocate of racial, economic, and environmental justice, as well as supportive of gay and lesbian people in a diocese that has been notoriously inhospitable to them. Schell's risk-taking is perhaps less obvious, but his affinity for ministry with artists, prophets, and queer folk of all kinds is no less authentic.

All of this leads me to believe that, while I am coming to identify my preferred candidates, all of the nominees would make good, albeit very different, bishops of California.

The Electors

On May 6, the clergy and lay delegates of the diocese will meet to elect one of these seven people. I was as heartened by my experience of the electors at the walkabouts as I was by the nominees. People were attentive, respectful, and prayerful. They asked a mix of pointed and run-of-the-mill questions. As a moderator, they pressed me to keep the playing field level and to ask similar questions of all the nominees so that we could compare "apples and apples."

Some have worried about the "gay question" leading up to this election. I didn't sense that our electors are preoccupied with it though. They aren't particularly anxious or fearful. They seem to me to be genuinely open to figuring out who the best person is to lead our diocese.

Nigel Renton, long-time secretary of our diocesan convention and deputy to General Convention, has commented that the small number of people in our diocese who would automatically vote against gay or lesbian nominees, and the small number who would automatically vote for one of them, probably cancel each other out. This election will be decided by the vast majority of us who will simply vote our conscience based on the best assessment we can make of who we need as our next bishop. And we will figure that out together - through prayer and conversation - without competing factions.

The truth is that all of these nominees are leaders who will push the envelope on a whole range of issues. All of them would challenge us to embrace the stranger, include the outcast, and reconcile with the enemy. Whoever we elect, "the gay issue" is not going to go away in the Anglican Communion. We will be faced with another well qualified, openly gay or lesbian bishop-elect soon enough, whether it is here and now or somewhere else later. But that is not what will drive decisions on May 6. The politics here are local, focused on evangelism, multicultural ministry (which is the same thing as evangelism in our context), congregational and clergy health. Yawn! How unexciting. But there it is. We aren't out to make news for its own sake; just a bishop, and a good one at that.

Me

I've learned a lot about myself through this election process, and it isn't over yet. I'm learning to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, finding myself surprised by the nominees who excite me. I'm learning to let go of my need to be in control - a power far greater than myself is going to determine the outcome of this election. My ego wants MY nominee to win; but in truth, God will bless us - yes, even me - just as well if "someone else's nominee" wins. There can be only one eighth bishop of California. And that makes me a bit sad, because I've come to wish that all seven of them could stay with us. Ain't God good to give us such an embarrassment of riches from which to choose?






Sunday, April 23, 2006

Who Will Roll Away The Stone: An Easter Sermon

[The women] had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” Amen. Mark 16:3

This morning I invite you to linger for a moment with the image of these three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome on their way to the tomb where Jesus was buried. Imagine their grief and their despair. Jesus was a man like no other, a man who had treated them with dignity and respect. He was unafraid to be seen in the company of women – even women with a certain reputation. This was scandalous, of course, but he didn’t seem to care. He was too concerned with justice and mercy to be worried about social propriety. In a sense, he wasn’t very religious.

But then again, in another sense, he was profoundly religious. He made the presence of God palpable. There were the healings, of course, and the feedings, and the forgiveness that he offered; that was part of it. More than that, though, he made you feel like you were in a whole new world. Everything was different. You were different.

Jesus had elicited such love and loyalty from these women, who had risked a great deal to become his followers. He had changed their lives. And now he was gone. Their teacher and friend had died a horrible, dishonorable death – executed like a common criminal. The shame of it was almost unbearable. Most of the disciples had fled in fear and disgrace. Only these women remained.

It had all happened so fast, just as the Passover was about to begin, that the body had been quickly entombed. The shame of Jesus’ execution was compounded by the failure of these women to properly prepare and anoint his body for burial. His burial had been as dishonorable as his death: quickly thrown into a cave covered and with a boulder. Imagine the mixture of remorse and longing that these women felt. They only wanted to touch Jesus one last time, to accord him the respect he deserved, to say goodbye so as to bring some closure to their sense of loss.

