Sunday, December 18, 2016


Vaux Passional (c.1500).
National Library of Wales
[Sermon preached at Christ Church, New Haven, Advent 4, December 18 2016]

The streets and the airwaves alike are now full of the virtues and themes of the season: comfort and joy, warmth and goodness, peace and love, death and judgement, death and hell. Oh wait…

Some of you may recall that in fact it was traditional to preach the “Four Last things” - death, judgement, heaven, and hell - on the four Sundays of Advent, which means we would indeed be up the last, and worst, and above all least “Christmassy” of all theological topics imaginable. But what was the last time you heard a sermon about Hell in The Episcopal Church? Strap yourselves in.

Peter Carey’s 1981 novel Bliss is the story of a man named Harry Joy, who seems to have a happy life. Harry has a loving spouse and two dutiful children, and a thriving advertising business that keeps them prosperous. Then Harry dies. Or at least he has a near-death experience - a massive heart attack while mowing the lawn leaves his consciousness floating above his body, watching as a hastily-summoned doctor first thumps his chest, and then attaches wires. Before the shock drags him back, Harry, we are told, “recognized the worlds of pleasures and worlds of pain, bliss and punishment, Heaven and Hell.” (Bliss, 12).

On revival from clinical death, Harry finds the shape of life is familiar, but its character is not. His wife and his business partner are having an affair. His daughter is a terrorist prostituting herself, and his son is a drug dealer. His advertising agency is promoting companies that pump out carcinogens. One thing only is possible, he believes; when he died, Harry had gone to Hell.

In fact, the reader can tell if he cannot, that Harry Joy simply discovered things that had always been the case; hell was already there, but had not been visible to him.

It is clearer in scripture that heaven actually does lie close at hand, something we experience now and not just in God’s future or as our ultimate destiny; Jesus says, for instance, that “the kingdom of God in in your midst” (Luke 17:21) or that “whoever believes in [him] has eternal life” (see John 5:24 etc.) But this may be as true of hell as of heaven. Hell, after all, is the realm of sin and death. When our lives are lived according to their logic, whether by our own choices or those of others, we are already in hell.

It may be that we need to understand, as Harry Joy came to understand, that what we may take for heaven - or at least for normality - actually is hell; that we need to be released from a bondage to the power of death so profound that we cannot even see how much we and the world need deliverance from it.

Hell is not a popular idea for Christians of a particular stripe - perhaps that means many of us - whose steadfast belief in a God of love seems to preclude the awful horrors dreamed up in Dante or even just in the Revelation to John - lakes of fire and demonic tortures and such.

There are problems with such imaginings indeed, but the world we now live in has horrors just as repellent. Hell has already planted its standard on the earth just as heaven has: ask the people of Aleppo these recent months, or those who sat through the trial of Dylan Roof this past week, or those who experienced the bombings in Cairo or Istanbul last week; and hell reigns much closer to home as well, in every act of violence and terror, every inaction driven by contempt and indifference. For hell among us is not just the spectacular, but includes the banal also.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury once said in an interview “My concept of hell, I suppose, is being stuck with myself for ever and with no way out. Whether anybody ever gets to that point I have no idea. But that it’s possible to be stuck with my selfish little ego for all eternity, that’s what I would regard as hell.” This more personal view is not dissonant with the hellish realities of war and politics; for violence and terror are the expression of that selfish ego, its infliction of itself writ large in the rejection of charity and justice. And while Bishop Rowan rightly expresses caution about what population if any hell has, the hellish realities we can see provide dread witness to what God may allow us to choose for ourselves, now and in eternity.

Today we do begin to glance across the wearying territory of Advent expectation to the land of Christmas promise fulfilled, in these familiar and hopeful readings of God with us, Immanuel, a wondrous child. Yet these are not unambiguous tidings of comfort and joy. Isaiah’s promise of a child - perhaps originally a new Judean prince, whose birth would offer reassurance of God’s faithfulness to the embattled house of David - is made in a time of warfare between Jerusalem and its near neighbors, and is a sign of judgement as well as of hope: "before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

Christians have long read Isaiah as speaking not only of whatever event relevant to seventh century BCE politics, but of Jesus and to his coming. The promise of the child is a sign of God’s faithfulness, but also of necessity a sign of deliverance from the power of evil - from hell.

We do not need this child’s coming to add atmosphere to the holiday season, or because there is still a space on life's tree for one more ornament. We need the child because we live in hell - in the power of sin and death - and he promises to deliver us. In coming to earth, in his life, death and resurrection, he will not only “refuse the evil and choose the good” but face the power of hell, storm its stronghold, and free from its prison those who know they need God’s victory.

He calls us to come out of hell - out from our false heavens, our illusions of security and self-satisfaction. Hell’s power is false and its days are numbered. A child is coming, Immanuel, God with us. And if God is with us, who can be against us?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Not One Stone Upon Another: Apocalypse, Election, and Christian Life

Model of the Jerusalem Temple (Wikipedia Commons)
"As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."

Today’s readings, close to the end of the liturgical year, may seem to have an appropriately apocalyptic feeling, evoking God’s great day of judgement, persecution and destruction, even the end of the world. Perhaps you are still reeling from recent events that seem to have conjured up such possibilities  - yes, I mean could the Cubs really have won the World Series?

Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel about events far more cataclysmic to his contemporaries than anything in recent sports or politics here - the destruction of the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. These events were to take place, along with destruction and suffering on a tremendous scale, between the time this story is set and the time the Gospel of Luke was written down, when in AD 70 Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans, its people killed or dispersed, and the Temple razed to the ground.

The Jerusalem Temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world - in Jesus’s time it was a great platform more than half a mile long and 600 feet wide. Even now, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem occupies over 35 acres. Pious Jews still gather at the so-called Wailing or Western Wall, not part of the Temple proper but a section of the retaining wall that held up the tons of earth supporting the Temple structure proper.

