Sunday, May 24, 2009

After the Ascension: The End of Jesus


The Ascension of Jesus, commemorated in these few days at the end of the Easter season, is a story that might seem to suggest only Jesus’ divinity. After a violent death, Jesus is seen again alive by his followers, who encounter him a number of times over a period of days or weeks - after which he goes to heaven.

The Gospels do not all describe this event, and some seem to assume it but leave it veiled. Luke's Gospel says just that “he left them, and was taken up into heaven” – which leaves room for some ambiguity or mystery about how - but Acts makes things more concrete: “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight”. This can appear in the mind’s eye in almost comical terms, as when the Ascension is sometimes depicted in Medieval art by means of a pair of feet and ankles projecting downwards from a cloud.

In fact the Ascension of Jesus is, I suggest, a sign of Christian belief in his real humanity.

The stories that are central to the Easter season certainly affirm Jesus' triumph over mortality and death. But we could almost wonder why and how it was necessary to end this period of triumphant return to life, after such a brief time. Could Jesus not simply have kept appearing through closed doors across the centuries, allowing inspiring glimpses of himself to the uncertain and offering pearls of theological wisdom to many generations?

The doctrine of the Ascension actually says that even Jesus has to end. Twentieth century theologian Norman Pittenger suggested Jesus as the person where “ultimate reality and finite reality” meet. Jesus is like us as finite, but unlike us as the person whose life uniquely shows the infinite possibility we call God.

Although he has conquered death, his humanity - in order to be real and not just an appearance - requires a finitude that would not be compatible with an open-ended Eastertide. For to be human, Jesus has to be circumscribed, defined, and particular. He has to be a first century male Jew, not an everlasting and hence a generic or abstract human being, who could be constantly acquiring experience with time, evolving an identity as we do all our lives, but with new choices to make and new reasons for joy and regret over millennia, rather than just months. In this sense he has to be like us; were he to drift benignly on forever, he might be divine, but hardly human.

Not only in stories that are inexplicable or unappealing to our sensibilities, but in others which are all too easy to understand, stories of suffering and love and openness to others, Jesus shows the reality of that infinite possibility which we call “God” being made known in the life of one finite person. This is not a secret, but it is a mystery.

So in the end we are right to want a human Jesus, one who is like us. For his to be a human life in which we can see the divine, he must be someone whose challenges and choices are like ours, but whose responses and decisions reveal that other, infinite possibility. For in following him, incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended, we are following the one who became like we are, so that we might become as he is.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

So what's the Church?


In 2007 the Roman Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a set of "Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the Doctrine of the Church". Not earth-shattering stuff. The "Responses" repeated or elucidated positions expressed by the Roman Catholic Church about what "Church" is, going back particularly to the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. These two documents and others in between such as the controversial statement of Christian distinctiveness (or exclusivity?) Dominus Iesus have all put the view that the Church "subsists" in the Roman Catholic Church but that aspects of the Church are "present and active" in other groups such as Protestant Churches (which however are not afforded the title Church but the more guarded term "ecclesial communities").

Since then the wheels of dialogue and response continue to turn, if slowly. The Anglican Communion's peak body for ecumenical relations has been asking national groups like the Australian Anglican Church for its views on these documents and their implications for dialogue as well as for our own understanding of Church. As a member of the Doctrine Commission I am working with colleagues to make such a response.

The view expressed in Lumen Gentium and since reads like a compromise between the old exclusive identification of the Roman Catholic Church as the Church of Jesus Christ, and a view which has been more influential in some Protestant circles, where the Church is seen not so much as the concrete institution or community but as a spiritual reality, whose relationship to the actually-existing set of Christian communities is inexact.

The recent Responsa repeats the idea expressed in Lumen Gentium that there are two aspects of the Church, which is thus a single but complex entity with a dual nature, understood “by no weak analogy” as like the incarnation itself (LG 8). The theory underlying these formulations seems to be that the two elements of Church, historic or visible and spiritual, are inextricably bound up, yet that in reality their union is experienced variably and often imperfectly.

This avoids the extreme of the traditional Catholic position which tended to exclusivity, and to collapsing claims about the Church as it will be ultimately with the present and all-too-obviously fragile and broken institution. Unsurprisingly it also avoids the extreme of a Protestant “invisibilist” ecclesiology, wherein the relationship between the visible community of the Church and the real fellowship of like-minded believers is somewhat arbitrary.

There are nonetheless some difficulties with this position. It is not clear what it means not only to speak of the Church as this complex unity of visible and spiritual dimensions along the lines of the incarnation, but also to speak of it as, apparently, a more purely spiritual thing which can “subsist in” the Roman Catholic Church, or be “present and operative in” other “ecclesial communities”. These formulations seem to be using the more invisibilist tradition of ecclesiology (or substituting a Platonist for an Aristotelian paradigm?) for the purposes of special pleading. This language undermines the “strong” incarnational analogy used before, insofar as this “Church” seems more like the Spirit, which blows where it wills, than like the Word who became flesh and dwelt, in a costly and ineradicable way, among us.

