Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve 2010

 [The Age referred to this sermon, given at St Peter's Melbourne at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, in a story on December 26. You may or may not recognize it from the report! I'll accept the "any publicity is good publicity" maxim...]

So – the shopping is either done, or you should be past caring. If you forgot the beans or the parsnips, tell the unhappy diners to get over it!

In any event, you have probably spent considerable hours, perhaps also money, and care, on the needs of others for this Christmas. According to the spoilers in the Age this morning regarding the Christmas messages of local Church leaders tomorrow, we will also rightly be encouraged to think beyond our own families and friends to consider the needs of the poor and refugees, those who cannot anticipate a laden table or presents to unwrap.

But I want to ask you to be selfish for a moment. What did you really want for Christmas? What were you hoping for? I mean really.

It’s a question that may evoke more in the way of fond memory than specific hope. Such questions are more for children than for most of us. Even those who at this time place less hope in this particular child of Bethlehem find the faces and hopes of children evocative, representing something true, if difficult, deep within us all.

Children, after all, are those who can realistically want something for Christmas. Their hopes stand a reasonable chance of fulfilment, and thus stand for all of ours. Maturity brings the realization that while Christmas gifts may continue to be tokens of love and thanksgiving, they are not actually the fulfilment of our deepest wishes. It’s partly because we develop dreams more expansive than those defined by Borders, Barbie dolls, or boutiques - and partly because we learn over time that most people do not fulfil their dreams, or else we lose them.

Christmas can thus a sad time for many. We feel the loss of loved ones, or the absence of those from whom we are estranged, more keenly at a time when so much emphasis is placed on togetherness. And more generally, we also sense the passage of time and with it the narrowing of opportunities that remain and the cost of choices once made.

Bringing this unchosen wisdom of our own lives to the manger, we may be very conscious of what has and has not been fulfilled of what we once wished for. What we really want is a hard question, whether because don't know, or because we do.

This child of Bethlehem is an evocative figure amid such reverie; he does not, however, come as the bringer of the gift of nostalgia, let alone of regret. This child brings his own innocence and hope with a purpose: to recall our own. While we may today celebrate what we find and recall of past hope in his face and those of the young, consider for a moment the possibility of your own face in his gaze.

God’s view of us is not the picture provided by our CVs or our bank accounts, or even of our families and relationships, all those things we acquired or achieved in our own efforts to fulfil those wishes of years past. Our efforts to win, to possess, are not what make us who we are, whether we seem to have succeeded or failed.

The shepherds, first witnesses to the incarnation, are signs of this truth. These men who come to the manger at Bethlehem ahead of us are not of any particular social standing or power, quite the opposite; they are humble, landless people without obvious accomplishment, chosen despite this, or even because of it.

A newborn cannot distinguish between a shepherd and a king. To recognise God in this newborn is to believe God might always see infinite potential in us, and new hopes. God meets all of us as though we, too, still had that same promise and potential we see in the child. This is the truth of Christmas and the truth of the Gospel.

The one who has entered into human life among the poor invites us now to live our lives free of the baggage we have been carting around, imagining that it was what we really wanted, and to live into the possibility that that freedom offers.

What did you really want? What we all really want for Christmas, I suspect, is to be known just as we are, and to be accepted as we are. This is the gift Mary and Joseph receive, that the shepherds receive, and that is offered to us.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Go, with God-talk: Valedictory Eucharist 2010

[From a Sermon given at the Valedictory Eucharist for the Trinity College Theological School, November 13 2010]

"Then Jesus told them a parable..."

As you leave here, your degree or your orders will bear eloquent testimony to the fact you were studying “theology”, the logos about theos – you have dared to speak about God. Whether lay or ordained, this is now your calling.

I hope that one of the things you have learned about God-talk here is how difficult it is. God is not a matter for glib or light speech. God is the one represented in the theophanies of the Hebrew Bible, reflected only feebly in the most terrifying and inspiring phenomena of creation. God is the one who gives the insights of the true mystics, who know that God lies beyond speech and knowledge, and may be more adequately known in darkness.

We come to this calling of God-talk in a world that is uniquely sceptical about a God who was never the one we proclaimed, or at least we never should have. Our contemporaries, at least in the industrialized world, often believe science has removed the need for God as a hypothesis to explain the world or a crutch to cope with it. Yet the use of God thus was always a form of idolatry. God is not the answer to our questions or problems – unless we are prepared to relinquish those questions in the process, in favour of new ones.

There was real, if incomplete, wisdom in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous words “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”. There are some forms of atheism that are better than some forms of belief; for to proclaim boldly the existence of a God who is not God is worse than the reverent uncertainty of silence.

Yet the Church, which starts with the truth and wisdom of those cautionary observations about the difficulty of God-talk, steps boldly into the realm of the indescribable and the unknowable, and speaks. And it calls you to do so now.

The Gospel reading we have heard this evening, often presented rather too neatly as an encouraging story (just) about perseverance in prayer, is relevant to this question.

Jesus tells this parable of the “importunate” widow and the unjust judge, which is clearly intended to tell us something about God. One of the characteristics of parables generally, and the basis of their suitability for God-talk, is that that are both revealing and concealing at once – the Reign of God is not reducible to single propositions, but neither does it reduce us to silence. We can speak of God, always hopefully but always also provisionally, or indeed parabolically.

This parable is, I admit, about prayer. The editorial introduction tells us this (“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart”) but sometimes we have to read parables without (as well as with) the well-intentioned editorializing of the evangelists.

The point is that the parable says something about how unlike God this judge is. It is a piece of negative theology. God is not the judge of the parable; but if an unjust judge will grant a persistent petitioner’s request, how much more…

Something similar applies to our own inevitable self-comparison with the widow. We are encouraged to prayer – one kind of God-talk - in this parable, but not to a spiritual hectoring that implies a correlation between quantity of prayer or robust religiosity and likelihood of success. The parable invites trust, not hyperactivity or pig-headedness. It suggests that God’s grace, not our own “godliness” (to use an over-used term) is the point.