The stones to which Jesus refers were largely a series of walls encompassing sacred space, parapets and barriers that dictated how far each visitor could come, according to their status. Starting at the center, the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, was entered by the High Priest only once a year; beyond that was a court where only the priests as a group could go, to fulfill their sacrificial duties; outside that, another area where only male Israelites could go to pray; then a further court, where Israelite women could attend; and beyond that, a court of the Gentiles. It was this last outer space in which we might imagine Jesus overthrowing the tables of money changers, and this Gospel story being told also.

The cataclysm that would come on Jerusalem was not only about physical walls; Jesus goes on to prophesy other forms of division, and of struggle and destruction, at human as well as physical levels: "You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name…"

Perhaps this feels like what some of you have experienced in recent days, trying to understand or be understood by people close to you, but whose perspectives have been incomprehensible to you, and vice versa. 

The deep divisions in political culture reflect even more serious ones: economic inequality is getting worse, not better; racism seems as intractable as ever; things women should have been able to take for granted - shall we say since at least the 1970s, or just forever? - seem to be as elusive now as decades ago. Everyone knows something is wrong, but everyone has retreated into one of two regions of the mind, divided by a (so far) invisible wall, increasingly unable to imagine how anyone on the other side could think differently. Walls, literal or figurative, are rarely the answer.

A literal wall, at least the idea of one, has played a part in this recent campaign. Maybe, as one leader of the incoming administration put it a couple of days ago, that wall was just a “campaign device”; but whether or not it comes, it represents something problematic, and there are existing walls of a subtler kind that have to be dealt with. There have been signs this past week that some have been encouraged by the result to express negative feelings or even physical violence towards other members of the community who now feel vulnerable. Whatever our understandings of the election, can be clearer about our response to these events. 

And while we don’t yet know exactly what a new presidency will itself achieve or seek to, from hereon we pray for the president-elect, just as for every president, not because we believe in him but because we believe in prayer, and based not on whether or not he or his predecessor deserve it, but because they need it.

The breaking down of walls is not easy, and comes at some considerable cost. They may seem to protect what we hold sacred. The destruction of Jerusalem was a tragedy in every sense, yet it challenged those who contemplated the ruins to ask how God was present and active among them. And at that time, they remembered Jesus’ words - “not one stone will be left upon another."

In the Letter to the Ephesians, there is another word-picture that alludes to the destruction of the Temple and to those stones and walls that not only protected the sacred, but divided people one from another: “[Jesus Christ] has broken down the dividing wall between us…so you are no longer strangers and non-residents, but fellow-citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.” This text was referring to Jews and Gentiles as divided, but the point applies to us in so many ways now, too.

Jesus would have been a poor presidential candidate - his reflections on what was to come would have been even more confronting to his hearers than anything said or thought in recent days or months in this country - but he demands your allegiance beyond your civic or even familial ties. Christians do not constitute a particular political party or by our nature identify ourselves as a group with the secular world’s attempts to define what is right. Jesus says "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!' and, `The time is near!' Do not go after them."

God’s candidate was, however, and is, Jesus Christ. You have not chosen him, he has chosen you. And we are thus elected by God to hold office in the Church by baptism into him. In the days and years to come, as in the past, he seeks your service, your discipleship, your loyalty. We express that service here in our eucharistic celebration, but we also express it in our lives beyond these walls, and especially in our treatment of those who are behind different walls of separation: from God, from one another, from what makes for fullness of life in every way. Our membership of Jesus’ party, Jesus’ commonwealth, will be reflected in the days ahead by our willingness in home and workplace and public square to defend what and who we must, and to be prepared for the negative reactions of others in doing so. "But not a hair of your head will perish,” Jesus says. "By your endurance you will gain your souls.” 

“Not one stone will be left upon another.” Our most sacred places, literal or conceptual, may fall; but whatever comes, we will have been brought near to God and to one another in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

How to Vote? All Saints' Day

[Sermon for the Sunday after All Saints' Day, Church of the Transfiguration, NY, November 6 2016]

As the praise of all saints resounds here in hymns and psalms today, I am sure we are all focussed on the one theological question:

Could Trump really win?

In case at this point you are a little afraid, or perhaps a little hopeful, that I might tell you how to vote, yes I will - but, no I won’t. It’s not my job as a preacher or as a sojourning non-citizen for that matter to offer an endorsement of candidates. Yet there are more profound issues at stake even than those of candidates, which do connect our celebration today with your responsibilities on Tuesday.

The reading from Daniel today may seem a little more apt than the framers of the lectionary imagined decades ago, when it was selected:

“I...saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another...As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones [saints] of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever.”

There were times in the summer when this seemed to describe the Republican primary contest - and in fact as you may know, Christians have sometimes attempted to correlate such symbolic characters, here and in the Revelation to John especially, with particular figures of their own time. Daniel and John the Divine may really have had ancient kings or other historical characters in mind, but underlying these visions was a deeper message of hope in troubled times. Although would-be kings (and presidents) will come and go, there is a true king and a different kingdom for the “holy ones” as this translation puts it, but which is the same word we otherwise use for the “saints."

The first saints were just the Christians as a group. Saint Paul often addresses his letters to the “saints of God” in a certain place, referring to all the believers by that term, even though in the course of the letters we sometimes find reference to behavior that is anything but “saintly.” Paul calls the Corinthian Christians, who seem in theological terms to have been an ancient basket of deplorables, “saints” because God by calling them had made them holy in ways they did not yet seem to understand.

Gradually the idea of a “saint” became more narrowly defined, as martyrs who died for their faith rose from the mass of faithful and less faithful Christians to be represented as models and heroes; and when the Church became established and there were fewer martyrs, other forms of heroism were recognized as appropriate to offer for imitation and veneration.

