Monday, October 18, 2021

The profile of this convert is high!

 In the news last week, The Right Reverend Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, formerly Bishop of Rochester (among several high profile roles in the Anglican Communion), has converted to Roman Catholicism (albeit specifically into the Anglican Ordinariate).*

The Tablet carries the story here. The tone and content of Dr Nazir-Ali's testimony is respectful of his Anglican heritage.

"I believe that the Anglican desire to adhere to apostolic, patristic and conciliar teaching can now best be maintained in the Ordinariate. Provisions there to safeguard legitimate Anglican patrimony are very encouraging and, I believe, that such patrimony in its Liturgy, approaches to biblical study, pastoral commitment to the community, methods of moral theology and much else besides has a great deal to offer the wider Church. ...

Ministry in the Church of Pakistan, in the Middle East generally, in the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion remains precious to me and I see this as a further step in the ministry of our common Lord and of his people. At this time, I ask for prayers as I continue to pray for all parts of the Church."

On the other hand, some of what others are saying is, well, just not so:

"Headlines broke Thursday which rocked the Anglican world down to its core."

That's from an article by Mary Ann Mueller, here. Not all Anglicans have heard of Dr Nazir-Ali; it's a while ago since he was a Diocesan Bishop; most Anglicans are not about to be turned towards Rome because another Anglican - even a bishop - has made that personal decision for themselves. The core of Anglicanism is not that rockable really.

I find myself in response thinking about and reflecting on the following:

(1) Whether or not there are any wider ramifications for global Anglicanism, this is a personal decision for Dr Nazir-Ali in the context of his own journey of faith and engagement in the church of God. We can and should only wish him well as he seeks the heart of God, the mind of Christ and the life of the Spirit. Ditto for any convert from Canterbury to Rome, whether high or low profile. And vice versa!

(2) There may be things to think about - some observers likely will say, “There jolly well are a lot of things to think about.” 

For instance, is something wrong with (say) the Church of England / the Anglican Communion / GAFCON that no form of Anglicanism could hold Dr Nazir-Ali back from stepping forward into (on his own testimony) the Anglican patrimony within the Roman Catholic Church as the best way to be Anglican? 

(And if there is something(s) wrong, can it(they) be fixed? 

An intriguing question to ask, given Dr Nazir-Ali’s well-known theological, ethical and missiological conservatism, is Why even GAFCON (with which he has had something to do) has not provided a pathway for remaining rather than going?)

My own response to whether this conversion highlights what is wrong with global and local Anglicanism is:

- Of course it does. If all was well he would not be converting.

- It doesn’t take a high profile conversion to tell us all is not well. (I could share my correspondence with you, that would also tell you our faults, foibles and failings :).)

- The question (to me) is: am I content to be in this church rather than another, given no church is perfect? (My answer: I am so content. If you haven't left for Rome/Constantinople/Geneva it may be your answer too.)

(3) What does it mean to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus: and does it mean I should be in a particular church because only in that church is it possible to be correctly aligned as a Christian with God’s will for the church?

I find that being a Christian, faithful to the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of the apostles, is hard work but it benefits from other Christians with their understandings and examples to inspire me, to challenge me, to correct me and to guide me. And those other Christians have anchored their discipleship into a variety of settings (denominations). Some of my favourite Christians are Catholic ... Baptist ... Methodist ... etc. And many Anglicans :).

I also find myself thinking (in reflection since the news last week) that I am pretty sure my accountability to God on the day of judgment will have heaps to do with how my life has grown and developed closer and closer to the life of Christ, become more and more open to the fullness of God in Christ developing in me than to which church I belonged, what doctrines I believed with correct precision and whether I was perfectly nurtured through an exquisitely balanced ministry of word and (correct) Sacrament.

Put another way: the challenges I find in the church of God to which I have been called and in which I have been planted are not resolvable by "finally" admitting that Anglican polity and teaching would be perfected through conversion to (in the instance being considered) Rome. Rather, looking at my diary this week and thinking somewhat guiltily about the emails I am yet to respond to, all issues before me are resolvable in the life of the Spirit, through the teaching of Christ, and opening our hearts to the love of the Father. More simply: human nature is not perfected through church polity and doctrine but through the work of God.

(4) Not that Damian Thompson is himself an infallible pope among Catholic journalists but he is well informed and has nice if acerbic turns of phrases and so it is somewhat ironic that this week he writes an article headed Is the Pope a Protestant? which includes the line 

"Pope Francis is presiding over the Anglicanisation of the Catholic Church.

(In the end I don't think such critics of Francis have any empathy for the church adapting to a changing world).

(5) A (Catholic) Twitter buddy here talked about Dr Nazir-Ali coming "home to Rome." What I am trying to say above is that if any earthly city is a spiritual home for me and my understanding of being Christian, it is ... Jerusalem!!

(Added later) (6) I see now that Dr Nazir-Ali has written something of an apologia in the Daily Mail (here). Frankly I find this begging some questions, about the advantages of Catholicism v Anglicanism. Sure Anglicanism has faults, but Catholicism’s claim is not that it has none. Take one Anglican fault adduced in the article: some kind of diffidence in moral leadership on the international stage. Has Dr Nazir-Ali not heard of the internal Catholic critique of the deal Pope Francis did with China re the appointment of Catholic bishops there?

So, I wish Dr Nazir-Ali well and do not think the core of Anglicanism today is thereby rocked by his conversion.

*For those new to these things, the lack of recognition by Rome of Anglican ministry orders means Dr Nazir-Ali is received into the church as a layperson but reports say he will soon be ordained as a (Roman Catholic) deacon-then-priest. As a married man the future Fr Nazir-Ali will not be eligible to become a bishop.

ADDENDUM

Incidentally, also in Anglican news this week, here , is Forward in Faith North America railing against the recent move of the Anglican Church of Kenya to ordain a woman to the episcopate:

"While the Anglican Church in Kenya currently maintains an orthodox understanding of the Gospel, it should be noted that every province that has adopted women into the episcopate has, in time, yielded to the pressures of the culture and left Biblical morality.

Listen to the words of Saint Paul to Timothy, "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

Lastly, your Grace, for the sake of the Gospel and our unity in Christ we call upon the Anglican Church in Kenya to refrain from further actions of division and to repent of your actions which have directly harmed your brother and sister Anglican Christians around the world."

What is very interesting here is that (effectively) within GAFCON is recognition that not all Anglicans think alike, not all Anglicans have the same definition of "orthodox" and not all Anglicans are agreed on what "directly harms" a fellow Anglican!