The most important and difficult interpretive statement, more important than the evangelist’s opening line, is Jesus’ closing one: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”.

We could try to correlate that uncertainty with the scepticism already noted, which threatens the viability of religious institutions and beliefs; but the point is slightly different. Jesus is not asking whether the Son of Man will find persistent prayer-partners at work, but whether there will be the “faith” the parable calls for. And that “faith” is not merely (or not at all) robust religious belief, unless it is belief in the true God beyond speech and knowledge.

To understand what this means, we may have to step back from the parable itself, to the earlier question of God-talk. We proclaim that what Jesus says about God – negatively as well as positively - is true, not (only) in that it is somehow factually accurate, but insofar as what he says about God, he says about himself. The startling claim of the Gospel is that the God beyond speech and knowledge has spoken to us in Jesus, the Word, whose words and actions reveal the character of God’s reign. And so the logos we must speak in ministry and mission is always of this theos, the God of Jesus Christ; not the God of pseudo-scientific explanation, nor the God of material or spiritual success, but the God of love known on the cross.

This is still difficult; but it is difficult not so much because of what we can or can’t know, but because of how and when and who we can or can’t love.

Religious belief may or may not provide that faith for which the Son of Man seeks. The theologian is inevitably concerned with it, with religious institutions and belief systems, but to be among those found with faith, she or he is called not to religiosity as such but to love. This is also the foundation, I think, of what it means “to pray always and not to lose heart”.

All your erudition, your pastoral professionalism and your godly piety will not matter without love. With it, your actions as well as your words can be testimony to the one who has, remarkably, called you to speak.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

God goes Gluten-free?

[Excerpted from a talk at the Annual Dinner of the Friends of St Paul's Cathedral, University House, October 2010].

Ten years ago or so I first saw a satirical version of a pew-sheet offering advice concerning the options available in an Episcopal Church for receiving communion. Part of it went as follows:
To receive an ordinary, unleavened Communion wafer, kindly wink your right eye as the minister approaches. For a certified, organic, whole-grain wafer, wink your left eye. For low-salt, low-fat bread, close both eyes for the remainder of the service. For gluten-free bread, blink both eyes rapidly while looking at the ceiling.
Blinking aside, this isn't so far from reality in some places. At St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne, the Dean has become accustomed not only to issue evacuation directions that will protect the congregation from external threats related to the fabric of the Cathedral; he has also learned to offer instructions to protect the interior of the worshipper by indicating where gluten-free wafers are to be found at the time of communion.

Both the real and the fake announcements arise of course from the prevalence of coeliac disease, which is four times more common than fifty years ago, even taking into account different patterns of diagnosis and reporting. The reason for this new prevalence are not certain, but there is real suspicion that the kind of modern hard wheat we now eat in great quantity, and/or the presence of gluten and other wheat derivatives in other products, has triggered the spread of this auto-immune disorder. There are also much more common, if less critical, forms of allergy or intolerance to modern bread wheat found in a fair proportion of the population.

Anglicans can arguably consider gluten-free options for the Eucharist because the old Prayer Book rubric states “it shall suffice that the Bread be such as is usual to be eaten” which allows alignment or correlation with cultural change; but it goes on to say “but the best and purest Wheat Bread that conveniently may be gotten”, both urging conscientious attention to the quality of the bread, and privileging use of wheat. What the tradition seems to have in mind is the desire to use what Jesus used at the Last Supper, instituting the Eucharist. The Lambeth Quadrilateral, to which Anglicans look as a guide for what is necessary across Christian traditions, speaks of “unfailing use…of the elements ordained by him”.

Roman Catholics are officially less free about choosing Eucharistic bread. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (2000) states: “The bread for celebrating the Eucharist must be made only from wheat, must be recently baked, and, according to the ancient tradition of the Latin Church, must be unleavened.” This means no gluten-free wafers on offer at St Patrick’s Cathedral, across town.

The insistence that the bread be wheat, noted in both traditions if not held with equal insistence, may well be a historical mistake, if intended as imitation of the Last Supper.

The accounts of the Last Supper do not specify of what the bread was made. For that matter, the species of grain known in Jesus’ time are not the same ones we have today; wheat in particular underwent repeated hybridization even in the pre-industrial world, let alone after the more aggressive changes of industrial agriculture and recent plant science, now including genetic modification. So it is not even possible to know exactly what Jesus used, let alone use it.

As reflected in slightly later Rabbinic traditions and since, unleavened bread – matzah – is made from the same grains that are otherwise prohibited at Passover because they create natural yeast cultures and leaven—and hence bread: wheat varieties, including spelt and emmer, as well as barley. In subsequent history, rye and oats have certainly been included in this obligation, although they may not have grown in ancient Judea. Some rabbis included rice.

At Passover, Jews do not eat anything leavened, from the command in Exod 12 to eat in haste without leavening the bread. Our modern ways of baking can lead us to misunderstand the implications; leaven in the ancient world did not come from yeast in packets, but from the natural fermentation processes that arose spontaneously in moistened grain or flour – something which has returned to popularity in some circles as sourdough, but whose use takes time.

As a result observant Jewish households now bake or buy unleavened bread or matzah, but rid the house of all (other) flour, of any kind – not just of yeast, and not just of wheat flour. In fact yeast itself is allowed at Passover, since it is involved in the fermentation of wine; but while yeast-derived wine is allowed, grain-derived drinks like beer and whisky are not.

So although it is likely that the bread of Jesus’ Passover would have been made from an ancient wheat variety, it is not stretching things too far to say that other ancient Jews, and hence early Christians, may have eaten bread made from any of these grains.

Why then the more restrictive view?