We need to acknowledge and celebrate the reality of the Church as an actual historic community without, as in older Roman Catholic ecclesiology, claiming for it (or our piece of it) now the fullness of what it ultimately means to be Church. I would prefer to suggest that the Church has a real being and meaning which indeed “subsists”, but is variously revealed in history, and variously understood by its members. The Church does not “subsist in” any one Church, nor is it merely “present in” other Churches; rather they subsist and are present in it. There is no other spiritual “Church” that can subsist, or be “present or operative”, in the one historic Church brought into being by Jesus Christ and sustained by the work of the Spirit, and which consists of all its baptized members. Their varying degrees of faithfulness and understanding are the condition for the truth of their new being as Church to be visible, but they are no less Church for that imperfection.

In the fragmentation and in the disobedience of the real Church as it is, we all are compromised, including those who are most faithful. No one group can properly claim the sort of privilege implied in the language of “subsistence”, or for that matter in any other ecclesiological formulation which implies adequacy without the other members of the whole, insofar as all suffer loss in the failures of the whole and in the disobedience of all.

Some Anglicans engaged in ecumenical endeavour are disappointed that there has not been progress since Lumen Gentium opened up a new set of possibilities for conversation by acknowledging that other “ecclesial communities” might have elements of sanctification and truth in them.

By implication some Anglicans seem to be hoping that the Roman Catholic Church would take a more positive attitude to the ecclesial character of our Churches and Communion. We should ask, however, whether it would be helpful or not to receive such recognition on the basis of an ecclesiology which is itself wanting. To be recognized as Church or Churches, when the nature of Church needs to be better understood and taught (by all of us of course), is not as great or positive a step as it might at first seem to be.

In present conversations within the Anglican Communion itself there is also some less-than-coherent ecclesiology at work. Some of the concerns driving current discussions such as those around a Covenant imply that the Anglican Communion is “a Church”, or otherwise attribute to our Communion properties which are really only those of the universal Church. For that matter, our local or national Churches are sometimes spoken of as though their "bonds of affection" with others in the Anglican Communion were more fundamental than, say, our relationships with other baptized Christians in our own or other places, whose claims on their affection are entirely as real.

While the current Roman Catholic discourse is not entirely adequate, its strengths include the refusal to reduce all untidy or inadequate relationships, theologies, and forms of community to a radical choice between “Church” and “not-Church”. Speaking as they do, Lumen Gentium and its documentary offspring remind us that the adequacy of doctrine and practice are of fundamental importance to being the Church, yet also that our specific inadequacies do not amount to a failure of the Gospel or the Spirit. At least by analogy, Anglicans may have to think harder about how to view other Anglicans and other Christians generally, without collapsing into ecclesiological or theological relativism.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Ministry

Excerpted from a lecture on "The Future of Ministry" given at St George's Cathedral, Perth, on May 12 2009.

In his recent book on The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton reminds us that attitudes to the relationship between paid work and the good life have rarely mirrored those of the modern West. Although work has been necessary to every society, we are almost unique in regarding it as something more than a necessary evil. Our forebears, including the ancient Christians among whom the patterns of ordained ministry emerged, had ideas quite different from our own; and it should not therefore be as difficult as we presently seem to be making it to reform the relationship between ordination and work.

The experience of the real George Herbert, as opposed to the "Jacobean Angel" revealed and critiqued by Justin Lewis-Anthony’s work on "Herbertism", reminds us how different the clerical estate could be, even in early modern England, from our expectations. Herbert was "inducted" into a number of “livings” as an absentee before his final few years of dedicated presence at Bemerton. This system, the “parson’s freehold”, is not so far away from our own experience, but was not strictly speaking work in the modern professional sense. The income of the parish was provided to the incumbent and was certainly intended to ensure that pastoral ministry was offered, but in quite the opposite way from what we assume. By receiving it, the cleric was freed from work, not bound to it. The exercise of ministry was understood to be a form of free dedication to the needs of the parish.

This insight may help us redeem Herbert’s example as a pastor, but more importantly offer a new range of possibilities for contemporary ministry. George Herbert's example stands or falls not on it being the way any cleric should behave, but on how a Christian of extraordinary virtue did behave, given the freedom to do so. Our admiration for him is deserved, but more on the terms that our admiration for Mother Teresa or Ita Ford or Charles de Foucauld might be earned. "Herbertism", when practiced freely rather than as a wage contract, might be drudgery divine indeed.

We must now be willing to rethink the deeply entrenched conviction that the ordained are “professional” ministers, and vice versa. There is of course a venerable and even profound spirituality of ordained priesthood in particular which, perhaps with a dash of "Herbertism", asserts the complete dedication of the priest to God and Church in a way that seems only capable of being expressed through something like “hyper-employment”, a commitment that meets and exceeds professional expectations, and hence shies away from the possibility of anything “less”.