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Mark of the Beast - Revelation as Apocalyptic Literature (4/4)

So, the Book of Revelation is a letter to the churches, it is a prophecy from someone (John) who sees himself in the tradition of God's "servants, the prophets" with appropriate forthtelling against evil and foretelling of what is about to come.

And: Revelation is a kind of literature which is weird, strange and very, very hard to understand (if trying to decipher its imagery) but just a little bit less weird, strange and hard to understand if we read it as "apocalyptic literature", that is, as literature of a kind also found in the Bible when we read Daniel, Zechariah, quite a lot of Ezekiel and parts of Isaiah, as well as literature not found in the Bible but found in publications with titles such as "Old Testament Apocrypha" or "New Testament Apocrypha", including books such as 1, 2 and 3 Enoch, the Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Moses.

That is Revelation is a letter which encourages (and disciplines) the churches of Asia Minor and a prophecy which boldly proclaims a message to the churches and to the world around the churches via the use of language which is imaginative and of a kind found in other ancient writings, especially from the period 200BC to 200 AD.

Let's look at a few examples: (in order of appearance, not necessarily in order of significance relative to the overall message of Revelation):

1. The Commissioning of John (1:9-20): this passage incorporates significant imagery found also in Daniel 7:9-13; 10:5-6; Ezekiel 1:24; 43:2; Isaiah 49:2; Zecharish 4:1-7; Daniel 10:20-21; 11:1; 12:1 re angels assigned to nations) and also found in other apocalyptic literature, probably also derived from similar passages.

2. The Heavenly Throne Vision: (chapters 4 and 5): here the background passages are extensive and may be found through a Bible with good cross-referencing or in a study Bible's notes or in a commentary. Again, Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah figure prominently; and the image of Jesus as the Lamb is coherent with use of animal imagery found in apocalypses, including, of course, the beast of Daniel 7 found also in Revelation 13. The Lamb is both a transformation of the Lion of the tribe of Judah and a contrast to the dominating power intrinsic to the beast.

3. The Vision of the Beast: (chapter 13; see also 17-18): here, almost certainly directly related to the vision in Daniel 7, an awful beast rises out of the sea, as an expression of evil and malevolence, in obvious contrast to the glory and compassion of Christ - an anti-Christ, anti-God figure who receives the worship of the non-Christian inhabitants of the earth. Actually there is more than one beast, because a second beast rises out of the earth (13:11) in order to serve the first beast and with iron-discipline ensure the worship of the first beast.

In particular, the second beast 

"causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the number of its name" (13:16-17). 

Cue the subject of this series of posts, the mandation of a vaccine against Covid-19 as a "mark of the beast" because of the potential for a vaccine certificate or passport to be used to prevent people from engaging in everyday commerce and other social activities unless they can demonstrate this "mark."

Of course the connection between the "mark of the beast" and any "compulsory vaccine" is easy to make and (after an enlightening conversation yesterday with a local church leader) all the easier to make in a circle of Christians in which the eschatological teachings of the 1970s and 80s prevail still (you know, the teachings where the world would end "one generation" after the formation of the modern State of Israel in 1948, the anti-Christ was Henry Kissenger, and one world government was secretly being formed on the back of electronic banking requiring a chip implanted in all our foreheads).

But all such teachings fail to reckon seriously with the text of Revelation even as they earnestly believe they are reading the text literally.

As prophecy, Revelation is railing against evil in the world, including idolatry and political power forming itself into an idol commanding total allegiance - illustrated in apocalyptic, imaginative language about beasts and marks.

The challenge of the beast as an image to us as readers is to reckon truly, seriously and rationally with the potential of government to destroy humanity rather than to serve humanity and to demand total allegiance as though a god requiring worship. The beast in human history is Genghis Khan, perhaps even Henry VIII (Anglicans: discuss ...), definitely Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, possibly now the ever aggrandizing and increasingly persecutorial Xi Jinping. Revelation as apocalyptic literature exposes (reveals) the true nature of despicable evil expressed through out of control imperialism.

The mark of the beast is then the sign of our commitment and dedication to this anti-God, anti-Christ autocrat: think wearing swastikas, not electronic chips.

AND the mark of the beast is certainly not a complusory vaccine. Of all the things governments are doing around the world today about vaccination against Covid-19, aggrandizing power in the service of idolatry is not one of them. 

Vaccination, since its discovery in recent human history, has been a servant of humanity, and government promotion and financial support for vaccinations have been in the service of society. There is no "beast" here and even less so a "mark of the beast."

As a matter of fact re commerce: it continues in many forms even in Lockdowns, noting that online shopping is a thing. Further, in my own country at least, the Prime Minister has decisively said in a recent press conference that a vaccine certificate will not be required in order to go to the supermarket or pharmacy or medical centre.

So: nothing to see here. Let's move on. Let's look, rather, at China's influence on world commerce and its threat to Christians among its own citizens and in neighbouring countries such as Taiwan.

PS Isn't God amazing ... letting Henry Kissenger live so long!


Monday, October 4, 2021

The Mark of the Beast (3/n) - Revelation as Prophecy

I am now back from a pastoral visit to the Chatham Islands which lie c. 800kms to the east of (roughly) the middle of the South Island and are part of the Diocese of Christchurch. Although there is internet connection to the islands, my internet access on such visits is only occasional, and may not be very fast, so best policy was to encourage readers to not make comments while I was away. 

Now I am back, let's return to the Book of Revelation and a leisurely exploration of the current links being made between the Covid vaccination and the Mark of the Beast (links being kept alive as we speak because over the weekend a large group of Christians gathered in Auckland for a protest meeting against lockdowns and vaccination, against the regulations restricting gatherings). In the last post I explored the question of Revelation being a letter. This week, Revelation as a prophecy.

In Revelation 1:3, John writes,

"Blessed is the one who reads aloud in the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near."

Further John describes himself as a "servant" in 1:1 and this word is a code word for "prophet" (see 10:7; 15:3 (Moses as prophet); 22:6, 9). So his own consciousness, as composer of the book, is that he is writing a prophecy. The description in 1:3 is matched by a warning in 22:18-19:

"I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book ... if anyone takes away from the word of the book of this prophecy ..."

What does this mean for how we approach Revelation, seeking to understand it?

In the Old Testament, prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah (all drawn on in Revelation), to say nothing of Amos, Hosea and Micah, speak to the present state of affairs, usually Israel and/or Judah and sometimes surrounding nations, diagnosing spiritual ills and political ailments, with a laser like focus on injustice, and then forecasting a future in which divine judgment is coming, though a remnant will survive it and form the basis of God's restoration of God's people.