In the Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas notes the question, but argues not only from the superior quality of wheat, but from the awkward ground that Augustine of Hippo viewed biblical references to barley - which was admittedly cheaper and coarser - as indicating the Mosaic Law. This is a little ironic since the insistence on unleavened wheat bread is supposed to reflect the Mosaic Law too!

Thomas' prescriptive advice about wheat apparently carries more wheat weight in Roman Catholicism than the ambiguity of the biblical texts. Anglicans will have to object that what cannot be established scripturally ought not to be insisted on for all and everywhere, however customary. While wheat may be very appropriate matter for the sacrament, it is dubious to conclude that St Thomas' preferences and St Augustine's attitudes to barley (and to Judaism) should trump provisions at the Eucharist that have their own real claim to historical authenticity, and make sense in the present.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Synod 2010: Word and Flesh

[Extract from the Sermon given at the opening of the 50th Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, October 6 2010] 

 Synod is also about words – more printed papers than you can absorb, and more speeches than you’d ever want to listen to (at least this will be the case about mid-way through Friday evening). Whether or not all the words we read or speak in these coming days are the right ones, there is a Word underlying all we do, and to which – or rather to whom – all our words are accountable. This one Word of God is witnessed to in the words of scripture that we also call the Word of God. Yet the specifically Christian understanding of God’s Word is not about words as such, but about flesh. In Jesus Christ we encounter the one who, as Word made flesh, does in and as flesh what our own words cannot.

In Colossians we read that Paul “became …servant [of that body, the Church], according to God’s commission that was given to me…to make the word of God fully known”. Where the NRSV speaks of “[making] the Word of God fully known” the original Greek actually has “completing” the Word or “fulfilling” it.

To complete or fulfil that ultimate Word is not to utter every word that might occur to us, but more and more to become that body which is the Church; thus to have, as Colossians puts it, “Christ in [us], the hope of glory”. We can be tempted, as Tom Wright puts it, to turn flesh back into words again “…but what changes the world is flesh”. (1)

John’s Gospel, which more than any other part of scripture witnesses to Jesus the true Word of God made flesh, presents Jesus offering his most intimate words to the Father in chapter 17 of the Gospel. He prays “not only [for] these, but [for those] who will believe in me through their word”; God’s Word, speaking his own words, about our embodiment of his word.

Jesus calls us together, not simply for our own various words, but for the sake of those who might believe through our embodied witness to him. If really being Church means that we have the authenticity and diversity of Christ’s fragile body, the other condition of being Church must be that we are here for others who may therefore believe. We are called to make the Word fully known in word and deed, not just saying or doing but being what we are called to be, and thus living and proclaiming the Gospel.

So in the end even Synod is not about words, however much it depends on them, but about the one Word who has pitched his tent among us, and the mission to which he calls us. Synod is about Church; not because institutions matter, or even because Synod does, but because we have this call to make the Word fully known.

So perhaps the two most important things we could do in these coming days of Synod, prayerfully and carefully, would be these: to ensure that our decisions, and the words we use to make them, acknowledge and protect and enhance the fragile, difficult and rich diversity to which we have been called as Christ’s body; and to pray that our decisions and actions reflect our shared call to make the incarnate Word fully known, not only to those in our existing communities, but to those who may believe through our word.

 (1) N. T. Wright, The Crown and the Fire: Meditations on the Cross and the Life of the Spirit (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995), 61

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Synod 2010: Being Church

[Extract from the Sermon given at the opening of the 50th Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, October 6 2010]

Those of us who come to Synod may have self-selected in such a way that we need less convincing than others that the Church is still important; but we, too, know that being here has its oddities and its challenges.

Synod is about the Church. And Church is not, by and large, wildly popular. In a secular world that is indifferent or hostile to faith, and a religious world that is increasingly post-denominational, even many Christians are cynical about the institutional Church.

And after all, we Melbourne Anglicans are ourselves not “the Church” but a fragment of Church, one tradition or trajectory in a diversity that is two parts divine mystery and three parts human pride. The Church is broken, still struggling to free itself from everything we are called to oppose and transform in human life otherwise.

But the Church has never been imagined, even at the earliest point, as an ideal institution or community without contradictions or wounds. If you ever find yourself in a really wonderful, perfectly holy Church, it would probably be time to check whether it really was Church at all, or whether you and some friends had managed to filter out the undesirable and disagreeable people that, with the rest of us, actually make something that approximates a real Church.

Our deficiencies as Church, like our personal lacks, are not a meaningless mistake that we can strategize or theologize our way out of; however much we should hope to be freed from what limits us and our mission, the renewed life we are called to is not shiny superficial success, but the continued embodiment of Christ’s own life – this is why we are not just any “body” but the “body of Christ”. That life, that body, was offered to us in frailty as well as in power, and its reality today has both dimensions.

The Letter to the Colossians depicts Paul “rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. This doesn’t mean that Christ’s work is itself incomplete – it means that we, like Paul, are called into forms of life that continue Christ’s own real life – the life of victory enmeshed with ambiguity, and even with suffering. It means we are called to be in community, not with those we agree with anyway, but those whom Christ has called to be with us.

In this Diocese we have the blessing of a diversity not much less than that of the wider Anglican Communion – and you know how that’s looking! So it is not an easy blessing – you will doubtless be reminded of this at some point before the end of Synod. But every word you hear that confronts or challenges this week, more even than those which warm or console, is a gift that offers us the possibility of being Church more fully and authentically.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Grammar of Fragility: After Australia’s General Synod 2010

Reflecting within its own life some of the diversity all-too-familiar in the wider Anglican Communion, the Australian Church is an uneasy alliance whose fragility is never more in evidence than at its General Synods.