The feast of All Saints was added to the calendar somewhat late in the piece to allow for the fact that there were such exemplary Christians who were known only to God, or who simply couldn’t be squeezed into a crowded liturgical calendar. But as time has gone on, the Church has now come almost full circle to see this as an occasion to celebrate not just the great and the good, but all the baptized, including those to whom we look with admiration and hope and whose prayers we seek, but also the curious, the flawed, and those others whose participation in the category of “sainthood” by its very nature makes us marvel at the character and the extent of God’s grace.

God’s view of what is great and good is not the same as ours, whatever our preferred policies or candidates. God does not have the view of one candidate on Tuesday that only the superficially strong and those who are not “bad hombres” are the chosen. God does not have the view that those who disagree are a basket of deplorables either.

The issues that face those of you who vote extend far beyond the characters of the individual candidates, although neither the candidates nor the platforms are morally equivalent by any means. Neither this nation nor by extension the world affected by its choices will have solved the problems this election has rendered so stark merely by choosing the better of these two.

The deep divisions in political culture reflect a nation divided: where economic inequality is getting worse, not better, where racism seems as intractable as ever, where things women should have been able to take for granted since at least the 1970s if not forever seem to be as elusive now as then. Everyone knows something is wrong, but everyone has retreated into one of two regions of the mind, divided by a (so far) invisible wall, behind which the like-minded shout at each other in furious agreement, increasingly unable to imagine how anyone on the other side could think differently .

What is the Christian then to do in the polling place? Again, I will not answer that in terms of which handle to pull or box to check, although I am very far from thinking the alternatives are neutral or indifferent. Neither candidate or party is really your party, as a saint. We make tactical alliances with these causes, seeking the good and avoiding evil. I suggest however that when you undertake that civic duty, you act and think in particular ways. How to vote? Vote in hope. Vote in faith. Pray before you vote. Pray for the candidates you deplore as well as those you admire. Pray for the outcomes on the lives of people in this and every country.

Whether the result is the one you favor or not, and even if it seems to bring us closer to some apocalyptic future with beasts and false rulers, that this is not the most important kingdom or nation to which you belong, not since you were baptized and joined the saints. In the Letter to the Ephesians we read “[Jesus Christ] has broken down the dividing wall between us…so you are no longer strangers and non-residents, but fellow-citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.” We are members of that citizenry of the saints not because we were good, but because God is good. Celebrate or mourn what the Times tells you on Wednesday but give thanks for that calling, and keep building with God that kingdom where walls are broken down, where all are included, where justice and peace are known and where true greatness is found in the treatment of the weakest. May Mary and all the Saints pray with us, for this nation and every nation.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Seats are Free: Anglican Catholicism and the Future

[Sermon at the Installation of the Rev'd Stephen Holton as 13th Rector of Christ Church, New Haven, Eve of Ss. Simon and Jude, October 27 2016]

When Christ Church, New Haven was established, its accoutrements were controversial: not incense, not candles, not vestments, but chairs. Unusually and even controversially for the time, there were to be free seats. At Trinity Church on the Green, out of which this parish was founded, as in most others of the time, families of means were expected to rent pews, providing their own personal space for worship but also generating revenue for the parish. Here however it was established from the start that offerings would be the means of support, and that all seats were free.

When the first Christ Church was dedicated for divine service in 1854, the preacher Thomas Pitkin said:

"Its wide open-door will invite all passers-by to enter in. There will be no ownership of seats. All are made welcome of whatever name or creed who are willing to unite with us in our worship. High and low, rich and poor, old and young, may here fervently join in the prayers and praises of the Church.”

The seats were free. This worthy vision has in some respects been overtaken by a different social phenomenon, that of secularization. Pews are hardly a marketable commodity any more anyway, except perhaps as curiosities in antique stores and subsequently as a whimsical adornment for a porch; the seats are free now, because many are empty.

Although this describes life in many congregations, our brother Stephen is entering with faith and hope on ministry in this one, under the curious patronage of Ss Simon and Jude, the revolutionary hothead and the patron of lost causes. What should our prayer be for him and for the people of Christ Church, where the openness of seats, however understood, faces towards such a fullness of liturgical and artistic beauty in the Catholic tradition?

This Church was founded with two other characteristics in mind beyond the seating - the Edwards sisters, who were its first benefactors, were adherents of the emerging Tractarian movement that had begun in the Church of England in the two preceding decades, and which was at that point not so much interested in ceremonial as in the importance of spiritual discipline and particularly of regular reception of the Holy Communion. At that time it was typical for Episcopal parishes to have morning prayer and the Litany but Communion only monthly. The Edwards sisters apparently moved around the New Haven Churches which had different communion Sundays of the month, seeking more regular participation. So Christ Church began with a different pattern of worship, centered on the Eucharist.

Second, the need for a parish on the west side of New Haven reflected a sense of mission, and in the early sermons and other documents from this place it is clear that evangelism of the neighborhood was an unapologetic and central aspect of why this place came to be here. Already then this Church faced a side of this city where many struggle for fulness of life, and even as "that side of town" has moved somewhat, Christ Church still faces it. So this place was not built to pander to liturgical taste, but to witness to the Gospel through its sacramental worship, and to draw others to faith through it, including by offering a different but equally real divine service of the poor and marginalized in practical service, hospitality, and advocacy.

Over time however Christ Church and parishes like it became distinctive in the eyes of most as much or more for their liturgical specifics as for anything else. The ritual of solemn high mass as it developed here has been a powerful witness to Christian faith in its historic Catholic form for generations now and will, one imagines - and prays - continue to be so for further generations. This must be part of why Christ Church is here and why Stephen is here now to minister among us. However this moment in time, a new ministry and the possibility of a renewed sense of parish witness, as well as those elements of history, give rise to a question or two about what is really essential to Anglican Catholicism and what is really needed here.

The Catholic wing of the Episcopal Church is in some respects the victim of its own success. With a prayer book introduced in 1979 that contained much of that sacramental theology which had been so controversial a century earlier, it may have seemed that those struggles now had a clear winner. Nothing is ever so simple.