What do we find in Revelation as a book of prophecy? (Necessarily brief so apologies in advance for missing details):

1. The ills of the seven churches are diagnosed and the impending judgement of Jesus Christ against the churches is announced, with the "carrot" of future blessings for those who repent and for those who are faithful. A parallel, that is, to the OT prophecies which spoke directly to Israel and/or Judah.

2. The ills of the world around the churches are diagnosed and the impending judgement of Jesus Christ against the evildoers of the world is announced (e.g. 20:11-15), with little by way of hope for restoration of the nations of the world (but see 22:2), and much by way of robust encouragement for the saints of God who will not escape the malevolency of the evildoers (e.g. chapter 7).

3. But what is the laser like focus of the prophecy in respect of what the world is to be judged on? Is it justice (so one famous book on Revelation) or something else? On the whole I suggest the focus is on idolatry first (the aggragating of power and glory to the forces of evil and to the human rulers in thrall to them; manifesting as violent, murderous persecution against God's people) and then on justice (e.g. the economic corruption of the merchants of the great city in Revelation 17).

In sum: Revelation is a prophecy which forthtells against the failings of the churches and the evil idolatry and injustice of the world, and foretells of the coming judgement against the churches and the world, a judgement which will come soon but not soon enough to prevent imminent martyrdoms for some of God's people.

But there is a massive twist in the actuality of the language of Revelation as a book of prophecy. The language used is mostly the language of another (but related) kind of ancient Jewish literature, the language of apocalyptic literature, the language, that is, of Daniel, of some chapters of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, of some books we call "apocrypha" such as 1 Enoch and of gospel chapters such as Mark 13 (which is sometimes called "The Little Apocalypse").

Next week: Revelation as apocalypse. All will be revealed :).


Monday, September 20, 2021

[Not yet] The Mark of the Beast (2/n) so John Spong instead

John Spong

Before we get to a further post on The Mark of the Beast, I note here that Bishop John Spong has died, a figure of some theological/controversial note and, in my recall, often mentioned in the earlier days of this blog.

To mark his death I happily post this excellent essay by Archbishop Rowan Williams, from 1998. It repays reading, whether or not you are interested in Spong. 

The Mark of the Beast (2/n)

Last week I looked at the Book of Revelation as a pastoral letter to churches in Asia Minor, a letter of encouragement and also of challenge.

Revelation is also a book of prophecy. ... But sadly, I am not going to being able to spend time on this matter until Monday 4 October. 

Nota Bene: I have an opportunity to be offline from Friday 24 September to Friday 1 October inclusive and thus will neither post comments nor a blogpost during that period. Your patience is appreciated.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Mark of the Beast (2021 version) Post 1/n

Introduction

To cite a now ancient cliche, we are living in interesting times. So "interesting" are these times that a percipient NZ political commentator, Chris Trotter thinks we are re-living the Protestant Reformation. (He doesn't call our times "interesting," appropriately he calls them "strange and disturbing.")

So strange and disturbing are these times that Antonio Garcia Martinez has written an essay "The Christ with A Thousand Faces", exploring "How trad Christians and woke progressives are unknowing co-religionists, and how the leading moral battles of our age really come down to casting." OK, I hadn't seen that trad Christians and woke progressives are co-religionists, but he has a point!

Then our friend and colleague in following Christ, Pope Francis is working on some radical reforms to the church's power structures. It all seems very Anglican! (Perhaps we are both re-living and reversing the Protestant Reformation :).

However, something very strange and disturbing, very seriously, is that we live in a time of misinformation, sometimes coming from the mouths of Christians, and with potentially very bad consequences. Naturally I am speaking about those Christians who link receiving a Covid vaccine with the Mark of the Beast. This has come up recently in our local Christchurch Press in an article entitled, "Covid-19: Mark of the beast or manna from heaven? Christianity's vaccine issue". (I have a small walk on part in the article.)

That's gotten me thinking a bit about Revelation, its message and its relevance for our times. Just may be there is more than one post in this ... Bear with!

First things first. A helpful way to think about Revelation and its mysteries is to think of it as three literary genres wrapped into one document.

1. It's a letter.

2. It's a prophecy.

3. It's an apocalypse.

Revelation as a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor

Sure, you have to wait, er, three verses, but in Revelation 1:4 you could be reading one of Paul's letters, except its by John:

"John to the seven church that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him ..."

And, sure, there is a lot of stuff after that which is very unlike Paul or Peter or James or that other John when they write a letter, but there are seven individual letters in chapters 2 and 3, and then, consider the ending in Revelation 22:20-21:

"The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."

Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen."

We've head that before, haven't we?

1 Corinthians ends with these words in 16:21-24:

"I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord.

Our Lord, come!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.

My Love be with all of you in Christ Jesus."

OK, so a letter, so what?

What do churches need from some authority writing to them? Answer: encouragement and perhaps a tune up. A pastoral need, in other words, met by a pastoral letter.

The churches in Asia Minor get this in spades. Things are building against them, times are tough, the power of Rome is so threatening you can feel the edge of the sword in your Laodicean mind and flinch Pergamumly at the crack of the torturing whip you're imagining with a cold sweat in the middle of the night. John writes to encourage them - to put some courage in them and he does this by acknowledging the depth of the danger they are in, by probing the true (and, frankly, disturbing) nature of the evil rising against them, while also and always presenting the love and power of God - the love which will see them safely into God's eternal presence is the same love which led to the Lamb being slain for them, and the power which will eventually triumph over all evil and depravity of political and economic power.

They also get a tune up! In most (but not all) of the seven letters, no matter how well a church is doing, Jesus has something they need to do something about. No slacking, no slouching, no sucking up to false teachers and their immoral leaning, and no swaying half way between being hot/cold for God.

And that's what the churches of the world today need too! We're feeling vulnerable, threatened and worried about where change and Covid are taking us. And, to be frank, there's a lot of false teaching - misinformation out there, by which I mean "in there, in the church." We're vulnerable and we have improvements to work on.

Score 10 marks for the relevance of Revelation for the church today!

Next week, a few words about Revelation as prophecy for today. Don't worry, we'll get to the mark of the beast before Christmas :).

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

When does life begin?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), 

2270 Human life must be respect and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. [Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalm 139:15 are then cited in support].

2271 Since the first century the Church hyas affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. ...

2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grace offense. The Church ataches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. ...