The Anglican Church of Australia is unusual in its loose federal structure, adopted only in 1962 to link dioceses and provinces formed in the colonial era, with distinctive histories and identities whose compatibility has always been limited.
Photo: Roland Ashby, Anglican Media Melbourne
In the relatively recent past, debates over women’s ordination in particular, but also over human sexuality, lay presidency and liturgical texts, have seen the distinctive form of conservative evangelicalism associated with the Diocese of Sydney, but more and more evident around the country as well, pitted against a broad but vague “mainstream” more readily identified by its contrasting views with Sydney than by any particular theological coherence or clarity of purpose.

Melbourne Grammar School, an establishment bastion every bit as solid as the massing of its Tudor Gothic bluestone walls, sheltered a Synod sensing and responding to its own fragility. Primate Philip Aspinall of Brisbane made a heartfelt call to the Synod to exercise a generosity of spirit, which may often have been in evidence; but it was at times hard to distinguish such generosity from caution or fear.

The question of Sydney’s relationship with the rest was never far from the surface, but only once or twice did it breach it in threatening ways. There was predictable posturing about the Jerusalem Declaration and the Anglican Covenant. A curious sense of avoiding conflict prevailed: the motion “welcoming” the Anglican Covenant was de-fanged to “receiving” the same, given the ambivalence about its provisions at both liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum; and when GAFCON’s Jerusalem Declaration came up for debate, Perth Archbishop Roger Herft, who has been a frank critic of Sydney, made the generous response of seeking and gaining an amendment that encouraged study of the document and its context. This generosity seemed to be rewarded with the withdrawal of a motion seeking reception of the “Fourth Trumpet” statement of the Global South gathering held in Singapore in April.

The most contentious issue at the Synod was one that created, at least in passing, alliances across the usual boundaries: Sydney bishop Glenn Davies’ pursuit of an amendment to the Canons concerning Matrimony, removing any baptismal qualification for marriage in the Anglican Church. This drew support from “Reform”-minded evangelicals who want to remove any implication that marriage is a sacrament, but also from a pastorally and perhaps missionally-motivated group of others who saw the move as welcoming and inclusive. The opponents included the small group of conservative Anglo-Catholics left in Synod, along with more progressive Anglicans concerned about the distinctiveness of Christian identity and happy to affirm the growth in purely civil marriages.

The most difficult aspects of this issue however were procedural: although a majority favoured the move, changes to a Canon require a two-thirds majority in each house, of laity, clergy and bishops. The first time voted on, it was lost in the bishops only but this still meant it was defeated. Subsequently it was claimed (not by him, at least publicly) that one bishop had intended to vote the other way, and a recommittal was agreed to. There was some unhappiness with the claims and the process, and when after a day the vote was put again, it lost in the clergy even before the bishops could be tested. This messy set of events was an indication that generosity was not infinite, and trust not deep.

The Diocese of Sydney’s position was subjected to scrutiny also on the last day, when finances were discussed. Sydney does not contribute to the national funds that support the Australian Church’s engagement with the wider Anglican Communion and ecumenical bodies. Moves to enforce change were headed off by the interventions of the Archbishop of Adelaide (Driver) and the Bishop of Willochra (Weatherill) who both spoke critically of Sydney’s position, but opposed compulsion in changing it. Again there was a sense that the relationship could not be put to certain tests.

Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney spoke rarely, but at one point made a strong affirmation of his Diocese’s commitment to the national Church. Clearly that commitment was and is to a weak national Church by most standards, and to primacy for strong local actions and initiatives, at least by conservatives. Meanwhile Sydney’s Synod will soon consider moves to seek change the 1918 Church Property Trust Act, the secular legislative framework under which they (and others) have financial obligations to the national Church. The seriousness and the shape of that commitment thus remain uncertain.

Interviewed at the end of the Synod, Peter Jensen described the event as a lost opportunity, and superficial. He may have been right on both counts, but the superficiality is precisely the avoidance of depths where the formal structures of national Church identity give way to radically different cultures and different theologies. Their honest exposure and consideration would underscore the idiosyncratic place of Sydney, within the Australian Church and otherwise.

So generosity of spirit – or deference to fragility – maintains the formal unity of the national body for the present. It will not change the underlying problems, and puts off the harder conversations to another day. Whether the conversation is really undergirded by a grammar sufficiently robust to allow common mission anymore, or whether this uneasy peace depends on what is never spoken, remains to be seen.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Day for Prophets

[From a Sermon for Friday July 30 (William Wilberforce); Jer 26:1-9; Ps 69:6-14; Matt 13:54-58]

The Judean prophet Jeremiah was a proverbial pessimist whose experience exemplifies one particular dimension of prophecy, namely the costly experience of divinely-mandated truth-telling. Jeremiah received little credit in his own time for accurately presenting God’s judgement of Judea and Jerusalem, surviving the invasion by the Babylonians and destruction of the Temple, only to die in exile in Egypt.

Jesus, like Jeremiah before him, was a prophet, as the parallelism between these two readings today shows clearly. Like his predecessor he invoked divine judgement, focused on the fate of Jerusalem, and like him was rejected by his own people.

William Wilberforce's  insistent opposition to the slave trade made him a prophet in his own time; but it was eighteen years between his first motion for the abolition of the trade and its eventual success, and another 27 years between that date and the abolition of slavery itself in the British colonies. Wilberforce was not a popular or well-regarded figure for much of his life.

Prophecy is not a task or ministry to be sought or claimed too quickly. Even leaving aside the fact that it is probably rather too rare for easy claims,  Jeremiah's story spells out in narrative what the Gospel  encapsulates in a memorable phrase; that prophets are not without honour, except in their own country and their own house.

Now there are many kinds of dysfunctional ministry, but none worse than the kind in which the new minister or leader, full of enthusiasm and theological acumen but perhaps not having spent quite enough time with Jeremiah in seminary, appropriates the office of a prophet. Believing they have somehow been anointed by education or ordination to bring good news to the poor parish, recovery of sophisticated hermeneutics to the biblically blind, superior arrangement of furniture for the liturgically broken-hearted, to set at liberty the conservative vestry meeting process, they proceed to inflict themselves and their insights on the unsuspecting.