We have already seen that this is partly a modern phenomenon. Just as the Church has borrowed and even radicalized the language and culture of bourgeois professionalism, and before that of feudal hierarchy, we too can borrow new concepts and patterns. It is often stated that young persons today will often be employed in a greater variety of positions requiring different skills than their parents had. Many might spend time variously as teachers, small business owners, consultants, and manual labourers, as need or opportunity arose. Identity is less and less bound up with the notion of an unchanging form of work; it cannot be.

To link ordination and ministry unswervingly to a dying paradigm of work would be disastrous, for it can only encourage the notion that those young persons who, like their peers, undertake different kinds of paid work at different times are actually abandoning their vocation when they leave parish ministry. In protestant circles this seems often to be the case, and hence of course a spiritually-devastating process for the individual.

Yet there are other aspects of our identity which endure beyond jobs or work altogether and which we regard as more fundamental to our being. I do not cease to be a father from year to year, nor does the fact I do other paid work lessen my own or anyone else’s sense that I am a father. Do we imagine that fatherhood is compromised by the mere fact of paid employment? Or does even identity as a great cook or a mediocre poet depend on being paid for it?

Ordination must I think be seen as a form of covenant commitment to God in the Church whose relationship to employment is likely to vary from person to person and from time to time, but which the deacon or priest and the Church, through the bishop, should honour and support at all times. What is more important is to grasp the principle that ordination may be a vocation or profession in some senses of the word, insofar as it is a commitment, but does not always amount to a job.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Priest and Presbyter

Excerpted from a lecture on "The Future of Ministry" given at St George's Cathedral, Perth, on May 12 2009.

The English word “priest” is derived from the Greek presbyteros, an elder or presbyter, which clearly connotes a role of leadership and deliberative counsel. However “priest” is also used in Christian as in other contexts to translate a different Greek word, hiereus or the Latin equivalent sacerdos. These refer not to community leadership but to responsibility for sacrifice and temple ritual, and are used in Greek and Latin versions of the Hebrew scriptures to translate the Hebrew cohen, which designates the Aaronide priesthood of the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Jerusalem Temple. Israelite priests were responsible neither for community leadership nor interpersonal empathy, but for knocking the heads off animals and throwing their blood at altars.

Protestant Anglicans have long insisted on understanding the “priests” of the BCP purely in terms of their "presbyteral" origins, but others of more Catholic mind have been content or insistent that the sacrificial and cultic connection could stand. My own concern is not to deny the priestly character of the ordained, but to critique the exclusive way in which catholic Anglican thinking has reserved theological reflection about the priestly character of ministry to this order of presbyters, on the basis of what amounts to a linguistic accident. I am concerned not about the fact that presbyters are called priests, but that they alone are called priests.

Christian identity, that of the whole Church, has involved a priestly character since the earliest times. The fundamental priesthood of the New Testament is that of Christ himself, but closely related to it is the collective priestly identity of the Church (1 Peter 2:9, Rev 1:6, 5:1). The early-second century First Letter of Clement is often cited as applying the idea of priesthood to Christian leaders, but does so only by constructing an analogy between the Israelite priesthood and Christian bishops and deacons regarding order and structure, not priesthood as such. Paul Bradshaw states quite rightly that “no Christian text [prior to the third century] uses the title ‘priest’ directly to designate a particular individual or group of ministers within the Church”.

When the language of the sacrificing priest was applied to specific Christian ministers in the third century, it was not initially presbyters but bishops who were called “priests”. This is at least partly because of the role of the bishop in liturgy, including at the Eucharist, which was itself being seen in more directly sacrificial terms at this time. The presbyters only slowly came to be spoken of as priestly, from the fifth century onward, and at first in connection with, or delegation from, the bishop’s role.

There is something arbitrary, not so much about calling presbyters “priests”, but about totally conflating the sacrificial notion of priesthood with the roles of Christian presbyters. Bishops are more priests than priests, in a sense; but more importantly the Church itself is a “kingdom of priests” which offers sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, sharing the fundamental priesthood of Christ.

Insofar as the ordained - deacons and bishops as well as presbyters - are called to enable and reflect the character of the Church to itself, they are priests too. What we can say about the ministry of presbyters as "priestly" should be applicable to deacons and bishops as well, but only in relation to the priestly identity of all Christians. All three orders of ministry are charged with representing and enabling for the Church as a whole aspects of ministry that pertain to the Church as a whole, but in many and varied ways.

There arises then a need for further and more specific reflection on what each of bishop and priest and deacon is and does. And it is the Order of Priests which, ironically, has the greatest need for this reflection despite the amount of writing about priesthood, since so much that has been written has tended to lose or confuse the charisms of the presbyter under the weight of the generic notions of ordination and priesthood generated by clericalism.

The elephant in the Cathedral is, I think, leadership. While the Church of Christendom has been content with the presbyter who conflated various ministerial gifts in one person, that generalist who carefully maintained the spiritual welfare of the wider community at prayer, the Church now and to come needs to recover a distinctly presbyteral calling to teach, equip, galvanize and lead communities, programs and other forms of mission and ministry which will take us over the crumbing embankment of Christendom into the uncharted territory of mission.