2273 The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation: ...

Arguably the most famous Catholic layman in the world today is President Joe Biden, and readers here are likely familiar with the fact that over the past year or so a debate has broken out within US Catholicism (and beyond, because it has a "liberal" v "conservative"//Francis v Burke etc globalizing aspect to it) about whether Joe Biden's views on abortion are reconcilable with his continuing to receive the eucharist. This debate and the Catholic life and character of Joe Biden are reported on comprehensively in this Politico article, "A Private Matter: Joe Biden's  Very Public Clash with his Own Church." (H/T: Bowman Walton). As an aside, a fascinating line in the article is this:

"There is no such thing as mainstream, there is no such thing as extreme, and there is no such thing as liberal — there is Catholic.”"

Even more recently, within the last week when the Texas state legislature has passed a "smart" law which effectively bans abortions in that state after a woman is six weeks pregnant while (so far) avoiding being struck down because it is "unconstitutional," Joe Biden's views have hit the headlines again.

With the help of Auntie Google, here is Joe Biden through the years:

2008 (NYT): "Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee for vice president, departed Sunday from party doctrine on abortion rights, declaring that as a Catholic, he believes life begins at conception. But the Delaware senator added that he would not impose his personal views on others, and had indeed voted against curtailing abortion rights and against criminalizing abortion."

(This past week, but referring to 2015 views), 3 September 2021 (New York Post): "President Biden delivered a broadside Friday against the controversial Texas anti-abortion law, at one point saying that he did not agree with the proposition that human life begins at conception.

However, Biden struck a different note while he was vice president, telling an interviewer in 2015, “I’m prepared to accept that the moment of conception is a human life and being.”"

Then, this week past, after the Texas decision: 

3 September 2021 (Catholic News Agency): "President Joe Biden (D) said on Friday, Sept. 3, that he does not believe life begins at conception - contradicting his previous statements on when life begins.

Biden answered a reporter’s question on abortion on Friday, after addressing the August jobs numbers at the White House. “I respect those who believe life begins at the moment of conception,” Biden said. “I don’t agree, but I respect that. I’m not going to impose that on people.” "

There is no intrinsic reason why Biden (2021) cannot be correct. Our understanding of things can change. One moment we believe the sun travels around the earth, the next the earth is travelling around the sun. But is Biden (2021) correct and Biden (2015), Biden (2008), nearly all Catholics everywhere and many, many other Christians wrong?

It is only possible that Biden (2021) is correct if some kind of redefining is taking place because it is not like the biological facts of "sperm and egg meet and SOMETHING TAKES PLACE" have changed. We could, for instance, define the beginning of life as, say, around about 13 years of age, when a "differentiation" takes place and the life form realises that he/she/they do not have to do everything Mum and Dad say, have a teen rebellion phase, and thus (so to speak) "the individual is born". Ok, I am jesting, but (I can only presume) that Joe Biden is now thinking that life begins at some stage later than conception. Definitions of when life occurs, if not when sperm and egg combine, could occur through theological and/or sociological and/or legal considerations.

I gather some would focus their definition on when the heart starts beating, others on when birth takes place, and so forth. 

I also observe that when (say) Jim and Josie are trying to conceive a child, the instant they know that life has been conceived in the womb (and sometimes couples "know" right after conception has taken place), that life is the child, the human being they have desired. But when (say) parliamentarians are debating some revision to abortion law, perhaps around the number of weeks which may elapse for when an abortion is legally permissible or the range of conditions for which abortion is permitted, the language tends not to talk about a "child" and "abortion" itself becomes a euphemism for what is being legally permitted. That is, within society, there are a range of definitions occurring in a variety of contexts in talk about the same biological phenomenon of a living being in the womb.

Back to the President: isn't the challenge here for Joe Biden, or any of us who profess the name of Christ, that the definition of "when life begins" is theological as much as it is biological or anything-else-ogical?

The Catholic Catechism is right to cite those Scriptures which understand life in God's eyes as beginning at conception.  Those Scriptures are common to all Christians. Perhaps even more importantly, what those Scriptures speak of is the comprehensiveness of God: the God who sees and oversees all of life, the God from whom nothing is hidden and to whom all is present.

It looks like Joe Biden (the individual) is theologically in an awkward place. I think even we Protestants can say that, whatever the awkwardness of the place that "President Biden" is in in relation to the debate within US Catholicism about whether he should be given communion or not. (I say "President Biden" because I suspect that if 1. Joe had retired from politics, and 2. Joe had changed his mind from 2008/2015 to 2021, there would not be a debate about whether communion should be given to former politician Joe Biden.)

Certainly, Protestants can have some sympathy for US Catholicism: the beliefs of Catholicism about when life begins are very clear, very solid and very much adhered to. To deny these beliefs and present for communion is a challenge in respect of the meaning of communion (which, among other things, is a sacrament of belonging in a context where belonging and believing are tightly connected). Protestants, after all, are themselves denied communion in Catholic churches because of what we (do not) believe.

I personally find it a puzzle that Biden has shifted from a position of "I believe life begins at conception AND I am committed to legal abortion being available in a civil society which is not uniformly Christian" - so many Christian, Catholic and Protestant politicians would adhere to - to his current position.

What the articles above do not convey is the rationale within his own mind for his new definition of when life begins.




Monday, August 30, 2021

The challenge(s) of reading Scripture in 2021

Reading 1

Sometimes, discussing various issues of the day, one side or the other or another raises the question of slavery, the New Testament and Christian ethics. One argument being that it took a while for Christians to figure that slavery is wrong, fullstop, because it wasn't banned by any of the New Testament writers. Therefore, we cannot rely on the NT for our ethical determinations as Christians. A counter-argument being that, although it wasn't banned, St Paul (especially in Philemon) undermined slavery as an institution in society, so effectively the NT declared it was wrong. Therefore, the NT is a final word on slavery.

Except, a counter-counter argument is that, nevertheless Christians through many centuries waxed and waned on the matter, here banning it and there supporting it, and only finally in the 19th century did Christians, universally, "get the message" that there shouldn't be slavery (ever again). Whatever was going on with Christians reading the NT, on slavery (at least), its message was not universally clear and decisive.

Even a relatively early commentator and theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, writing on Ecclesiastes 2, offers a theological argument against slavery and not a simple appeal to one biblical rule on the matter, in this Twitter thread.