When they fail, as such approaches inevitably will, it is tempting then to add a self-serving layer of interpretation to the minister’s doubtless genuine pain. Do our failures not make prophets of us?

Beyond the connection of apparent failure, the foibles of the ministerial false prophet — who is waiting in all of us, to break out and inflict him or herself on the unsuspecting — are not actually the same thing as real prophecy at all. For this false prophecy was of course always based on the notion that if the people repented from their habits and heard the good news of us, they and we would succeed. Yet God’s notion of success is not that simple.

Augustine of Hippo’s great work The City of God, written around the beginning of the fifth century, has been fundamental to Christian orthodoxy – a much-maligned term in the present! – on the meaning of history and human society ever since. Augustine, considering the ambiguity of the world he inhabited, suggested that while Jeremiah and Jesus had by God’s spirit been able to see and show the shape of history unfolding, now in the era after the formation of scripture, history itself was opaque to us. God works in human life and history, but we cannot draw glib conclusions about how apparent triumphs and tragedies really reflect the direction of history and the will of God. Of course one could also say this is the meaning of the Cross.

This is an important insight in a time when the Church is struggling as deeply as we know it to be. A bit of Church history does help; you can’t pretend that there haven’t been times at least this bad before! And there have been many occasions when apparent winners and losers in battles of faith and justice looked very different, only years or days after one outcome or meaning of an event seemed obvious.

Does this mean the prophetic example of Jeremiah – meaning not his pessimism, but his authenticity - lies only in the biblical past? Augustine did not think so, nor did Wilberforce much more recently.

John’s Gospel presents a different version of Synoptic narrative of his non-acceptance we heard, reduced to its essence in the remarkable prologue: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him”.

This re-casting of the conflict makes clearer the intimate connection between the prophet and the people. The character of Jesus’ ministry lies in his authenticity, and his gift of self. Like Jeremiah, Jesus dies and lives because of “his own”, and for “his own”, not for his ideas.

Prophecy is not first and foremost the mechanics of inspired information, but the costly gift of self.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Who is my Neighbour? God, Gays and Good Samaritans

Many eyes in Australia and beyond have turned to a case currently being argued in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) in Melbourne...

[This entry has now been published at online news and opinion source Eureka Street; please read it there. Andrew's Version will continue to be updated]

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Perpetua invents the Secular

In the North African city of Carthage in the year 203, Vibia Perpetua, a young mother who was a member of a respectable local family, was detained and tried because of her Christian faith.

Among those who attempted to persuade Perpetua to avoid death by the apparently simple and innocuous ritual of scattering incense was her father. Her own account of her trial and imprisonment records their interaction:

“Father”, said I, “Do you see for example the vase lying here, a pitcher or whatever it is?” And he said, “I see it”. And I said to him, “So then, can it be called by any name other than what it is?” And he answered, “No”. “So neither can I call something other than what I am, a Christian” (Pass. Perp. 3.1-2).

Perpetua’s use and repetition of the phrase “I am a Christian” probably evokes in the modern ear an implied choice among religious commitments or beliefs such as “I am Muslim” or “I am Agnostic”. This is a mistake; devotees of Jupiter had no equivalent designation, and no exclusive allegiance.

Christians were accused not of being a new religion, because there was no concept of such a thing, but rather of being a “third race” (Ad Nat.  1.8), sitting outside the expected dichotomy of civilized Romans or Greeks on the one hand, and multifarious disordered Barbarians (or Jews) on the other, with no place in the existing mental map of human society.

Perpetua’s plea is a remarkable foreshadowing of how religious identity might emerge as something distinct from civic, and how a group with no ethnic claim to unique religious practice might claim the space and freedom to act on this identity. This space and freedom deserves, I think, consideration as the basis of the “secular”.

Perpetua in her blunt and costly affirmation, and Tertullian in his more discursive way, were both contributing to the invention of religion as we now speak of it, and by implication to the invention of the secular also. Of course to make this claim means accepting the instability of these concepts, and hence their limitations in conveying how a particular society or group constructs the relationship between belief and social practice.


[An extract from a plenary address to the Melbourne College of Divinity's Centenary Conference at Trinity College, July 5 2010]

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Anglican Babel: A view from Australia

Although historians will point to Gene Robinson’s consecration as a bishop in 2003 as the catalyst for the reconfiguration of global Anglicanism, Pentecost 2010 may turn out to have been a watershed of sorts too. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Letter, Renewal in the Spirit, and the responses to it, particular that of Presiding Bishop ++Katharine Jefferts Schori of The Episcopal Church, have ushered in a new era not only of frank disagreement but of practical disengagement.

The Australian Church has not been central in these discussions. We have our own microcosm of Anglican diversity, which often makes us hesitant to wade into Anglican Communion wars, lest we further destabilize our own delicate or illusory balance. Where we are contributing to the broader conversation at all, it is in correspondingly contradictory ways.

Primate ++Phillip Aspinall plays a leading role in the Anglican Consultative Council, working to defend or create a centre for the global Communion; others have had significant roles in inter-Anglican bodies. Yet ++Peter Jensen and his colleagues in Sydney, our most numerous and powerful diocese, are deeply involved in the GAFCON/FCA movement, and in the self-described ‘Global South’ (one of many signs that a particular conservatism and material resources are as good a ticket in to that company as any real issue of human and political geography - ask the Brazilians, Filipinos and South Africans).

Our divisions locally are arguably as deep as those in TEC a few years ago, but we Australian Anglicans generally believe in the Church. And in case or where we do not, the Australian Anglican Church is a fairly loose confederation of autonomous dioceses (which allows our spectacular diversity) and unlike our TEC sisters and brothers we do not have a strong sense of ‘national’ Church as an important ecclesiological category.

