Friday, January 15, 2016

No, the Episcopal Church has not been suspended from the Anglican Communion

Headlines are rarely the place to get a good grasp of a complex story, but yesterday the Washington Post got it more wrong than most ("Anglican Communion suspends the Episcopal Church after years of gay rights debates”), and their clumsy take on the issue seems to exemplify a misunderstanding that needs to be addressed, if Episcopalians and others are to understand our places in the Communion after the Primates' gathering in Canterbury.

Who are the Primates?
The Primates are bishops of the various provinces - national or regional Churches - who have leadership roles in their own settings, some with more authority than others. They do not individually make decisions even for their provinces, but of course speak with significant moral authority for their members, and often act as spokespersons for their national bodies.

Together, the Primates meeting formally are seen as one of the “instruments” of unity or communion for Anglicans - along with the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conferences, and the Anglican Consultative Council. They cannot however collectively make decisions except for themselves, although they may exercise a significant moral authority for us all. This recent gathering was actually not a formal meeting of the Primates, however.

What did the Primates do?
The Primates came together at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury to pray and to share various experiences. The website created to reflect the focus and tone of the meeting is encouraging in its breadth of concerns and its focus on common prayer. The final communiqué is also more than one-dimensional.

But before that came the statement about TEC. First, it has to be said that the gathering of Primates has stretched the limits of any authority they have, in “requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee.” The Primates do not actually have control over the membership of such bodies, which typically relate to the more broadly-constituted Anglican Consultative Council.

While global Anglican leaders who are not part of the Primates meeting will not be pleased by the presumption involved in this statement, and there will almost certainly be some fallout about it behind closed doors, nevertheless the Primates’ views will be taken seriously, and interpreted as though they had spoken with proper authority (urging, calling on, etc.) rather than with an apparent prelatical lack of self-awareness. In other words, the ACC and national groups who actually make appointments to the committees referred to will almost certainly adhere to the principle that has been outlined.

What is that principle, though? The Primates’ statement goes on to say "while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, [TEC] will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.” What this makes clear is of course that TEC will be taking part in all these internal bodies as previously - simply put, it will have voice but not vote. And in fact the distinction is not so different from present practice; in a number of ecumenical conversations TEC is already not taking part, because of sensitivities ranging from same-sex marriage, to ordination of persons in same-sex relationships, to women’s ordination.

While we know little about the details of meeting, given the posturing by GAFCON sources about walkouts and more radical actions we should assume that this outcome reflects serious efforts by numerous Primates to fend off worse outcomes. It is a compromise, and should be read with a grain of salt; its unanimity covers a complexity of thought and purpose, even among the Primates. The Primates know TEC is part of the Anglican Communion and want it to be.

What is the Anglican Communion?
What the Post got completely wrong, but which some TEC members and other Anglicans may not get quite right either, is that none of the above has anything much to do with participation in or membership of the Anglican Communion as such. The Anglican Communion is not these international bodies, but is constituted by the set of relationships at all levels including local and bilateral ones. Calling those committees “the Anglican Communion" is like calling some senate committee "the United States."

In a recent blog post, Berkeley grad Jesse Zink reminded us that the reality of the Communion may be constituted as much by small-scale interaction across geographical distance and cultural boundaries. This is not merely a warm personal insight, but a quite fundamental aspect of Anglican polity. The Primates did not seek to define the Communion any differently, but neither can they; it is one thing for them to get the polity of the Instruments of Communion a bit wrong, but they know enough not to think they can define Anglicanism itself.

So, no - the Episcopal Church has not been suspended from or by the Anglican Communion. The fact that the Primates’ approach is problematic regarding issues of human sexuality is another matter. But let us not imagine that these events make TEC “second class Anglicans,” let alone that they remove TEC members from the Communion in any way. They should have little impact on how members of TEC see themselves as part of a wider Communion, a community of Churches with a common history and with an extraordinary scope and richness.

As far as Communion itself goes, the main message TEC members should take from Canterbury this week is that Communion is what we ourselves will make it. While the Primates may be judged by many to have stumbled in their difficult work of fostering communion,  at least in their declaration about TEC, they are an instrument of Communion and not the thing itself. We should redouble our own efforts to have strong relationships with other national Churches and their members, and be thankful for the opportunities we have to engage with Anglicans of other cultures and traditions. The curious and powerful gift of Communion is God's, not the Primates, to give.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

What Defiles the Body: Oliver Sacks and Jesus

Dean Andrew McGowan's sermon at the first Berkeley Community Eucharist of the new term at Yale Divinity School, September 2 2015; Deut 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

How difficult a thing it is, brothers and sisters, to have a body!