On the whole I am inclined to the view that within Christianity, our ethics on slavery developed, albeit on lines set in motion by the NT. The NT is clear that slaves are to be well treated and the master and slave, mistress and slave are sisters and brothers in Christ. It is difficult to sustain an ethic of being family together when half are free and half are slaves! It is not clear, however, from the NT, that slavery should end immediately as a human practice. Our common conviction in the 20th and 21st centuries that slavery should not be a human practice lacks the unequivocal, explicit support of the New Testament.

That the NT does not offer a clear reading against slavery is illustrated by this very recent 21st century Tweet:

Now, let me hasten to add, nearly 100% of readers here will have 100% of Christian friends, family and colleagues who not only do not think this way but would never even have such a thought cross their minds. This post is NOT about lurking pro-slavery theology in the global church. This post is about how the NT (indeed all of Scripture, an OT text is coming up below) is a complex document to read in respect of ethics in a changing world.

Christians do move beyond the strict, literal words of Scripture to new positions on matters of human ethics. In this case, the pastor cited above is reading Scripture as though it is 121 AD and not 2021 AD with 1900 years of context re slavery to also bring to his reading of Scripture.

Let me also hasten to add, that this post is not another foray into That Topic. It could be, but it isn't. Plenty of previous posts on That Topic. Comment there.

Rather this post is about how we actually read Scripture, in day to day or common usage, as well as how we might read Scripture agreeably together.

Reading 2

That this seemingly straightforward task of reading Scripture agreeably together is not straightforward has been highlighted this week by an (at best) interesting take on a familiar Scriptural text by committed Christian, President Biden.

"During a press conference following the attacks at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in Afghanistan, the US President said the American service members standing guard at the airport who lost their lives in the attack were heroes and part of the "backbone" of America. 

He then quoted from the Old Testament to commend their eagerness to go to Afghanistan:

"Those who have served through the ages have drawn inspiration from the Book of Isaiah, when the Lord says, 'Whom shall I send…who shall go for us?' And the American military has been answering for a long time: 'Here am I, Lord. Send me. Here I am. Send me.'"

The verse, from Isaiah 6:8, come from a vision from the prophet Isaiah where he sees God and is convicted by his own unrighteousness and offers to serve God and preach His message to unrepentant people. 

After quoting scripture, Mr Biden continued: "Each one of these women and men of our armed forces are the heirs of that tradition of sacrifice of volunteering to go into harm's way, to risk everything - not for glory, not for profit, but to defend what we love and the people we love.

"And I ask that you join me now in a moment of silence for all those in uniform and out uniform - military and civilian, who have given the last full measure of devotion""                                     

There is no questioning here in this ADU post about the willingness of US military personnel to serve sacrificially in global hotspots of trouble and strife. (NZ would be a Japanese colony were it not so.) But Isaiah 6:8, as this comment by Samuel Goldman in The Week makes clear, is the wrong verse to choose in order to correlate US military mission with God's mission:

"Biden's point was that the Marines and other personnel overseeing the evacuation knew they were in danger of precisely the kind of attack that occurred but continued their duties anyway. In that respect, it was a fitting effort to honor their courage. 

But the Biblical verse he used was a bad choice to make that point. Jews read Isaiah 6 as describing God's calling to serve as prophet to the chosen people. For many Christians, it is seen as prefiguring the vocation of missionaries to promote the Gospel. In both interpretations, the phrase "Here I am" expresses willingness to participate in the fulfillment of divine purposes.

The conflation of foreign policy with a religious vocation is a recurring tendency in American history. It's also a dangerous one, because it transforms agonizing calculations of risk and benefit into contests between good and evil. Biden is leading American forces out of Afghanistan and appealed to national interests elsewhere in his remarks. Yet the crusading attitude that the Bible quote expressed is part of the reason we have failed to secure those interests for the last two decades. To avoid similar disasters in the future, we need to remember that presidents are not prophets and the U.S. military is not the army of God."

Somehow in President Biden's mind, his reading of Scripture has picked up a laudable response to any call from God to any human or divine task, "Here I am, send me", whisked it out of context - a fairly stable context of readers through thousands of years, reading about a prophet called of God to announce God's message - and applied it to a controversial military mission. 

Both the President and the pastor offer readings of Scripture that (fortunately) very, very few people also share (though clearly the President has an influence which could change the odds in favour of any one else in the future attempting a similar reading). Each highlights that reading Scripture with "one mind of Christ" in 2021 remains a challenging task.

Reading 3

Last week I wrote about the one (Nicene) creed, two (Eastern/Western) versions and that sparked some very illuminating comments - thank you - which dug deep into issues of "reading": what were the Nicene Fathers and the Toledo Father/Pope "reading" as they read their Scripture within their contexts of theological struggle? 

And, what were and continue to be the consequences of sticking to their respective readings to the point where they became emblematic of "tribal" identities in the centuries leading up to the never-healed schism of 1054? 

It is easy to turn on the pastor and the President with their readings of Scripture. But as long as the East and the West of Christianity are divided, none of us can claim to have perfected the art of reading Scripture in order to engender a truly undivided common reading of God's written Word! 

Postscript

At a very technical level - the level of textual criticism where scholars work with variances or obscurities in the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of Scripture and try to work out what the original text likely said - there are challenges "reading" the text in order to make sense of it. For the geekier Greekiers among us, this post on Evangelical Textual Criticism may be of interest, concerning "Calvin's Conjectures."                                                                        

Sunday, August 22, 2021

An old question for Western Christians, will Anglicans answer unitedly?

I acknowledge that Aotearoa New Zealand is currently in Lockdown Level 4 (since last Tuesday midnight, until at least this coming Tuesday midnight). There might be more important/relevant things to say than what I say below. However that might take a day or two more to reveal exactly what they are, apart from, of course, and in uniform with all authorities and sensible people, encouraging compliance with government instructions, booking for vaccinations (my first is this Tuesday), and getting tested if there is reason to do so.

Recently on Facebook an Auckland colleague, Ivica Gregurec, posed a question about Anglican support for removing or retaining the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. I had a brief exchange with him there and then, but this post, although prompted by his, is my responsibility and any comments you make in response should be to my words - engage with Ivica's words where he posted! So:

Back in the day, the original Nicene Creed of the undivided church held that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father (fullstop). A bit later, the Third Council of Toledo in 589 added "and from the Son" (i.e. the filioque) to the Nicene Creed but it never took on in the East. When East and West split in 1054 one of the issues was the filioque and to this day the difference remains (except where, in some places in the West, the filioque has been dropped (including, so I understand, by individual congregations).

The Book of Common Prayer remained thoroughly Western on this matter, as does our A New Zealand Prayer Book (1989, 2020) - in keeping, as far as I know with nearly all, if not all other Anglican provinces of the Anglican Communion. For what it is worth, I think the filioque is theologically justified and have no particular motivation to omit it from the Nicene Creed.