So it with some anxiety that they ask one another in tones of desperation, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Their grief and fear and guilt are buried there with Jesus, under the weight of a stone far too large and heavy for them to move. Who will lift this burden from them?

Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome, you and me: none of us are strangers to the burden of grief, and fear, and guilt. Their story is our story: it is the human story. We all push up against stones to heavy for us to move. Perhaps, like the women in Mark’s gospel, your stone is literally a grave stone, the unbearable grief of a love lost to death. Maybe your stone takes the form of fear: fear of the future, fear of dependency and limitations, fear of the things you can not control. Far too many of us are weighed down by the stones of mental and physical illness, of addiction and other diseases.

All of us carry the burden of guilt for personal wrongs we’ve done, and for those done on our behalf. We are complicit in the politics of fear and the economics of greed maintained by violence, which fuels the world’s grief and guilt. All this and more: a stone way too heavy for us to move.

Imagine, then, the women’s surprise when they come to the tomb and realize that the stone already has been rolled away for them. They enter the tomb, and discover that the body around which all their grief, and fear, and guilt was attached is gone. It has been raised up. There is no “there,” there.

This is what Resurrection is like. It is discovering that the stone that has kept you trapped has been rolled away by somebody else. It is discovering that just when you think God is dead and all is lost, you find that the tomb is empty and God is very much alive. In fact, God is way ahead of you, leaving a message to come meet up with him in Galilee.

Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome, you and me: here we are at the empty tomb. Funny how God works, isn’t it? What a strange God this is, who loves us so much that he became human to bear our grief, and fear, and guilt, forcing us to see the violence and greed that structures our world and enslaves our hearts for what it is. Jesus’ Resurrection demonstrated that God is not the divine power legitimizing the world as we know it. Rather, God comes to subvert the structures of this world through a love that is willing to carry our grief and fear and guilt into the grave, so that we can be raised up into an entirely new way of being human.

James Alison describes the Resurrection in this way:

Jesus’ coming back to his disciples was the beginning of the huge cultural shift that brought into being an entirely new perception of who God is and, simultaneously, an entirely new perception of who we humans are. The apostolic witnesses began to be able to perceive that God has nothing at all to do with human violence, or the human social order that is based on human violence. Rather, God is so entirely outside that order that he is able to subvert it from within, by taking a typical human act of violence, a lynch-death, a coming together of all against one who is considered especially guilty and troublesome, and making this into the showing, the revelation of who God really is. He is not the structuring principle of human order, the prince of this world, but the purely benevolent creator of a way out of the order of this world, the self-giving victim who forgives the persecutors, permitting the construction of a non-victimary sociality. God’s goodness is shown, not in his accepting a particular human sacrifice to blot out our violence, but rather in his subversion from within of the whole of our mendacious sacrificial order by himself giving us a sacrifice, so that we need never construct our order sacrificially again.[1]

In other words, the Resurrection of Jesus always comes to us in the form of forgiveness. Like the women at the tomb, we are worried about how to push against the stone, and Jesus is saying: “I’ve already rolled the stone away. Stop worrying about that. Stop being obsessed with the death-dealing ways of this world and come join me in Galilee. We’ve got work to do. There are lots of other people still locked in the cycle of greed and violence. I need you to help me show them another way to be human through forgiveness.”

The earliest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel end here at the empty tomb with the message to go meet Jesus in Galilee. The women flee in terror and amazement. Can you blame them? Can you blame them for being afraid to tell anyone what they had seen and heard? Who would believe them?

I like the way Mark ends this gospel. I think it is true to life. For most of us, there is a gap between discovering the empty tomb and actually encountering the Risen Lord. Resurrection is a process, not an event. It took some time for the women who went to the tomb to trust their experience of the Resurrection.

We need to cut ourselves some slack in that regard too. Many of us have gotten quite comfortable pushing up against our own stones. We have become quite attached to our grief, and our fear, and our guilt. We rather like Jesus remaining in the tomb so that we can just avoid the whole business of forgiveness and transformation. Eventually, though, pushing against the stone gets tiresome.