Bodies are the source of great joy, but also of pain. They seem at times to have wills of their own, and can lead us into strange places; and as some of us discover increasingly with time, they break and fail. They become messy and difficult things to deal with.

Because we are self-aware, we can think about our bodies as objects, and as somehow separate from ourselves. This is especially the case when physical need or desire or failure find us in hard places. The body can then be blamed or spurned. There are times when the apostle Paul seems to speak for us all, saying "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).

This isn’t the whole of what Paul says about bodies or people, but the sentiment is honest and important. It is tempting to see ourselves as spirits who are merely temporarily and inconsequentially embodied, piloting our fleshy vehicles around until we leave them, our very selves unaffected by the material shells we had to inhabit. This is a sort of “beam me up, Scotty” theology of life and of redemption.

Oliver Sacks (from
Oliver Sacks died recently. There are not many researchers and clinicians who have had multiple bestsellers, let alone one of them made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro. But when I heard Sacks was dead, it was not Awakenings that came to mind first but his collection of essays, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks presented there a series of case studies which, without in any way diminishing the humanity of the subjects, indicated how profoundly disease or injury impacts our very selves. The essay that gives the story its title concerns a man with Agnosia, whose sight was fine but who was unable to recognize or make sense of what he saw. It is reminiscent of another Gospel saying, where Jesus explains the purpose of parables as that people may “look and look, but not see.” Self, it seems, is not independent of the body. Our minds, our selves, are not mere inhabitants of bodies - we, including those remarkable parts of ourselves that are brains and that give rise to minds, are bodies. It is not just how difficult or joyous to have a body, but to be a body.

Sacks' Twitter account a few days before his death had drawn attention to a New York Times article summarizing the work of two other researchers, including Yale SOM colleague Nina Strohminger, on the effects of debilitating conditions like ALS and dementia on the self. Strohminger and Paul Nichols offered, to begin with, the attractive and surely widespread notion that loss of memory was what might most deeply impact the self. I have seen more than one movie in the last couple of years that suggested a self could be uploaded or moved to another body simply by the transfer of data, which seems to reflect that same idea. Strohminger and Nichols however suggested a different conclusion; memory loss could be very significant, but for those around the afflicted person the self was not as dependent on it as we would imagine; rather “the single most powerful predictor of identity change was not disruption to memory — but rather disruption to the moral faculty.” It is what we do that makes us who we are.

Our selves, then, are deeply embodied, and through our bodily choices, our actions on the lives of others and the wider world, we show ourselves to be who we are. In the Gospel, Jesus enters into an inner-Jewish debate about defilement that makes the moral self, our actions and words and their impact on others, the place of opportunity and risk. It may appear that what goes into the body, voluntarily or otherwise, is what defiles. Drugs, bullets, nails, are all apparently sources of defilement. This may be less true than it seems. Hatred and violence, acts of sexual exploitation or of casual injustice, purport to be ways of controlling the other. In truth they, coming from within a person, defile the perpetrator.

What happens to the body of the other, the degraded or disregarded, is nonetheless important; it is important because it is the treatment of a self, not of a shell. This is why black lives matter. It is why the bodies of Coptic martyrs and Syrian refugees matter. It is also why it matters when they nail your God to a cross; because he is not merely pretending to be there, having taken flesh as a convenient marketing and communicating strategy, but as the Gospel also tells us, “the Word became flesh."

The world may yet conclude that it has mastered and defiled the bodies of the innocent and the oppressed by what goes in to them; but the Gospel suggests otherwise, and that the would-be defilers are themselves defiled by such actions. It also suggests that our hope in the body does not end even at crosses and corpses, but affirms the bodily self even to a future that is God’s own. For our hope is not the disembodied persistence of souls, but the renewed embodiment of the resurrection, and a future life where there is neither oppression nor defilement, but the redemption of bodies; "for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Colonialists and Explorers: Commencement 2015

[From Commencement Evensong for Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Marquand Chapel, May 16 2015; Ezek. 3:4-17; Luke 9:37-50]

In June of the year 1770, the English explorer James Cook and the crew of his ship Endeavour arrived off the north-east coast of what was then known to Europeans as New Holland, or Terra Australis Incognita – the unknown southern land. Needing to forage for food and water, Cook and his men ignored the explicit instructions they had from the British authorities to seek permission of the inhabitants before landing, and went ashore not very far from what is now the tourist mecca of Cairns, on the Great Barrier Reef.