++Rowan is also held in real affection here, even in some (not all) of the more evangelical corners of the Church. Australian Anglicans have not wanted to weaken his position, and we—even those who disagree with him more and more about the Anglican Communion and its politics—still look to him for theological leadership. After these events however, I suspect there will be an increasing number here who look to ++Katharine and others for that leadership, as well or instead. I do hope it will be ‘as well’, myself; I think ++Rowan is sometimes better at being wrong than ++Katharine is at being right. This may be another sign that they need each other, and that the rest of us need them both.

++Katharine is right, I believe, in her more expansive articulation of the Spirit’s work as ongoing and dynamic. She is also right to reject centralization as alien to our Anglican heritage and to the roots of our more modern attempts to create a Communion.

However ++Katharine’s language of colonialism and control (or the romanticized take on Celtic Christianity, pursued further in Diana Butler Bass’ comment piece) in her pastoral letter responding to ++Rowan's will be unconvincing to many outside the TEC Choir being preached to, however sympathetic some of us are to the issues involved. Excluding some from obscure inter-Anglican bodies can be depicted as more-in-sorrow-than-anger discipline by the perpetrators, or as grasp-for-power oppression by the objects, but the reality all amounts to far less.

Appeal to the specifics of the (impressive) ‘Baptismal Covenant’ of TEC as a basis for distinctive action does not cut much ice here either (granted that we were not the audience); we Australian Anglicans want to talk about the demands of our common baptism, rooted in Christ for 2000 years, and resort to what characterizes TEC in the last 30 is not reassuring. This is where our admiration for TEC’s courage and leadership pauses, recognizing an apparent self-sufficiency which we refuse to attribute to ourselves. This is both what we admire most and what we find frustrating in TEC. This is where we are not sure whether ++Katharine’s being right, or similar forms of being right, will be enough.

++Katharine is still right here, however, and ++Rowan wrong. He is wrong in a tragic way—seeking, doubtless at great personal cost, a unity in the terms that existing Anglican Communion structures assume or require, but which in fact has now escaped us.

++Rowan is wrong in identifying the TEC ‘Communion Partners’ or others ‘who disagree strongly with recent decisions’ as those who want to be aligned with the Communion’s general commitments. I believe the vast majority of the members of TEC, including its leaders, do want to be aligned with the Communion’s general commitments and are, with specific and well-known exceptions. I have no more desire than the Archbishop of Canterbury to brush past the difficulties those exceptions present; but when did attitudes to homosexuality, rather than to the Creeds or the Sacraments, come to define the ‘Communion’s general commitments’?

This is an ecclesiological as well as a theological mistake, in that it characterizes the Communion not by its vast common depth of faith and hope, framed in specific and diverse history, but by the conversations of the thin layer that constitutes the ‘instruments of unity’, whose success has of late been desultory, and future significance increasingly uncertain.

++Rowan is also wrong in equating the positions in Inter-Anglican bodies such as IASCUFO with representation of the Communion as a whole. This is precisely the sort of context where Anglicans need to have the breadth of visions and voices that might take us forward in faith and charity, even if it is to a place of mutual disagreement and realignment. The removal of a TEC member of IASCUFO makes it a weaker body in all respects.

The position is slightly different regarding exclusion of TEC from the ecumenical dialogue groups, but the result no more inspiring; our dialogue partners may indeed now have a better chance of knowing ‘who it is they are talking to’—they will know precisely that they are talking only to some of us.

And while numerous commentators have suggested there are power grabs or constitutional problems with the dis-invitations, few have noted that membership of such bodies has never before been seen as a question of delegation, or of representing national Churches; rather their members have been chosen for expertise, and with a necessary diversity that reflects our own (thank you Bruce Kaye for this point).

Not all blame, even for these specific missteps, should be laid at the feet of the Archbishop of Canterbury or of the Anglican Communion Office. It is patronising to conservatives in the 'Global South' and elsewhere to absolve them of responsibility. But here is where the singling out of TEC, at least as it appears in Canon Kenneth Kearon’s subsequent letter, becomes inexplicable (nb., after a week or two of no clarification, maybe change ‘inexplicable’ to ‘outrageous’). Most groups who have disregarded the other moratorium, of cross-border interventions, have not been mentioned in the prescriptions for dis-inviting participation in international bodies.

This apparent inconsistency turns the events of recent weeks from depressing but inconsequential to depressing but deeply troubling. Not that it would have been much better, I hasten to add, for conservatives to be similarly sanctioned; we need these brothers and sisters no less than others, whether they know it or not. At present however many of them are seeking communion only among the superficially like-minded, and would hardly notice their or our exclusion from these structures.

From this southern vantage point, I cannot hear the events of Pentecost 2010 either as a new centralizing will-to-power or as a rallying-call to liberal or progressive indignation. Rather, in a perverse reversal of the original Pentecost, we see ourselves further reduced to Babel, scattered abroad and unable or unwilling to understand one another’s speech. If the Anglican Communion’s central instruments are bound by circumstance to provide us with less than they were intended to, Australian Anglicans will not abandon them; but we will not abandon sisters and brothers in TEC or elsewhere either, as we all begin the long slow work of finding common language by other means, in the Spirit’s power.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Controversial Consecrations...

There has been recent news about a new bishop whose election and consecration reflects and deepens the divisions within the Anglican Communion.

No, not that one.

On April 13th, Canon Peter Hayward was consecrated bishop in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney. Bishop Hayward now serves as Bishop of Wollongong, one of the regional Episcopal roles in the Diocese of Sydney.

The press release announcing Peter Hayward’s election contained an intriguing section of his CV:

In 1996 he moved to Spokane in the State of Washington in the USA and became the founding Rector of an independent Anglican congregation known as ‘Christ the Redeemer’.

As the rest of us know, there is no such thing as an ‘independent Anglican congregation’, granted the somewhat idiosyncratic understandings employed in some parts of the Australian Church.