If you are tired of pushing against the stone, I invite you to come to this table to meet the Risen Lord who has rolled it away already. He comes to us in the form of bread and wine, the very stuff of life, which when shared in community becomes the risen body of Christ – risen in all of us together. He comes as forgiveness, the opportunity to begin anew, and he comes to set us free from our burdens so that we can share that forgiveness with others. It really is a quite different and better way to live.

So don’t just sit there gaping at the empty tomb. Jesus has already gone ahead to meet us in the future of joy and justice and generosity that he has prepared. Let us go to meet him. He’s waiting. Amen.

[1] James Alison, “Being Saved and Being Wrong,” at http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/pdf/eng18.pdf.

The Baptism of Caroline Jane Freeman Cherry

The Great Vigil of Easter
April 15, 2006

In the Name of God, who gives us life, sets us free, and draws us into the beloved community. Amen.

The Easter Vigil readings speak to us of the three-fold pattern of God’s activity in the world: God gives us life, God sets us free, God draws us into community. This is the way Christians describe their experience of God, symbolized in the mystery of the One God named as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Into this Holy Name we will baptize Caroline Jane Freeman Cherry this evening, initiating her into the mystery of this life giving, liberating, community building God.

These lessons serve to remind us of the meaning of baptism and its power to transform our lives. In our tradition, we understand two great sacraments as necessary to salvation: baptism and Eucharist. They are necessary, not in the sense that only those who participate in the ritual acts of baptism and Eucharist can be saved; but that only those who, by God’s grace, discover their true self in community and continually nourish that identity in community can become fully alive and fully free.

The power of baptism lies in its capacity to be such a vehicle of grace, revealing to us our true identity and empowering us with the freedom to embrace this identity. For infants like Caroline, it is our responsibility to be the bearers of this grace for her until she can claim it for herself. Tonight, we commit ourselves to this responsibility on her behalf. It is an awesome responsibility; for we are entrusted with the care of her soul, with aiding her in the journey of discovering her true identity as God’s beloved child.

As we all well know, this is not an easy journey. We grow up and come to self-awareness shaped by all manner of powerful forces, some of which are benevolent, some of which are malevolent, and most of which are mixed at best. This is the body of sin in which we are born, the “old self” as St. Paul calls it, the self that is created by the forces of socialization and biological necessity that never adequately characterize all of who we are and, in fact, can badly deform our sense of self. This old or false self isn’t necessarily bad; in some ways it may, in fact, serve us very well. The problem is that it is at best incomplete, and at worse deceptive.

Paul speaks of this old self as trapped in the body of sin; not sin as a moral category, but sin as a state of alienation from our true identity as God’s beloved children. The structures of the world internalized in our own psyches trap us into patterns of thinking and behaving that draw us away from our original condition of blessing, of life and of freedom. While some of us experience this body of sin more profoundly than others, none of us can escape from it entirely. We all develop a false self to protect us from our fears, both real and imagined, and perpetuate the body of sin by projecting those fears onto others.

So, tonight, we will ritually drown Caroline in the waters of baptism, symbolically putting to death the old self, the body of sin, so that she may rise to new life aware of her true identity as God’s beloved child. This identity is her birthright, sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism. Caroline, like all of us, is the object of God’s unconditional, deathless love. There is nothing we can or need do to earn this exalted status – it is simply given to us. All we need do is relax into God’s love, letting go of the self of our parental, cultural, and even “Christian” expectations, which may or may not have anything to do with our dignity as children of God.

The death of the false self, letting go of all that separates us from God and one another, is not an event: it is a process. Baptism initiates this life-long process, which we ritually repeat in every celebration of the Eucharist; a process that requires faithful companions who will mirror back that which is of God in us. Tonight we promise to undertake the glorious, holy work of reflecting back to Caroline the image of God that shines in her, and we renew our commitment to do the same for each and all.

Notice that I said, “we.” That “we” is not just Caroline’s parents and godparents: that “we” is all of us. Caroline does not belong to Jackie and Beth. She is not their property. Caroline is part of the body of Christ, a unique and irreplaceable expression of the divine life who belongs to and with all of us.