Nevertheless there are a few questions to explore here, not least on the blog of someone otherwise inclined to promote church unity.

1. Who among Anglican individuals, parishes, dioceses or provinces tacitly or formally approves (and practises) omission of the filioque?

2. Is dropping the filioque something Anglicans should do in order to be unified with Eastern Orthodox?

3. If we did so drop the clause, would we fall out of that ecumenical favour we currently have with Rome?

4. (2 and 3 perhaps coule be combined to) Should Anglicans only drop the filioque if the Roman Catholic church does so, as part of a combined Western drive toward reunification with the East? (Ditto ... Lutherans ... Reformed ... etc).

5. (The wording of this questioned is biased towards a concern I have!!): Should Anglican provinces only drop the filioque when all provinces are agreed to do so, that is, drop the filioque only when the Communion as a whole does so?

6. (Making a different point) Why should the Western Christendom "we" drop the filioque? Isn't the filioque true and we should ask the Eastern Orthodox to join us in saying it as their contribution to unity?

7. Whether or not the Westerners added to the original creed and whether or not the Easterners are ecumenically cheesed off with the West, isn't the trump card against the filioque that it is a novelty added to the pristine, primitive Nicene Creed?

Sunday, August 15, 2021

An evangelical on what it means to be Catholic?!

Last Thursday evening the third NZ Anglo-Catholic Hui began, in St Michael's and All Angels church here in central Christchurch. It was my privilege to preach the sermon at the opening mass. I give the text here. The Hui was a lovely event and featured Fr Richard Peers, Christ Church Oxford, as main speaker (via electronic delivery), two Bible studies by the Very Reverend Tony Curtis and a series of much appreciated workshops.

My text:

Anglo-Catholic Hui Opening Mass Sermon

Bible: Genesis 28:10-17; Mark 6:30-44 Theme of Hui: Food for the Journey

Introduction

“July 29th, 1921. Church Times https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2021/30-july/regulars/100-years-ago/100-years-ago-priests-gathering-in-oxford

THE twelve hundred priests who met last week for the Oxford Convention have now returned to their homes, and probably many of them this week have been reviewing their very remarkable experience and questioning themselves concerning the possible effects of those three crowded days.

 . .. There are differences in the Catholic party, and these were bound to appear. Indeed, it was desirable that they should. It is never any good pretending that there is more unity than really exists. 

Such unreality is always paid for later. Rude awakenings come, and some of them are coming now to the bishops who met at Lambeth last year. They were inclined, as we can all see now, though in the glamour of the moment it escaped attention, to slur over essential and fundamental differences. 

Differences can never be hidden by a formula, as the history of the Thirty-Nine Articles might teach us. 

Therefore, we need not regret that differences showed themselves at the Convention. If they exist it is better to drag them to the light and discuss them. But the exhibition of differences was not accompanied by any bitterness. 

There was a careful avoidance of acrimonious language. Practically all the speakers who joined in the discussions were applauded, though in several cases very few members of the Convention could have agreed with what was said. 

All this is, we think, to the good; both that disagreements should be exhibited, and that controversy should be frank and friendly. 

Sooner or later, we must face certain questions. There must be certain definite things for which we stand — where disagreement excludes from our ranks. 

If we are to use the word Catholic, it must mean something — not what anyone chooses to make it mean.”

What does the word “Catholic” mean? 

Tonight, I will not attempt to give you my definition. 

You might hear that as a case of “what anyone chooses it to mean”! 

Rather I will offer some reflections from our passages in relationship to our conference theme, Food for the journey.

Passages:

Genesis 28:10-17 

I love this passage because Jacob encounters Yahweh in a vivid dream involving heaven and earth and angels and a ladder in between. He wakes and says memorable words,

“Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.”

Wow!

Imagine every worship service ending with the congregation excitedly saying to one another, 

“This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.”

An aspiration for all worship is that the experience of liturgy is a lifting of our hearts to heaven. 

A distinctive Catholic aspiration within this general aspiration is that through word and image, with symbolic action and symbolic dress, with incense, through literally all our senses, we the congregation of God are lifted up to God in heaven via multiple sensory modes of access to the divine life.

Within the dream of Jacob, there is a specific Catholic dimension which relates to Catholic meaning universal or (as in a variation of the creed in my recent hearing, worldwide), we find Jacob is commissioned to be the spreader of offspring through all the world: 

to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.

And not only a spreader of offspring, but also of the blessing of God on the world:

“and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring.”

There is no mention of food in this story, but if there is no “food for the journey” here, there is “food for thought”: 

are we Christians – as spiritual descendants of Jacob - a blessing to the world?

The outworking of Catholic worship is always Catholic mission – the work in the world to which we are sent out at the end of the Mass. 

And that work is simple, to be God’s blessing in the world.

Mark 6:30-44

Food is definitely mentioned in this story of five thousand being fed through a miraculous multiplication of a few buns and a couple of fish at the taking, thanking, breaking, distributing hands of our Lord.

There are a lot of things to say about this story, about the significance of food for Christian worship and fellowship, about the connection between eucharist and miracle, and so forth.

Let’s assume those things and say a few things about being Catholic and about food for the journey.

First, at the heart of the story’s opening is the fact of a “great crowd” 

and what are Jesus and the disciples going to do with them when their willingness to listen to Jesus’ teaching becomes a crisis over hungry tummies.

The disciples want Jesus to send them away to look after themselves.

Jesus has compassion on them, he understands they are sheep without a shepherd when he begins to teach them, and they are now hungry stomachs without a cook or a pantry at hand.

He will feed them. All are welcome at the lunch he is preparing via the unwitting, ungenerous disciples.

If to be Catholic according to Genesis 28 is to have a world vision for God’s blessing and a Catholic Christian’s role in that blessing:- 

then to be Catholic according to Mark 6 is to be able to see the great crowd before us, to discern their need and to share our meagre resources with them, rather than to send them away.

More simply, to be Catholic is to be hospitable.

There is a little more to say, reflecting on our theme of Food for the journey.

The crowd in this story need teaching and broken bread. 

We, God’s crowd of Christians need two kinds of feeding: 

- the nourishment which comes through listening to Jesus, learning from Jesus and feeding on the word of God: as Jesus himself said, humanity does not live by bread alone.

- The nourishment which comes through dining with Jesus and his followers.

A balanced Catholic diet of Food for the journey is feeding from the Word and feeding from the sacrament.