If the rituals and accoutrements which those who worshipped and served here once fought to defend have become very widely used now, the reasons for using them have not always shifted accordingly. Vestments were once controversial because they suggested belief in eucharistic sacrifice; now they’re ubiquitous, just because they're pretty. There are many places that have a dignified Gospel procession, but fewer that believe there is a Gospel the world actually needs. We virtually all observe the rubric about the Eucharist as the principal Sunday service, but not everyone thinks that anything actually happens in the Eucharist.

This place and your ministry Stephen exist to witness to a far more audacious possibility than the mere fact that dignified liturgy and fine music have some perennial appeal, true as that may be. These all exist here to witness to the possibility, sometimes as confronting to religious people as to the secular, that something actually happens in the Eucharist, and that this is because something actually happened in the Incarnation. 

Hence it is not so much that ritual and reverence are to be performed because interesting or entertaining or even edifying, but that this particular ritual and reverence might be pleasing to God, because offered as much with a sense of its inadequacy as of its beauty in the service of the real presence of the Son of God. If this is true, everything changes: beauty must serve truth and reveal it; ritual points not to itself but to the mystery at its heart; and community gathers not for itself but for, and in, and as, the body of the one who died and rose to win that people for himself. More than that, we cannot claim to worship him on the altar or be his body if we will not acknowledge creation hallowed in and by him, and meet him in the street and the soup kitchen as well.

The seats are free Stephen, and yes they are so in different senses of the word. If there is no-one present on the altar, let the seats remain free and let us just go about our business. If however there is one seated in glory yet who comes to us here, let us fill these seats to attend him and let us join with others who will discover, as long ago, that in these seats "all are made welcome of whatever name or creed who are willing to unite with us in our worship. High and low, rich and poor, old and young" - and let us add, gay and straight, black and white - "may here fervently join in the prayers and praises of the Church." To the Lord of that Church present here among us, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all might and majesty, dominion and praise, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Beloved Physicians: St Luke, Thomas Dent Mütter, and Jesus

Thomas Dent Mütter
We acquired the patronage of St Luke here at Berkeley Divinity School by a somewhat strange means. The Gospel of Luke has various associations that could inspire theological education: the Gospel’s emphasis on God’s action in history, and on the poor and marginalized, not least. Saint Luke is even, according to some accounts patron of students - but no that wasn’t it. He is also patron of artists, and butchers - and, of course, of physicians.

The first St Luke’s Chapel, at the former Berkeley campus in Middletown, Conn., was the gift of Mary Alsop Mütter in memory of her late husband, the physician Thomas Dent Mütter. Mütter - subject of the 2014 New York Times bestseller Dr Mütter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz - is buried in Middletown, but his name is probably better remembered in Philadelphia, where the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians is named for a man who was one of the leading figures in medicine in the nineteenth century.

Mütter died in 1859, at the age of 48; shortly after, his grieving widow, whose family were from Middletown, gave the Chapel to the fledgling seminary, its dedication to St Luke a reflection of her departed husband’s achievement and of his faith. As Berkeley’s founding Dean (and later Bishop of Connecticut and Presiding Bishop) John Williams put it in his sermon at the dedication of the Chapel in 1861, “He (Mütter) was a 'beloved physician,' ministering not to the body only, but to the spirit also. And so, from the 'beloved physician' of the Scriptures, this chapel takes its name: and ...because, here, they are to be trained, whose duty it will be, to minister 'the wholesome medicines of the doctrines,' by which 'the diseases of our souls may be healed'" - quoting Thomas Cranmer's Collect for St Luke as it appeared in the then Prayer Book of 1789.

Mütter was a pioneer of plastic surgery; not cosmetic surgery, but the restoration of mobility and functionality to people who whether congenitally or as often by horrific accidents such as industrial burns were not only disfigured but impeded from mobility and other basic functions. He not only developed and practiced new techniques of surgery but advocated for the equally novel and controversial practices of anesthesia and antiseptics. Some of Mütter’s contemporaries and colleagues were opposed to anesthetic in particular because they believed “pain [was] a desirable, salutary, and conservative manifestation of life force.” (Dr Mütter's Marvels, 193). As a practitioner of surgery that improved quality of life and as advocate of humane and wholesome practices, Mütter was thus a “beloved physician” worthy of commemoration.

The idea of the Gospel as medicine, and of ministry as healing, is as old as the Gospel itself. While sickness and injury have cross-cultural force, Mütter’s challenges help us understand how much more powerful and confronting it might have been, and might yet be, to describe the Gospel as therapeia as Luke does - as healing. Healing is not necessarily painless - in fact it is rarely so.

Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 study Soul Searching described the religion of American youth as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” In that worldview, there is a God somewhere (that’s why it’s described as somehow “deist"), who wants us to be nice (that’s the “moralistic" part) and who can help we have need, and who in their words “provide[s] therapeutic benefits to [the] adherent.”

It's too easy however to use this kind of analysis as part of some narrative of decline from a supposed pristine past, when everyone believed the way they were supposed to - "let's make the Gospel great again,” I hear you say. It was 80 years ago however when our late colleague here at Yale Richard Niebuhr performed a similar diagnosis when he famously spoke of belief in “a God without wrath (who) brought [people] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (The Kingdom of God in America, 193). The issue is not about youth - it is about people.

Smith and Denton have, like many of us,  given up the word “therapy” as a hostage to the enemy in trying to describe a problem. To quote them again, God is in the worldview of moralistic therapeutic deism "something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he's always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process” (165). In fact therapeia, the healing for which people come to Jesus, is not merely the work of the butler and the “therapist” in Smith and Denton's modern sense, but is the costly service of transformation.