As much as I love and respect Jackie and Beth, they can’t do this work alone. Trust me, they will need all the help they can get! And besides, why should they get to keep the joy of Caroline all to themselves! God’s love is abundant, overflowing, a fountain welling up in each of us. It demands to be shared. It cannot be contained. It has triumphed even over the grave. It will flow over us and through us, world without end.

Tonight, Caroline will begin the life-long process of dying and rising with Christ, of letting go of fear to rest in God’s love. It is not a linear journey. There will be steps backward, times of slavery, times of exile, requiring renewed liberation and returning home to the promised land of God’s presence. The good news, blessed Caroline, is that in all your journeying you will never be alone: no, never alone. We promise. Amen.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Discerning the Body: A Maundy Thursday Homily

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. Amen. I Corinthians 11:27-29

As many of you know, I was raised a Southern Baptist. (As an aside, it has been my observation that Southern Baptists make wonderful Episcopal priests, but that is another story for a future sermon on humility!). What I want to share with you tonight is my experience of the celebration of Holy Communion as a Southern Baptist. In my childhood we celebrated the Sacrament four times per year at most, and many churches did so only twice each year (whether you needed it or not, as it were).

The reception of the Sacrament was, for me, shrouded in fear and trepidation. There was a great deal of emphasis on being ready and worthy to receive. “Had I thoroughly repented of my sins? Was I worthy to receive? What will happen if I’m not?” These are the questions that plagued me as a young Christian.

It seemed to me at the time that sinners were not welcome at the table of the Lord. Only those who were “right with Jesus” were invited, and this text from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was quoted as proof. It was never clear to me, however, how I could know for certain that I was “right with Jesus.” Moral purity, which I believed was the requirement for reception of the Sacrament, was an ever receding horizon that I never quite reached.

My fear of being ostracized as a sinner, was greater, however, than my fear of Jesus: so I received along with everybody else. While I was correct in fearing rejection by others more than rejection by Jesus, I paid a high price for my fear. In believing that Paul’s argument is about moral purity, I actually reinforced the very tendency which Paul is here criticizing. I failed to “discern the body.”

“Discerning the body” is, to my knowledge, the only biblical requirement for reception of the sacrament. Our failure to acknowledge this requirement does have dire consequences, as Paul points out. Many are weak and ill and some have even died, because of our failure to discern the body. And so our celebration of this Holy Sacrament, the institution of which we remember tonight, is a serious matter.

What, then, does it mean to “discern the body”?

Earlier in his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote, The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. I Corinthians 10:16-17

Paul is writing to a Christian community torn apart by various factions, with some considering themselves superior to others: more wise, more spiritually gifted, more socially acceptable. Paul goes to great lengths to remind the Corinthians that the basis of their unity is not their social status, but rather their sharing together in the body of Christ. Their divisions betray their failure to discern the body.

The word here translated “sharing” is koin┼Źnia, which in Greek has a much stronger connotation; not mere sharing, but communion, mutual participation and indwelling in one another. Notice that, for Paul, koin┼Źnia moves in two directions: one vertical and one horizontal, so to speak. On the vertical plane, there is communion between the individual and God through Christ. Similarly, on the horizontal plane there is communion between individuals through Christ. The body of Christ encompasses both realities. “Discerning the body,” then, means seeing Christ both in our selves and in one another, separately and collectively.

Paul goes on to reprimand the Corinthians in the passage we heard this evening. What we didn’t hear was the specific instance of failing to discern the body that Paul is criticizing: a failure of the rich to see the body of Christ in the poor.

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper, Paul admonishes them. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? I Corinthians 11:20-22b

Rather than exemplifying authentic communion, the Corinthians’ celebration of the Lord’s Supper became a basis for the rich to exercise their privilege and humiliate the poor in the process. The meal had become a means to reinforce social hierarchies that divide the community against itself, allowing some to revel in excess while others have nothing. The rich had confused their economic power with moral superiority, treating the poor with contempt for failing to “measure up.”

Paul argues that the vulnerability of the poor, their weakness, illness, and death, serves as a judgment against the rich for their failure to discern the body of Christ. I can not help but recall in this context my experience during the palm procession last Sunday as we circled the block around the church: a crack addict splayed out on the sidewalk with paramedics attending to her, a woman shivering under a blanket in the alley, the smell of human urine mixed with the scent of incense, the sound of police sirens and tinkling bells.