But, to bring back Genesis 28 and the dream of Jacob in which he is told that he and his offspring will be a blessing to the world, 

there is a challenge to us, the spiritual descendants of Jacob, 

to not only focus on “Food for (our) journey” but also the food we will share with others, “Food for (their) journey.”

Called to be a blessing to the world, we must not only seek Food for the journey but also share our Food with others on their journey in life.

We have a gospel task to share the gospel. 

In food terms this has been famously described as one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.

Conclusion:

If we are to use the word Catholic, it must mean something — not what anyone chooses to make it mean.”

What does the word “Catholic” mean?

Well these few thoughts are an entrée to how this hui will answer that question for you.

May the Lord feed us on our journey and provoke us to share our food with others.


Sunday, August 8, 2021

Thoughts sparked by Ian and Francis [Updated]

[The Update is at the foot of the original post.]

Recently Francis Spufford, novelist and CofE General Synod member, wrote an article making some waves. It is entitled "How I changed my mind about same-sex marriage" and can be read here

Ian Paul, blogger and CofE General Synod member, has written a response entitled "Is change in the Church's teaching on sexuality inevitable?" and can be read here.

(Aside: there are illuminating comments, or, at least, fascinating comments, including this one:

"Paul was doing to the equivalent of a bishops letter to the diocese. Bishops change their minds. So with Paul." LOL. The only non-controversial claim here is that bishops change their minds!)

Both Francis and Ian (first names here will save confusion about "Paul"/"[Saint] Paul") offer extensive arguments in support of their respective theses, and - frankly - I don't have time to engage with the details and subtleties and offer my own "Francis/Ian is right and here is why."

In my estimation a singular question Francis raises is whether the church through history has indeed worked through tensions between "principle" and "rule" in favour of principle over rule. In part Ian's counter is that the principle of marriage is that male and female come together in union so the principle here always supports the rule (no same-sex sex).

I also wonder whether what Francis writes is more of a forecast than a thesis. That is, even if Ian is right in what he says is wrong with Francis' thesis, Francis (perhaps with the insight of a novelist?) is putting his finger on where the winds of collective change are heading, even if we will not know that till later this century. Nevertheless, the tradition of marriage, the embedded narrative and theology of marriage in Scripture, that a man and a woman become a couple, both formally (in the eyes of their community and their families) and biologically, imaging aspects of the divine life (diversity in unity; the union between Christ and the church) would have to make a significant, if not dramatic change to become a theology of any two persons marrying.

The church has changed its mind on many things but often it has taken a long time for the change of mind to involve a strong majority if not a unanimity of church members. And through that time there have been arguments and counter-arguments concerning the change, even as sociologically the change has continued to role along - I am thinking particularly of decision-making in favour of the ordination of women.

But, with a few moments of spare time, I want to have a stab at offering a few thoughts, by picking on one thing Ian says as a specific cue to my thoughts:

"In other words, the implicit but clear case Paul is making is not about the context of such activity, but the creation principle behind it which is the form of humanity as male and female."

I suggest this emphasis on "context" and "creation principle" in relation to matters of human relationships raise more than a few questions as we engage with Scripture and in particular with Paul's writings.

For instance, does "context" play a role in what Paul says? I suggest it does, notably in 1 Corinthians 7 where the so-called Pauline Exception (re divorce and remarriage) introduces a new and different exception to the so-called Matthean Exception, because Paul in the Graeco-Roman context finds a new issue to give a ruling on, and does so, but not one he has a direct ruling from Jesus to draw on.

Conversely, how well does "creation principle" play out in the notable and controversial passage 1 Timothy 2:11-15, where Paul appeals to Adam being created first, ahead of Eve, and to Eve's role in "the fall" of creation, to justify women's silence in church and submission to male leadership? Does Paul, for example, appeal to one aspect of the creation story (Eve being created from Adam, according to Genesis 2) and not to another, namely, humanity, male and female being created in the image of God (Genesis 1)?

With respect to same-sex civil marriages, even if they fail a "creation principle" in which the emphasis falls on marriage as a creation institution for male and female, do they not fit with another "creation principle" in which (also according to Genesis 2), it is not good for a man to be alone? To what extent, in other words, might companionship be a "creation principle" which undergirds affirmation in the church of two men or two women covenanting together to be partners in life for life? Especially if those men or women are not capable of otherwise conforming to the requirement for marriage to be between a man and a woman?

Paul, incidentally, in respect of the two articles which touch on the question of whether Paul was wrong on homosexuality, was an intriguing theologian of sex. For instance, overwhelmed by the conviction that the return of Christ was imminent, he offers nothing by way of support for the notion that sex is primarily for the purpose of procreation, pace our 20th and 21st century debates re contraception. (He's not against the possibility of procreation being primary; likely, as a well trained Jewish scholar and teacher, he would answer that question affirmatively; but he just doesn't give the matter consideration.) Conversely, in 1 Corinthians 7, he is realistic about the power of sexual desire: better to marry than burn; better to refrain from sex in order to pray for a limited time only and only by mutual agreement. Yet these considerations have nothing to do with a classic modern posed dilemma, is sex for procreation or for pleasure.)

In other words, even though there is considerable weight in tradition and Scripture re Christian marriage involving a man and a woman, there is also possibility within even the Pauline writings for some fresh thinking about how the church might respond to same sex couples who covenant life together, including contracting together a civil marriage according to changed civil laws.

There is lots more to say here - more questions and observations - and I don't have time to write them. Francis and Ian both make excellent arguments along the way of their respective articles, and each article deserves careful consideration by all Anglicans interested in this particular conversation.

UPDATE [15 August 2021]

In the comments below a point is made that any changes to our understanding of and application of Scripture should not involve strain on a "plain reading" of Scripture. The specific comment by Bowman Walton sparking this update is this:

"In an interview, J I Packer once replied to some of the usual arguments for SSM by saying that such sophisticated readings of scripture dissolved the ordinary believer's confidence in the plain meaning of the text, and that was far too high a price to pay for a trendy ritual innovation. Kindly note that even if one favors the innovation, some authority problems remain to be solved."

Of course (as a comment in reply by Jonathan notes), there is not always a "plain" understanding of the "plain meaning" of Scripture and so forth re complex discussion on hermeneutics.

We could also note that some readers of Scripture are quite comfortable with "sophisticated readings of scripture" - I am thinking, for instance, of interpretations of Revelation in respect of different understandings of "end times".