There is an apocryphal story (often the best kind, of course) regarding what happened when crew of the Endeavour did encounter some of the Australian indigenous people who lived in that area. The sailors supposedly tried to ask them the name of the curious upright jumping beasts who provided some distraction, as well as some nutrition, for the Englishmen. “Kangaroo,” they were told, “Kangaroo.” Later, after the British returned and occupied the continent, further enquiries were made in the area, but linguists never found evidence that this familiar word was ever used by the aboriginal people of that place to refer to those marsupials. The closest things to “kangaroo” in the local dialects were the phrases “I don’t understand you" and “Go away.”

Subsequent history bears out rather clearly that these were not the most promising exchanges with which to begin a relationship between peoples, even if this etymology was not authentic. And yet these definitions from a people of, as the Book of Ezekiel puts it, “obscure speech and difficult language” can function as a sort of backhanded blessing to those of you who are leaving this place. Go away. And be prepared to say “I don’t understand."

Since you do have to go away, there is perhaps a temptation for speakers at events like this to see if they can offer last minute advice that will compensate for the inevitable gaps even in a demanding curriculum such as you have undergone. The things you do not understand will sometimes plague or embarrass you as you go, but there is also a gift in them, or in the recognition of them at least. We are not sending you out as repositories of theological knowledge whose effective banking of wisdom over two or three years can allow others to make withdrawals thanks to you, nor as theological colonialists whose knowledge acts as an excuse for your failure to listen to the “obscure speech and difficult language” of others.

Rather we are sending you out as explorers - people whose limits, whose “I don’t understand” has been shaped in particular ways but which exists. It would actually be a very good test, both of the Yale curriculum and of your use of it, if there were areas where you realize that now you have to go away, that you actually understand less than you did (or thought you did) when you started, and hence that you need to consider new learnings and new journeys to undertake in order to learn afresh.

This choice between colonialism and exploration – overpowering the other and learning from it - flows through our daily office readings. The task given Ezekiel (in a sort of divine Commencement speech?) before he is sent away involves both a commission to proclaim the word of God but also some awkward qualification about how hard understanding is likely to be, both for him and for those to whom he must proclaim God's word. He will preach to literal hard-heads, and so is divinely equipped to match them, thick skull for thick skull. Ezekiel takes his Master of Prophecy degree and the spirit drops him off among the exiles, where he sits stunned for seven days. God had already told him that compared to this, speaking to people of "obscure speech and difficult language" would have been easy. This is the hard work of solidarity; of being not merely the prophet dropped in and then airlifted out, but the fellow hard-head who must sweat it out in exile with the rest.

The disciples of the Gospel reading are also would-be colonialists, who have to be taught about exploration and about difference. Just follow the plot thread: they are unable to cast out a demon; they cannot understand the prediction of the passion; and then on the strength of these triumphs, they argue about who is the greatest. Then when they find someone else who is actually managing to do the deed of exorcism even without having attended their colloquium, they are appalled. Jesus’ words are telling: "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.”

This is of course a different way of understanding difference itself; does difference demand the conformity of the other to our own theology, or does it invite mutual acceptance, partnership, and unanticipated wisdom?

This choice between colonialism and exploration is one that affects us as we face the seemingly intractable challenges of diversity in national and international power relations, and in daily living in community too. We can all use diversity as window-dressing; but the willingness to question our own forms of privilege and really, and to be changed by the difficult truths we hear in the obscure words of others that we could not otherwise understand, is the test of whether we will progress.

Like the disciples, we need to know what we don’t know, and to be ready to accept what they may learn from others who didn’t study as many obscure languages and texts. Like Ezekiel we need to go where the Spirit takes us, and speak difficult truths not out of our own privilege to make the other like us, but out of true solidarity.

You don’t know everything you need to. Yet there is such a thing as holy ignorance. Ignorance is not, of course, holy in itself, for wisdom is an attribute of God. The one who makes their own ignorance into false wisdom is the colonialist; what makes ignorance truly if provisionally holy is knowing, as the explorer does, that wisdom is God’s and not ours, and hence that we may find her in what initially seem unlikely places.