The work of a theological school is arguably two-fold; it is to train healers, but also to be a place of healing. The great Origen of Alexandria called Jesus the "chief physician" who called as pupils those who were "to be physicians of the soul in his Church" (Exp. on Ps. 37). We are here as committed to the training of those spiritual physicians; not the therapists of popular imagination, nor the reckless barber surgeons of the pre-modern era, but of those who will, with the chief physician as guide, offer their skills to lead communities of healing and wholeness. They can only do that work of healer as knowing themselves healed, or as still being healed. The therapeia of God is true, transformative, continuous, and not without pain, and goes on in this place in the service of the Holy Trinity, and under the patronage of St Luke.

ALMIGHTY God, who called Luke the Physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul: May it please thee, by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Aptowicz, Cristin O’Keefe. Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. New York: Gotham Books, 2014.
Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Kingdom of God in America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
Smith, Christian, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Writing on the Heart: St Matthew

Caravaggio, Inspiration of St Matthew
[From Community Eucharist for the Feast of St Matthew, Evangelist, including Matriculation for Berkeley Divinity School 2016]

Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them round your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.

You will write a lot of words while you are here. Some will be more important and lasting than others. The word or two that constitutes signing one’s name here tonight may however be among the more important acts of writing undertaken by those matriculating at Berkeley and Yale.

What are these who sign this evening doing, exactly? The ceremony of matriculation stems from the medieval universities of Europe, where the matricula was a roll containing the names of all the students who, having joined the community, were able to exercise the privileges of membership as well as to accept its responsibilities. Matricula, a diminutive of matrix, means a womb or source; writing where many others have done before at Berkeley, going back to 1854, these students now experience a sort of untimely birth-through-writing into a new community of scholars, an alma mater which claims them as its children. The matriculants do not merely write a name, they join and form a community with the act of writing.

So what shall we write together, other than our names? We meet today under the patronage of a writer, St Matthew the Evangelist. Matthew is commemorated in the lections in two modes tonight: one is the references or allusions to scripture and its writing, in 1 Timothy and the passages from Proverbs and Psalms that refer to the writing and teaching of the righteous way of the Lord; the other is in the story of Matthew’s call away from his desk and his earlier ways of writing, and the ensuing banquet at which Jesus must defend his own taste in community, saying "I came to call not the righteous but sinners” and, quoting Hosea, “learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’"

The words about writing and teaching the way of the upright sit awkwardly with the raucous banquet scene, and the lines from Proverbs and Hosea in particular seem to struggle together in our matrix: Proverbs writes of the steady unflinching forward path of loyalty; Hosea - followed by Jesus and Matthew - describes the winding but upward road of mercy.

In fact they are referring to exactly the same thing with “loyalty” and “mercy” - it’s even the same Hebrew word. This hesed can otherwise more wordily be rendered as the covenant faithfulness of God. One of the reasons we write here - and write, and write more - is because of the desire to understand such niceties of biblical and theological language and literature, and to share them. But the more fundamental reason is to understand that same particular thing of which both Hosea and the sage wrote - and then to write it ourselves.

The covenant faithfulness of God writes us all into the matrix of a community, that “beloved community” so often spoken of. This notion, which emerges from the the thought of Dr Martin Luther King, but also before him from that of Josiah Royce and Howard Thurman, focusses on the love, the agape, to which the Gospel calls us. The beloved community is a form of life before God and with one another that is marked both by loyalty and mercy, which arise from the most fundamental virtue of love, which is not only God’s gift but God’s nature. Loyalty, because you cannot be merciful from nowhere; mercy needs a community. Mercy, because loyalty alone means just corporate selfishness.

Matthew was already a writer when called from the tax collector’s booth. He was recording names, and numbers next to them, creating a matricula of sorts - a record of exploitation under the cover of violent occupation, an accusatory list of the names of those who would then despise him for his complicity in their oppression. And now too, there are other matriculae being written under the hands of other forces; the names of Terence Crutcher and Keith L. Scott were tragically matriculated this week so far into one of them; last week twenty-nine people in Peshawar, Pakistan, whose names you would struggle to find in any news source, but are known to God and remembered and loved, were added to another such list of despair.

And so, in response, in anger and sadness and joy, we write our lists and our stories, believing these are the truer and the more powerful. We write of love and justice, of God’s grace and salvation, of the depths of sin and the glory of hope. And always we write of loyalty and of mercy, of God’s covenant faithfulness.

To write our names on this matricula at Berkeley or any list does not free us from complicity in the oppressions of our own time; rather it testifies to our willingness to receive and to give mercy, and to feast with the complicit as well as the righteous, to be part of and to build the beloved community. We choose this action, while others have their names written where they would not be, drawn into communities pf violence. We who write our names receive this gift of beloved community not to hoard but to give; to place our loyalty at the service of mercy.

So write your love and insight and anger and hope into papers these two or three years or more, of course; write it in blogs and in articles, write it in books and tweets, write it on paper napkins and chalk it on walls. But even then you will not have written it where you will find it most needed. Scripture itself witnesses, as Proverbs does this evening, to this strange and wonderful image again and again, of writing on the heart:

Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them round your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.

Write it on the heart. And may the Spirit of God guide your hand.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Vanishing into Glory: Saint Bartholomew

Gary Oldman as Sirius Black,
from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenis.
Popular culture is filled with evidence for the persistence of heroic myths of suffering and deliverance, of dying and rising. You can take your pick even of contemporary movie franchises: The X-Men or the Avengers, Thor and Loki, Gods of the Egyptians, Superman and Batman.

But of course there is an older story, a deeper myth, that came before and that will remain after these have long been forgotten:

I refer, of course, to Harry Potter.

There are many significant moments of pathos in the Harry Potter books, not least moments of actual death. For me the most fearful and confronting of these was not Snape's death or Cedric Diggory’s death, or even Dumbledore’s death; it was the death of Sirius Black.