Where did we discern the body of Christ during that walk? It was there, everywhere, in each and all. Can we see that body, broken for us? Can we bear to be broken open, made vulnerable in our union with that body? It is because of our failure to discern the body that some people grow fat while other’s starve; some enjoy the security of gated communities while others are victims of violence and torture; some have the freedom to choose among a variety of lifestyles, while others struggle to choose between life and death. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians sits heavily upon me as I consider the limits of my own capacity to discern the body.

Moral purity, however, is not the issue here. Discerning the body is not a matter of becoming “good enough” to see it. Discerning the body is about becoming vulnerable enough to become united with Christ’s crucified and risen body. Paul rightly reminds the Corinthians of Jesus’ institution of Holy Communion, his last, sacramental meal with his own disciples. This was not a communion of the morally pure, but rather a collection of peasants, tax collectors, renegades, prostitutes and guys who just didn’t get it. The worst of them would betray Jesus, the best would deny him, and all of them would abandon him (except, it seems, the women).

In his last supper we see the summation and pattern of Jesus’ table fellowship throughout his ministry: including everyone, especially outcasts and sinners, in meals celebrating the arrival of God’s kingdom. We see how he discerned the body: without limit and without exclusion. There were no scapegoats over against which Jesus defined the unity of his circle of followers. All were welcome. All were included. And all were changed because of their experience of radical, crucified love; a love willing to die in solidarity even with scapegoats; a love willing to die in solidarity with you and me.

The only requirement for reception of this Holy Sacrament is a willingness to be united with the body of Christ, a willingness to refuse participation in the dynamic of exclusion that makes our salvation dependent upon someone else’s condemnation. Our union with God in the body of Christ is not based on our moral superiority. It is based upon our reception of the gift of grace whereby we are given new eyes to see the body of Christ in ourselves and in others; especially in the most unlikely people.

Our participation in the body of Christ is a being drawn into union with God through a process of mutual self-giving in love. This mutual self-giving operates in two ways: through meditation in solitude and through service in community. In meditation we let go of the self constructed from the expectations, fantasies, and projections of others, to discern our true self in the light of God’s love. Offering our entire self to God, warts and all, we discover how completely and without limit God loves us as we are, and how much God desires us to become much more than we could imagine. We begin to discern the body of Christ in us, and ourselves as part of the body.

In service to others, we make space for compassion to expand our awareness of the body of Christ in the brokenness of the world, as well as in ourselves. In giving of ourselves for others, and receiving from them in return, we make love concrete in daily life. Every act of service, however small, is part of our self offering to God. Every such act deepens our capacity to discern the body of Christ and to give it form and definition.

The Sacrament of Holy Communion brings both of these dimensions together. Christ is truly present in the bread and wine, and in receiving them we realize our union with Christ in his self-offering to God. At the same time, our reception of the Sacrament together embodies our union with each other in Christ. We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. The grace of the Sacrament is the renewing of our capacity to see ourselves and others as part of one body, the body of Christ.

More than that, we are given the grace to offer ourselves in union with Christ’s self-offering to God for the sake of the salvation of the world. We become the means of God’s peace and justice-making, the means whereby the whole creation is reconciled with God. The church as the body of Christ does not exist for its own sake, but as a Sacrament of crucified love for the world.

As St. Augustine said, If you are the body and members of Christ, it is your mystery which is placed on the Lord’s table; it is your mystery your receive. It is to that which you are that you answer, ‘Amen,’ and by that response you make your assent. You hear the words ‘the body of Christ’; you answer, ‘Amen.’ Be a member of Christ, so that the ‘Amen’ may be true. (Sermon 272 cited in Crockett, Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation, p. 94.)

In receiving this holy Sacrament we say “yes” to who we truly are: the body of Christ; and we are given the grace to live our lives in such a way that our “yes” will prove true. May we bear witness to that “yes” through daily surrender to God in prayer and humble service to our neighbors, and thus rightly discern the body. Amen.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Bishop Swing's Finest Moment

The Episcopal Church in the Balance
Written by The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing
Monday, 10 April 2006

On my last visit to a congregation a member of the choir, with tears in her eyes, said to me: “My vicar retired, my bishop is going to retire, and the Episcopal Church has been kicked out of the Anglican Communion. That is more loss than I can handle.” Her genuine lament stays with me.