Bishop Hayward cannot be held responsible for what ‘Christ the Redeemer’ now promotes or does, but its present materials show no sign whatsoever of Anglican identity, ‘independent’ or otherwise. It clearly does not adhere to fundamental elements of Anglican polity and theology around Church order. In particular, it does not seem Christ the Redeemer operates under episcopal authority, which makes it an odd spot in the career of someone who just made the declarations and vows required for a bishop in the Anglican Church of Australia.

There was and is an Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, which is part of the Anglican Communion. Granted that there are now questions about the state of the Anglican Communion and of the Episcopal Church in particular within it, those questions were ostensibly not in existence in 1996.

An interview about the history of the Church found on Christ the Redeemer’s website explains some of its Anglican roots. Specifically, the founding members left the Episcopal Church after encountering some undeniable failures in local congregations, but were also influenced by the ‘Bible Study Fellowship’. This non-denominational fundamentalist group adheres to a highly prescriptive doctrinal statement whose doctrine of the Church, among other things, is quite alien to Anglicanism.

I don’t think it inconceivable that ordained or other Anglicans work in and with congregations of other traditions and polities, within limits that respect difference and integrity. When we act as though those limits don’t apply or exist, or as though we can use the structures of the Church opportunistically for an agenda that does not respect or recognize them, there is a huge problem.

To suggest that the problems in the Anglican Communion date from the consecration of Gene Robinson, or that those now constructing new confessional bodies were acting respectfully of the Communion and its structures before then, would be to ignore a considerable body of evidence.

Bishops have a unique and difficult role in maintaining unity in truth. We cannot pretend this is presently easy, whatever our opinion of the current difficulties in Anglicanism. On that note, pray for Peter Hayward as he takes up his important ministry in Wollongong. And pray for that other bishop too.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Cross and Harry Joy: Good Friday 2010

[extracts from a sermon for Good Friday, to be given at the Chapel of Trinity College, Melbourne]

In less than three weeks Opera Australia’s production of Brett Dean’s Bliss, based on Peter Carey’s 1981 novel, will open in Melbourne.

The premise of Bliss – of the novel, at least – is that the protagonist, Harry Joy, a happy and fulfilled advertising executive with a loving wife and happy family, who is the quintessential good bloke, dies. He is revived, however, only to discover he is now living in Hell. His wife is cheating on him with his business partner, his children are doing drugs, communism, prostitution and incest in no particular order, and his company is promoting cancer-causing products.

While Harry believes he is literally in Hell, the reader has the benefit of understanding that after a near-death experience Harry has, through a set of accidents, merely seen his life from a different perspective. Harry Joy had woken not to hell, but to reality.

Many of us have a version of Harry’s malaise – not the one he woke to, but the one he died to. Good blokes (etc) as we are, we imagine that the world is fine, that we are in control (or that someone is), and we have only to do, say, think, or otherwise make the right things happen, to live lives as long,  happy, and successful as we want or expect.

Harry’s distress – the reason he thinks he has woken in Hell – is not just about the specific horrors he encounters after awakening, but about the dissonance between the delusion of the world he had imagined into existence, and the one which meets him head on after he “dies”.

This is of course a challenge not unique to Harry. There are theistic and atheistic versions of Harry’s delusion.

Theistic versions are as old as the hills, and have come under particular scrutiny in the somewhat strident discourse about God in recent years, which despite its banality has some important points to make. The God delusion, which deserves to be de-bunked, is that God is a benign dictator, micro-managing the universe to please or appease those with whom he is on speaking terms. Offering such a god the right pigs or chickens in some forms of religion, or the right words or emotions in others, supposedly provides the devotee with some assurance of security. The conventional theist runs into trouble when this God, imagined as a means to defend, control or manipulate life to suit us, simply does not show up when bidden. Whatever God the cross allows is not that one.

But there is an equal and opposite delusion. Atheistic versions of Harry’s problem depend on the capacity human beings have developed to control our lives, which has of course grown enormously in relative terms, but not so much in absolute ones. The atheistic delusion is that we can, should and must have what we want; its failure occurs whenever our efforts at keeping chance, suffering and death at bay collapse, as they must, and reality floods in.

The cross of Jesus is no comfort either to conventional theism or to conventional atheism. The cross is the ultimate sign of dissonance between our attempts to see and make the world as we want it to be, and how it really is, and an affront to every effort that we make to use either theology or technology to keep suffering and mortality itself at bay.

The cross invites a choice beyond theism or atheism as conventionally understood. It invites us to let go of false gods, literal or metaphorical, those delusions of power, our own or others’, which plague us. And it also points to another possibility, which is genuine faith. 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Consuming Asceticism

I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes”.

It is intriguing that at a time when many, including Christians, are uncertain, suspicious or just ignorant about traditions of self-denial or asceticism, others - including, or even especially in the secular world - are embracing them with resolve.

One instance is FebFast - a charitable organization based on persuading individuals to give up alcohol for the month of February. Participants raise sponsorship money from friends and family, which goes to support research and services related to drugs and alcohol and their impact on young people.

Although FebFast’s main purpose is to raise money for charity, its publicity gives considerable emphasis to the benefits for health and wellbeing of participants. “Past participants have told us they have lost weight, saved money, found more time, energy and productivity in their day and slept better!”

FebFast’s promotional material doesn’t imply any seasonal connection with Lent – it merely emphasizes that February is the shortest month of the year – implying that this makes the challenge more achievable than ‘JanFast’ or ‘MarchFast’ would have been!

Yet even without the suggestive inclusion of the word ‘Fast’ in the title, I imagine those familiar with the Christian penitential season will notice a connection.

The lack of theological significance in FebFast is of course significant in itself. There may even seem to be a measure of superficiality in the appropriation of ascetic language as well as practice in such an exercise, however benign it is. But that may actually help us understand the practices of self-denial or discipline traditional at this time of year.