If you haven’t read the Order of the Phoenix book someone else may have to spell this out for you in detail afterwards, but during a battle among wizards Sirius falls or is pushed through a portal, a crumbling ancient doorway that stands by itself in a room in the Ministry of Magic with a ragged curtain hanging in it, but that seems to go nowhere. In fact that is all too true - it is a door to oblivion, through which no-one who passes can return. Falling through, Sirius has ceased to be, is annihilated.

Oblivion may be our greatest fear. Our efforts to protect or enlarge our personal empires - of family, profession, intellectual achievement, or material wealth - are efforts not merely to protect ourselves from outrageous fortune but in particular to be remembered. We may even have come to terms with death, in the straightforward sense, but we are scared of an oblivion greater than death itself.

One of the things regular users of Lesser Feasts and Fasts become used to is a phrase something like this in certain of the biographies of saints it provides: “little else is known of Saint X.” This is a strange challenge, an implicit rebuke even I suggest, to current efforts to reform the sanctoral calendar into an adequately didactic or informative and representative collection of people about whom we are supposed therefore to know enough to count them worthy of emulation. In any case, if early one morning as Morning Prayer lurches into motion in this Chapel you hear words like these through the gloom of semi-consciousness, there is one thing you can be fairly sure of about a saint so described: it is an apostle.

This is a strange thing to consider. If we asked a different question of our collection of saints, something like “which of these are the foundational figures, those to whom the Gospel was first and definitively committed, those by whose witness the faith was first commended to the world” and so forth, we would give the same answer surely: the apostles.

St Bartholomew whom we commemorate today is one of these shadowy apostles, a name in a list only, and otherwise a figure quite lost to us - and certainly no more accessible through the collection of embarrassed legends devised later by well-meaning Christians who could not abide this stark vacuum.

But the oblivion of Bartholomew, his vanishing from memory, is not or not only a failure of the historical record. It is a sign to us of the character of apostleship and how it differs from our attempts to avoid oblivion and be remembered, even in the life of faith. Jesus describes this truth in today’s Gospel clearly enough: “A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which... was the greatest. He said ‘the kings of the gentiles lord or over them and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so among you…'” (Luke 22: 24-26) And Paul provides a striking job description of the obscure apostolate: “hungry and thirsty…poorly clothed and beaten and homeless…the rubbish of the world” (1 Cor 4).

Apostleship does not seem to be about establishing name or reputation or leaving a legacy in any recognizable sense; and what we have observed about the fate of the actual apostles bears this out in a striking way. Apostleship is not about being remembered - or not, at least, about being remembered by us.

There is of course another whose memory has an altogether different character and significance. The prayer attributed to Sir Jacob Astley before the Battle of Edgehill is telling:

“O Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget thee, do not forget me."

Our truest and deepest need is not to fend off oblivion by our remembered achievements, but to be remembered by God. This is the one to whom Jesus himself, facing his own oblivion, offered his memory and who was thus called back from beyond that portal into our remembrance.

This then is the apostolic call: to abandon fear of oblivion and the false forms of achievement to which it leads, living our lives in love to be remembered by God, and thus like Bartholomew vanishing into glory.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Sacrifice of Humayun Khan

Abraham and Ishmael; Brooklyn Museum
When Khizr Khan, father of a soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in July to contest Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, he invoked the language of sacrifice to upbraid the Republican candidate:

"Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one."

Trump’s spluttered response was shallow: "Did Hillary's script writers write it? I think I've made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard."

Hillary Clinton’s own comment pulled the focus on sacrifice back to those who died in war: "this is a time to honor the sacrifice of Captain Khan and all the fallen. Captain Khan and his family represent the best of America, and we salute them."

The noise surrounding the contest over the US presidency itself is such that some important issues in this exchange may get lost. One is just what “sacrifice” is. Mr Trump certainly misses the mark, but it is not hard to see how he slid into his claim; he identified his own hard work as “sacrifice" because he made certain choices, giving up certain goods or goals for the sake of others. This is part of a typical modern and metaphorical "sacrifice," but Trump's attempt to climb the altar falls short at the step where Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan - and their son Captain Humayun Khan - stand. Mr Trump may have given up certain things for the sake of other things, but it is no sacrifice merely to make choices, or even to exercise discipline. Going to the gym is not sacrifice, and neither is single-minded aggrandizement. The Khans gained the higher ground at a cost.

The idea of “sacrifice” itself deserves to be interrogated further, though. The nobility exhibited by the Khan parents and the bravery shown by the son may exemplify what it means in modern terms, but ironically this is not quite what Islam otherwise means by sacrifice, nor was it originally what Christianity or Judaism meant.

Among these traditions Muslims are unique in actually still sacrificing literally, on Eid al-Adha, slaughtering an animal and distributing the meat, a third going to the poor and the other two-thirds being retained or shared with family and friends. This ritual has something of the character of gift and divine service, but does not carry redemptive overtones as Christianity might expect of sacrifice; a degree of altruism is also involved in Eid al-Adha, but the cow or camel bears the greatest burden, rather the family itself.

Yet the Muslim holiday, to be celebrated in a few weeks from the time of writing, does refer to a story more like that of Khizr, Ghazala, and Humayun Khan; it commemorates Abraham’s not-quite sacrifice of his son (in Islam the almost-victim was Ishmael, not Isaac). With that story in mind, one can actually hear Khizr Khan presenting himself and his son as a modern Abraham and Ishmael to the DNC; the father offered his son in obedience to a higher power, but here no angel stayed his hand. Khizr, not Humayun Khan, made the sacrifice.

This is slightly different from the usual Christian or post-Christian western view of how sacrifice works. Clinton’s further comment, wherein the fallen is the sacrificer as well as the offering - just as Jesus, the sacrifice par excellence, is both priest and victim - is more typical of the "deadly altruism" that has come define sacrifice in most modern western use. Here Humayun Khan offers himself.