My short reply on the spot: “You’ll soon have a wonderful new priest, this time next year you all and the new bishop will be off on high adventure pursuing the mission of Jesus Christ, and the Episcopal Church is very much part of the Anglican Communion. You will be just fine.” My longer reply with pen in hand: the large issues that are now hanging in the balance are (1) freedom in the Body of Christ, (2) accountability of Episcopal bishops to the Episcopal Church, and (3) the nature of church property. Let me explain.

I. Freedom in the Body of Christ

We would not be having the present turmoil around homosexuality if the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church did not have an elevated doctrine of freedom in the Body of Christ. Because we are caught up in the new creation that springs from Resurrection power, we are an expansive people. We have the freedom to disagree but stay together, freedom to discriminate and also welcome everyone, to live with contradictions. We even have the freedom to self-destruct and completely forfeit our freedom. If we had a magisterium or a final authority, we would not be this far into the turmoil. We are where we are because we allow the Holy Spirit to move us into the chaos as a precursor of a fresh order of a new creation.

I do believe that we are fighting over freedom, among other issues. One side says that we have moved from legitimate freedom to illegitimate license. The other side says that freedom has given us a new perspective on the worth of people, a perspective from which we cannot back down. Therefore, there is a mad dash to create a worldwide final arbiter – a Windsor Report or an archbishop or instruments of unity – which would settle matters in a reasonable way, which would put an end to all of the mischief caused by freedom. The whole of the Anglican Communion is wrestling with this. I am a freedom man, but you know that.

II. Accountability of Episcopal Bishops to the Episcopal Church

When I was a young priest, I used to watch the old bishops wrestle over the current challenges of the day. Often they violently disagreed, but at the end of the day they were the House of Bishops. Not so now. There is a minority of bishops who will not receive Holy Communion with other bishops. They have litmus tests. “Were you in New Hampshire? Have you ordained a woman? “Whatever is the ultimate turn off, it is clear that this minority had created its own Mini-House of Bishops. It usually meets at the same time and a few miles away as the House of Bishops. And far, far beyond that they claim their legitimacy is based on keeping faith with the majority of the Anglican Communion and its Primates, not in its collegiality in the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church.

This has enormous consequences. If there are legitimate bishops who have no accountability to all of the bishops of the Episcopal Church, then we will have to come to a new accountability. Presently each bishop at his/her consecration promises that “I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, disciple, and worship of the Episcopal Church.” Further when the question is asked of the new bishop, “Will you share with your fellow bishops in the government of the Whole Church,” the answer is, “I will by the grace given me.” Up to now, the Episcopal Church could depend on the word of its bishops to uphold its unity. But no longer.

Now the opposite is so clear. All of the dioceses that have threatened to leave are guided by bishops who have threatened to leave the Episcopal Church. No diocese with a loyal bishop has threatened to leave. It is the bishop who is the key. If the Episcopal Church cannot depend on bishops to keep vows and the unity of the Church, then there has to be a new accountability, and we suffer in the birth pangs of this reality. Do the shepherds lead the sheep into the fold or out of the fold?

III. The Nature of Church Property

As you probably know, a group known as the American Anglican Council has morphed into the Anglican Communion Network. They have a plan to carry out a realignment of Anglicanism on North American soil whereby they would replace the Episcopal Church as the sole Anglican presence in North America. They have an elaborate scheme for proselytizing, transferring oversight of congregations, and redirecting funds of the local congregation. And negotiating “property settlements affirming the retention of ownership in the local congregation!” Ah, here is the final rub! “Who gets the house in the divorce?”

Well, the Anglican Communion Network held a conference in Pittsburgh in November, and the great man of the movement, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, had these surprising words to say to the faithful. “They (the Episcopal Church) may get the building, but you will get the blessing. What God is looking for is your faith, not your facility.”