Asceticism literally means training. Traditional ascetic practices reflect the deep wisdom that the training of our bodies can also be the training of ourselves; recent study on the plasticity of the brain merely reveals the neurophysiology of what one of the desert fathers or a woman mystic of the middle ages could already have told us. Our bodily choices reflect and make our inner selves too.

Traditionally this has meant communal identity as well as individual. Every culture has its fasts and feasts, every religion its rules for avoidance and withdrawal. Christians have fasted in Lent, Jews at Yom Kippur, Muslims at Ramadan. Ask each group what they are achieving thereby, and they will give very different answers. Yet each expresses and creates its own identity through the shared experience.

We ourselves in the modern West have something of a crisis about the ascetic element in corporate human existence, because we have a crisis about culture itself. We are likely to think that fasting is like folk-dancing or falafel - something that other people do, but which we can partake of ad lib, consuming asceticism in pursuit of personal self-fulfilment, rather than engaging in it corporately as part of a culture of which we are uncertain.

Nonetheless westerners are also ascetics; every human being has his or her own forms of self-restraint and discipline that contribute to a sense of self. Monastics, sadhus and such do so more obviously, but the modern western dieter and the gym-goer are not necessarily so different, even if the self they construct seems to be.

But as these examples imply, discipline can be put to different ends, and the self can be moulded in different directions. Many saints are ascetics – but so are many dictators. Asceticism must be judged not only in terms of its technical success but in terms of its end and goal. What self is being constructed, or what community created. by our self-denial?

Ascetic practice, including fasting, does not always achieve or communicate the same thing for the participants and others, across time and space. Yet ascetic practice is arguably part of the deep structure of human culture itself, independent of specifically religious meaning. Asceticism is not so much a message as a language, which can be appropriated to convey or effect different things.

So, as Lent begins, what does this tradition of self-denial, of discipline, of crafting identity through asceticism involve? What selves shall we make, what messages send?

When Jesus declares his renunciation of the fruit of the vine he adopts an ascetic discipline, of course; he does not do so, however, to “lose weight, save money, find more time, energy and productivity in his day and sleep better”, but in preparation for sleeplessness, captivity, torture, loss of life. He does do so for the sake of others, giving up something good so that others may have something better. He does so to forge his own true self which is revealed in cross and resurrection. And his message is of the reign of God which he establishes, the great feast of the Kingdom.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Augustine and Ecology (II): The Will to Power and the Order of Love

How then are Christians to understand the character of the cosmos, including its intended diversity and its problematic imperfection, in the light of faith in the transcendent creator God?

Augustine speaks of the intended order and beauty of the world, only partially known to us in its present state, as an order of love, ordo amoris. The diversity of material and spiritual things is divinely intended, and inherently good. Any sense of hierarchy—and there certainly is one for Augustine—must be interpreted solely in terms of beauty and love; power is not itself the character of cosmic diversity, beauty is. Love is the purpose with which God creates, and the order to which God calls. When power or order serves its own ends and not those of God, it is perverse.

All things are good, in that they exist and thereby have their own way of being, their own appearance and in a sense their own peace (City of God 12.5).

The perverse employment of power is the key to Augustine’s understanding of sin itself. Since God is the creator of all, evil is not part of God’s will, yet has no source external to God (such as the Manichean alternative principle of evil, or some quasi-Christian accounts of the Devil). Evil appears solely as the correlate of freedom; since human beings (and angels) are free, they can choose, and in some cases have chosen, to act according to principles based on their own will to power (libido dominandi).

The will to power, rather than to love, is the desire to act as though we are gods, ends or goods in ourselves rather than solely in relationship to God and God’s will to love. This misunderstanding of our own place and the actions arising from it amount both to our own fall and to the set of ways in which we exploit, rather than steward, what God has given.

All forms of moral evil can be understood, directly or indirectly, in these terms. Oppression and violence among humans reflect our will to power, and our failure to discern, accept and live into our intended place of immense dignity and responsibility relative to one another.

It is also not hard to see how environmental degradation is a result of this ‘will to power’ on the part of humanity. God’s intention is that human beings exercise reasoned and loving power in creation, not on behalf of themselves but as part of this order of love, which is God’s. A sustainable beauty is therefore God’s plan.

Although recent ecotheologies have criticized the way classical theology gives humanity a unique place and destiny within creation, the reading suggested here actually requires a sort of 'anthropocentrism', but of a very specific kind. The historical reality of human existence reflects the distorted attempt that human beings have made to dominate one another and the earth, but Judeo-Christian tradition inescapably bestows on humans a pre-eminence which is intended to reflect and foster the order of love which is God’s will.

The ethical challenge for humankind does include recognition of our affinity with the earth (Gen 2:7), but also a unique calling (Gen 2:15) among its creatures. It is not the intended pre-eminence of humankind as a self-transcendent, creative and intelligent being which is the source of the earth’s woes, but the will to power which involves rejection of the divinely-intended role for another—at once a more vaunted but less responsible one.

Given the objectification and exploitation that characterizes much human behaviour towards the natural world, ecotheology is justified in seeking to re-emphasize the theme of affinity between humans and other creatures that has a genuine and important place in Christian thought and practice; the shared ‘creatureliness’ relative to a transcendent God is, as we have seen, essential to Augustine’s classical Christian position also.

However the rejection even of a relative or modified anthropocentrism such as that suggested above is problematic, if it entails a call for practice based solely on human participation in, or even identity with, the natural order. Not only is this avoidance of the distinctive calling of humankind too far removed from biblical witness to be useful for Christian ethics, it also involves a collapse of subject and object whose implications for any sort of ethics are unhelpful.

Just as the ethics of gender and of race require the negotiation of affinity and difference, rather than romanticized over-identification with the ‘other’, so too environmental ethics requires acceptance of the uniqueness of humanity as well as affirmation of our affinity with other creatures, and the particular relation of grace and power required of human beings living on earth.