Mrs Clinton’s more familiar figuring of Humayun Khan’s death allows him agency at least; his sacrifice is his own choice, whether made rightly or not. For all its dignity, Khizr Khan’s view of sacrifice is one in which the father, Abrahamically, gives the son to God. For many Christians, ironically, this view may also be resonant with a popular if pernicious quasi-trinitarian dynamic in which the Father offers up or demands the life of the Son, and where divine life seems more like domestic violence than cosmic love.

So there are at least two kinds of sacrificial logic, even in this one story, not counting Trump's; despite claims by some social theorists and theologians that all sacrifice has one origin and meaning, in reality sacrifice is a complex field of thought and practice, not just one idea. Ancient sacrificers, like modern Muslims at Eid, were not typically focussed on human victims, scapegoats, or redemption. Yet both these recent uses of sacrificial image and story reflect a modern tendency for sacrifice to have become a way of talking not about gift, celebration, and sharing, but about violence and voluntary suffering.

What do we learn of the meaning of Captain Khan’s death by this language? Both Khan's and Clinton's statements deserve scrutiny, because both in fact use the metaphor of sacrifice to interpret or even to justify violent death and war - and a problematic war at that.

Both sacrificial reflections name a sacrifice, but only imply a God. The God to whom Humayun Khan's life was offered is of course not the one worshipped by either religious tradition to which the speakers adhere, but is the nation and its policies. The fine line between the two here is sobering. In modern times, Christians have often allowed or encouraged the confusion of civil and divine orders in sacralizing war, or at least the tragedy of death in war, in terms that - to be as sympathetic as possible - allow meaning to be sought in the midst of violent death and tragic loss. Captain Khan’s death however has become not merely a matter of personal bravery to recall as a moral example, but an offering placed before the specific altar of the Iraq War, as much as of the US Constitution.

By figuring Captain Khan’s death thus, the speakers at the Democratic Convention have demanded a high price of the American people too. One of the few positive things one could say about Mr Trump’s campaign—and it is a struggle to find many—is that at least on some days he has questioned US foreign policy in the Middle East, when the Democratic candidate has not. The incoherence of Trump's statements, among other things, prevents them from being a serious critique, but such is still necessary. A war whose causes and effects are deeply questionable - even for those who accept the possibility of a just war - a war whose scandalous origins have recently led to a scathing and important analysis in Britain through the Chilcot inquiry, requires fearless scrutiny rather than have its ugliness covered over with words of sacrifice.

Here however the system has failed Americans in general. But it may have failed Humayun Khan and other Americans who have borne the cost of the Iraq War for the US (not to mention Iraqis themselves groaning under the weight of civil war and the repellent rule of ISIS) more specifically. Through this sacrificial rhetoric, Humayun Khan has been offered to the cause of multiculturalism and liberal democracy - or is that multiculturalism and democracy have themselves been drafted for the war? Did Captain Khan, a brave man who loved his country, die to prove that Muslims and migrants can sacrifice to the same false gods too? His memory and his sacrifice may still require a different kind of service; an increasingly diverse American nation may still need learn to exist with itself, as Khizr Khan scathingly demonstrated to Donald Trump; but however diverse it may become, the USA also needs to learn how to exist with others and to make its truest offerings at the altar of peace.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Bread and the Bible

This week I am teaching a course in the summer session at Yale Divinity School on bread in history, focusing on biblical and theological tradition.
Andrew McGowan with an emmer and barley sourdough loaf
prepared by participants in the YDS summer bread course
As well as considering a variety of biblical texts (more on that in another post maybe) we are baking breads that, if not necessary completely authentic (probably an illusory quest) then at least illustrate some of the key issues that faced producers, eaters, and those who wrote about these issues in the ancient Mediterranean world.

In a paper I gave at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual meeting in 2014, I suggested that for eaters in most places and periods relevant to biblical literature and to ancient Christianity and Judaism, there were three factors that made bread more or less desirable, and an indicator of one's status and wealth (or lack thereof): color (refinement, bolting of the flour etc.), grain (wheat or barley, in particular), and fermentation or leavening.

In this week's course we are dealing with the last two issues in a variety of ways, and are doing some baking that involves using older grains and seeing their properties. We have been using barley and emmer flours, these being the two most significant cereal crops in the ancient Mediterranean, at least until the emergence of bread wheat, as well as einkorn and modern wheat.

A few days ago to prepare for the course, I created a barley starter or sour, armed with the knowledge from previous attempts that it would probably begin well, but then become too acid unless used on about day 3. We used the barley starter (about 500g) to create a leaven with both barley and emmer flours in equal quantities.

The leaven worked well; it did not expand a great deal, but was unmistakably active.

We split the leaven, keeping some back for a new starter, and with the remainder we then made a slightly wetter dough (c. 50% hydration) for a large loaf to be baked in a pot, and a slightly drier one for small flat breads, both with equal quantities of barley and emmer again.

The large one we proved in a banetton - not too archaic, although I don't think it's implausible to think of proving in a basket or other vessel in ancient times - then slashed and baked the result in a heated enamel pot at high temperature (500F).

It rose more than expected, and the bread had a well-developed flavor - quite sour, but allowing the grains to come through. The texture was of course fairly dense, given the flours used, and still quite moist. As with rye breads that may be more familiar to many, these might be better on the second day than straight out of the oven.

The other issue we were considering was of course that of leavening. My barley 'sour' was created just by mixing flour and water. No yeast in the usual sense - brewer's yeast - has been added to these breads. They help illustrate what many scholars and translators seem to be unaware of when dealing with texts such as the Exodus narrative about the importance of unleavened bread, the Leviticus prescriptions for bread without leaven as sacrificial offerings, and the parables and sayings of Jesus about leaven; namely, that leavening is a spontaneous process that arises when flour is moistened, not an adulterant like brewer's yeast. 