Here is an African who is a supreme missionary. He calls people into pilgrimage. Leave everything behind and follow. God will provide. This is not good news to the Network strategists. They want to stay home and live in our buildings. Think hostile takeover, and you get the picture of these folks, who pledged to “carry out guerrilla warfare against the Episcopal Church.” They talk pilgrimage; they intend mutiny.

If folks are so horrified with the election in New Hampshire that they leave the Episcopal Church, I understand. It is a matter of principle. If folks want to use the events in such a way as to catapult themselves into elevated authority, then I think it is a matter of power. The property issue tells the tale. This fight is about power, not principle.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh adopted a policy of releasing diocesan control of property to any congregation which sought to disaffiliate with the diocese. In the Diocese of Florida a representative of five parishes leaving the diocese proposed that these parishes keep their properties. In the Diocese of Los Angeles, an Orange County Superior judge ruled that two breakaway parishes were the rightful owners of their church buildings and other property. You see, if the parish holds title to property as an implied and express trust on behalf of the diocese, then we all stay together. (All parishes except one in the Diocese of California have signed articles of incorporation stating exactly that.) But if the Network is successful in farming out the properties to local congregations, then if a split happens, they can harvest the properties in their new alignment.

In Conclusion

I have been ordained for forty-five years, and during that time the Episcopal Church has navigated through the storms of black civil rights, prayer book revision, women’s ordination, and same-sex issues. Presently we are in deep and troubled waters over the national takeover plan of the Network, with the international cooperation to shun, discredit, and by-pass the Episcopal Church. Trusting in the Holy Spirit, I am totally convinced that we will endure and thrive as we always do. And we will take on harder challenges in the next forty-five years.

I do believe that the Episcopal Church is a brave, supple, obedient part of the Body of Christ and is alive to the Incarnation in the 21st century, as well as centuries past and centuries to come. We are not everything or necessarily the best thing. But we are uniquely created by the Spirit to do the will of God as we see that will beckoning to us. We will not always be pleasing to the world or to ourselves or to other Anglicans. But we do try through song and conscience, praise and action to please the One God of all and to embrace all the children of God and all of God’s creation.

The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing
Bishop

Sunday, April 9, 2006

Let The Challenge Begin!

Recently, the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion issued its final report for the 2006 General Convention. I've commented elsewhere about the report on behalf of Oasis/California. In short, nothing in the report suggests that the Diocese of California should discriminate against lesbian and gay nominees for bishop. We may elect whomever we discern God is calling to be our next bishop. We deserve the best qualified bishop, whether he or she is gay, straight, or lesbian.

The report does include the following cautionary language: we urge nominating committees, electing conventions, Standing Committees, and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise very considerable caution in the nomination, election, consent to, and consecration of bishops whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strain on communion, until a broader consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges (Report, p. 17-18).

I've been pondering the meaning of this language, what it requests, and its consequences if implemented. On one level it is a common sense precaution: be careful when electing bishops. Well, sure, I agree with that. The last one we elected in the Diocese of California lasted 27 years. That is a long time to live with the consequences of one's decision: so choose wisely. Given the relative youth of the seven nominees, it is quite possible that our next bishop will be around for 20 years or more.

What concerns me is that the caution is framed in terms of folks whose "manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church." Now, I know that this is left vague on purpose, and probably rightly so. Still, how seriously can Christians be expected to take such an admonition? Jesus was crucified because his manner of life offended deeply the sensibilities of the cultural consensus of his time. He was rejected by the religious authorities, tortured and executed by officials of the Roman Empire. God forbid he should be King, or even High Priest!

So, how does emulating Jesus lead to a refusal to elect bishops who "challenge the wider church"? Are we only to elect as bishops those men who reinforce the cultural and religious status quo (clearly, women would have to be excluded altogether on the basis of this criterion lest we threaten the sexist norms that hold sway in our church)? Can we only elect men who refuse to take risks for the sake of the gospel, who refuse to speak boldly and prophetically, who take care that no one is challenged to grow or change or repent or sacrifice?

Your heritage is the faith of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of every generation who have looked to God in hope. Your joy will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (BCP p. 517). This is how the Ordinal describes the leadership of a bishop. I would add "matriarchs" to the list, but otherwise it isn't a bad definition.