The significance of all these passages is somewhat different when we realize that leavening has this almost mysterious character, and that it arises within dough itself rather than being an additive. For Exodus, this helps us understand the concern about time; in Leviticus, we see leaven as corruption or at least instability that makes it less suitable for an offering; and in the examples from Jesus' teaching, negative and positive alike, it is the power of leaven to communicate itself, and assimilate other dough to its transformed character, that underlies the image.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Life and Death

Sunday Sermon: Life Before Death, June 5, 2016 from Trinity Church Boston on Vimeo.

[Luke 7: 11-17]

This past March I went with a group of students from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale on pilgrimage to Rome. Not unnaturally a bit of our time was focussed on the Vatican, where we went to a general audience with the Pope and about 10,000 of his other best friends, discussed ecumenism with present Roman Catholic leaders, and where we also spent hours literally underground, seeing why the Vatican was even there.

Rome was a city where like Nain, featured in today’s Gospel, the dead were brought outside the walls for burial. Ancient Jews, Romans, and Greeks did not create burial places around the picturesque streets of cities like the Granary burial ground, or in gardens like at Mt Auburn - they took the dead solemnly out to quite separate resting places, from the realm of the living to realm of the dead.The cities of the ancient mediterranean were thus divided by their walls into two parts - the realm of the living, of houses and streets and taverns inside, the polis - and outside was that of the dead, the necropolis, outside.

At one time the Vatican, outside the city walls of Rome, included a cemetery. St Peter’s Basilica stands where it does because Peter, and Paul, were according to tradition martyred in Rome under Nero, and Peter’s remains were buried in that very necropolis. Paradoxically then, the Christians came to view these places of the dead as monuments to faith and life, and centered communal worship around them, turning space inside out, the realm of death becoming a place where life could be celebrated. 
Today’s Gospel spells out this strange claim of the Gospel more fully. It depicts not only the two spaces, the inner and the outer, but reports the movements between them; a procession familiar in the ancient world, a large crowd of mourners including a widow who are taking the body of a young man, her son, outside the town and the realm of the living, to the place of the dead outside.

But in this story, two processions encounter one other; for Jesus and his disciples, and a second large crowd, are coming in. These two crowds meet outside the town gates, almost like two armies at this point, or like two tides contending in uneasy equilibrium; which way will the water flow, between the realms of life in the city, and death outside where they stand. 

The mother does not ask Jesus for anything, but “he had compassion for her,” saying “do not weep”; he touched not even the body but just the bier and said “young man, I say to you, get up.”

After this event we know nothing of the man or his widowed mother. We can celebrate that story implies not just return to life for him, but rescue from destitution for her. Yet this is not really the point of the story.

The mysterious victory that Jesus achieves in this skirmish with death is implicitly transformative for the lives of these two, widow and son - but also, and just as importantly, for that crowd flowing out of the city gate of Nain, if not in an easy way: “Fear seized them all” Luke says "and they praised God, saying 'a great prophet has arisen among us' and 'God has looked upon - cared for - God’s people’.” Fear seized them, because something had happened there that disrupted the usual flow of life and death, and reversed the tide.

I said we know nothing about these two, widow and son, but actually we do know one thing - they died. Eventually they were both carried by a similar crowd out the same gate, and no opposing flow of life led by a great prophet stopped the tide, at least not visibly or materially. If the point of the story was that Jesus could revive corpses, the story rings somewhat hollow then.

This is however a story about life and death, and about Jesus’ authority over death.

The human struggle with death is universal; but unlike the ancients and unlike many today, we in the developed West or at least in its more privileged sections find ourselves in a world in he grip of death but also possessed by the delusion that money, political power, or technical expertise, thinks it could solve the problem of death. If we could just develop the drugs, or buy the care, or understand the genome, or develop the policy, or build the wall, or elect the President, we wouldn’t die. The more fantastic elements of this involve cryogenics and cybernetics; perhaps if all else fails, the rich could freeze and/or download themselves to avoid mortality. This however is all a perverse expression of the realm of death, even in the attempt to escape it.

Death is not a technical problem to solve, it is a theological, a spiritual problem, to confront. 

We rightly struggle against death however, both as the specific threat over a particular life, our own or others, but also as a force that claims to be the true character and meaning of existence. We can and should seek health and longevity for ourselves and others. We rightly oppose the absurdity of gun violence close to home, and warfare further afield, that takes innocent lives prematurely and meaninglessly. Christians do so, not because our struggle is really with death in that immediate and universal sense, from which Jesus only rescued the widow’s son temporarily; for we cannot eradicate death itself as the natural end of human life. Our struggle is rather with death as the principle of existence, as a realm of fear that prevents life being lived fully and freely. 

In time Jesus himself will be taken out of the great city to the place of death and burial, borne on a tide of hatred and fear. For us however that story is not one of mourning but of triumph; and these two stories make the same claim about Jesus, death and life. The claim that life triumphs over death is even bolder than the one in today’s Gospel with which our modern mindsets may struggle, about a story of miraculous resuscitation. We cannot cheat death of those victories over us all. The claim is however that even when death finds us, it has no victory; for we have joined Jesus’s procession of life.

That place and this are places where the crowd following Jesus, among whom we are called to include ourselves, has surged forward through the gates and into the city, and the tide of life has prevailed. We judge this success not from the persistence of mortality but from the persistence of love; from our willingness to proclaim in the city that no death is mightier than this. Our claim is not that we can avoid or deny death, but that life and love are stronger than death; not just that there is life after death, but that if love reigns, then there is life even before death. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Invention of Sacrifice: Kellogg Lectures 2016 at Episcopal Divinity School

Early in May I was invited to give the Kellogg Lectures at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. These were streamed live, and are also now available for viewing at your leisure.

The first was given, as a working title, "Sacrifice No More: Ideologies of Sacrifice in Modernity."

The second, in which I begin (hesitantly) to provide elements of a revisionist and constructive theology of sacrifice, is "Making Sacrifices to God: Toward a Theology of Gift and Giving."

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.