Bishops are called to be risk takers for the sake of God's crucified love. I hope the next bishop of California will be such a leader. I hope she* will challenge me at every turn: challenge my bondage to self, my refusal to see Christ in my neighbor, my tendancy to grasp what God so generously gives away for free. I hope her manner of life will offend me deeply: just like Jesus' life offended his contemporaries by refusing to legitimate a religious or national unity based on scapegoating outcasts and sinners.

Jesus countered scapegoating and violence with love and forgiveness. That is what it means to follow Jesus. If we only elect as bishops those who in their manner of life do not challenge the wider church, we will set in motion a race to the bottom in terms of episcopal leadership. God save us from such leaders. Let the challenge begin!

* I intend the generic, inclusive feminine use of the pronoun :)

Thursday, April 6, 2006

A Mystical Moment

Last weekend my parish made its annual retreat at The Bishop's Ranch. It was a wonderful, restful, and spiritually renewing time. We even had a break in the torrential Northern California rain on Saturday so that many could enjoy hiking in the afternoon (I must confess that I took a long nap:).

Sarah Lewis, an experienced lay spiritual director and teacher, was our retreat leader. She led us through a series of exercises exploring lectio divina and apophatic prayer, as well as some creative takes on traditional practices. Sarah introduced us to "interactive scripture meditation," a kind of modified Ignatian exercise in which we imagined ourselves in a biblical story and talked with Jesus about the experience.

What I found most interesting was our experimentation with a combination of Buddhist vipassana meditation and Carmelite Trinitarian mysticism that Sarah has developed; "Fusian Prayer" as she calls it. It was essentially a form of meditation in which we bring full awareness of our human being (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations) before God as a self-offering in love, while opening ourselves to receive God's self-giving love in return. It was a very powerful experience of meditation in community.

I was also struck by how orthodox Sarah is in the best sense of the word: she fully embraces the revealed truth of the dogmas of the Trinitarian Godhead and Incarnation. Yet, like so many mystics in the Church's history, her orthodoxy leads to an orthopraxy of inclusive love that threatens the Church's hierarchy. Mystics are hard to control, because they are no longer DEPENDENT upon the hierarchy for the mediation of grace, however much they may honor that mediation.

As a priest, I hope to encourage the freedom of authentic religious experience rooted in the Paschal Mystery. I'm encouraged by the spiritual hunger of my congregation and the desire of people to press deeper into love with God. I want Christian people to grow into the fulness of Christ; to grow into maturity rather than dependency.

Monday, April 3, 2006

Do Not Be Afraid

A Statement from the President of Oasis/California
April 3, 2006

Recently, the bishops of Arizona and the Rio Grande have released comments regarding the meeting of the House of Bishops last month. The comments of these two bishops, which reflect nothing more than their opinion and are purely speculative in nature, have been widely circulated in the press as if they represent the “mind” of the House of Bishops. This is nothing more than “spin” designed to heighten anxiety and fear. We must reject the temptation to buy into it.

The House of Bishops did not vote on, or even discuss, a “mind of the House” resolution regarding consents to the election of bishops who are gay or lesbian. The Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion has not yet issued its report and recommendations regarding this matter. California has not yet elected its next bishop. The General Convention has not yet met, and it is the only body with the authority to enact binding decisions. What individual bishops think may be interesting, but it is hardly determinative. A lot can and will happen between now and General Convention.

Most importantly, between now and General Convention we will celebrate the Resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ at Easter. It is in light of his Resurrection, which banishes all fear, that the Diocese of California and the General Convention will make its decisions. Why eat the bread of anxiety, when we have been given the bread of life?

As we journey toward Jerusalem and the mystery of Christ’s death and Resurrection this Holy Week and Easter, let us renounce the powers of fear, division, and death that undermine our hope and our joy. Do not be afraid: God is in charge of the election of the bishop of California and of the General Convention. Casting aside fear, we will be open to electing the person God has chosen to be our bishop, and all will be well.

The Rev. John L. Kirkley
Rector
The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist
San Francisco