Nevertheless I think JI Packer via Bowman makes an excellent observation. For instance, if we wish to persuade the whole church of change X then we are more likely to be persuasive if we can offer an interpretation of Scripture which can be easily recalled and recounted to another Christian than if the explanation is sophisticated to the point where few can readily pass it on to others.

With respect to what Ian and Francis are arguing over I make the following observations:

1. The plain understanding of marriage in Scripture (whether in its narratives or in its ethics or in its imagery (e.g. re Christ and the church) is that marriage is between a man and a woman. To argue that marriage can be between any two persons, without reference to gender, is intrinsically to bring forth a sophisticated argument.

2. On what I see as a "related" matter, marriage and divorce and remarriage after divorce, it is interesting that getting around what Jesus and Paul say involves a not entirely persuasive sophistication. For instance, the Roman approach via "annulment" both reads Jesus and Paul in a "plain" manner (there can be no marriage after divorce) and in a "sophisticated" manner (because Jesus and Paul say absolutely nothing about "annulment" of marriages, nor about difference between "civil marriages"/"church marriages which are not sacramental" and "sacramental marriages." Where Protestants seek to offer Scriptural support why A and B can remarry after divorce but not C and D, because the background circumstances are different; or because A and B have repented of mistakes made in their previous marriages whereas C and D have not, there is a different kind of sophistication going on. Neither Jesus nor Paul offer other exceptions than the Matthean and Pauline Exceptions; and neither talk about "repentance" as overcoming Jesus' fundamental point that marriage is for life.

3. In my view, a simpler and plainer reading of Scripture re marriage, divorce and remarriage, is to work pastorally with a couple seeking marriage after divorce under the mandate "be merciful."

4. Back to same sex lifelong partnerships, especially those lawfully constituted as marriages in an increasing number of countries around the world: what is a plain reading of Scripture which supports the church pastorally supporting rather than condemning same sex couples in our parishes?

5. Noting some approaches I have read to the "Six Texts" over the years, and fascinating as certain word studies are re words used in - notably - Leviticus 18:22 and 1 Corinthians 6:9, sophisticated arguments which attempt to effect a neutralising of the plain meaning of these texts are likely to be unpersuasive. Better (as some writers I have read do) to admit these texts are condemnatory and then ask whether they address our modern situation as governments by divine appointments change laws. 

6. A straightforward possibility is that the church then invokes "be merciful" (per 3 above, per precedent regarding response to remarriage after divorce) and re-examines what "companionship" (Genesis 2) might mean in 21st century society.

7. In making an examination of what "companionship" in 21st century society might mean in relationship to sexual relationships, the church might remember that in some ancient times, in Hebrew/Israelite society, there was divine tolerance of polygamy, even though polygamy cannot be squared off with Genesis 2 or Jesus'/Paul's reading of Genesis 2.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

On Wisdom, the Problem of Suffering and How We Should Live

One of the privileges of life is to meet people who are extraordinary, beyond ordinary, outstanding. One such person is Walter Moberly, a British Old Testament scholar, in the Theology Department at the University of Durham, where I met him and learned from him when I studied there some thirty years ago. 

I love reading his writings - he writes well and clearly and insightfully - and there is always deep knowledge of the Old Testament and scholarship about the Old Testament (and a few other fields). He makes the Old Testament come alive as a living document directly speaking into Christian life.

Currently I am reading Walter's The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020).

In the first chapter, "The wise God: The depths of creation in Proverbs 8," there is this paragraph:

"Interestingly, Proverbs 8 no more tries to explain how folly can be present in a world made by God through wisdom than the Johannine Prologue tries to explain how darkness can be present in a world made by God through the Word who is life and light. The focus in each text is not on the abstract question "Why are there evil and folly in the world?" but rather is on the practically oriented question "How best should the world be understood for the purpose of living well in it?" The inability of monotheistic faith to "resolve" the question of evil and sin at a certain theoretical level is well known (however much partial accounts, primarily in terms of the implications of freedom, may be offered). But the corresponding strength of the biblical witness is its consistent focus on the inescapable reality of the world as known to all humans, with a clear vision of what enhances and diminishes life when confronted by this demanding reality." [p. 45]

In one paragraph Moberly does the following:

1. Sums up most if not all Christian literature on the problem of suffering:

"The inability of monotheistic faith to "resolve" the question of evil and sin at a certain theoretical level is well known (however much partial accounts, primarily in terms of the implications of freedom, may be offered)."

In other words, all those books (and blogposts) cannot solve the problem; and the most frequent proposal, that the implications of freedom explains suffering, is inadequate.

Gulp!

2. Yet does not leave Christians in a hopeless place with this realistic if unpalatable assessment:

"But the corresponding strength of the biblical witness is its consistent focus on the inescapable reality of the world as known to all humans, with a clear vision of what enhances and diminishes life when confronted by this demanding reality."

We may not be able to solve the problem of suffering at a theoretical level but we can learn together through Scripture how life may nevertheless be enhanced rather than diminished.

3. More generally concerning all of life in this world, Moberly challenges us to read Scripture (Old and New Testaments, Proverbs and John) for an ultimately practical rather than theoretical effect on life:

"The focus in each text is not on the abstract question "Why are there evil and folly in the world?" but rather is on the practically oriented question "How best should the world be understood for the purpose of living well in it?""

Some food for thought (on the Sunday when the Gospel is John's Jesus declaring, "I am the bread of life."). 

Monday, July 26, 2021

May Christianity engage with novelty? On real women and virtual communion!

I recall, from my youth, listening to talks which would include a refrain that went like this:

"There is nothing new which is true and nothing true which is new."

Meaning, so I understood, first, that the truths of our faith were laid down a long time ago - revealed by God once and for all - and, secondly, that claims of new discoveries of truth in relation to our faith should be carefull vetted and, likely, discarded.

In general terms, of course, this refrain is true in connection with the propositions of our creedal faith. We're all going to dispatch to the theological boundary a claim that, say, a fourth member of the Godhead has been revealed.

In terms of many other aspects of our faith and practice, the refrain is not true. If it's 1800 and anti-slavery sentiment is building up in our congregation, the preacher might attempt to dispatch this sentiment on the basis that (a) slavery has always been with us and (b) to be against slavery is a novelty measured against the tolerance of slavery in Scripture. Ditto, coming to the days of my youth, if such a refrain was used to dismiss the possibility of women being ordained presbyters and bishops in the church. (Incidentally, I do not personally recall the refrain being used in that way.)

A couple of issues, I will argue in this post, raise the question of novelty and whether our ruminations around the globe, and even here on ADU, take sufficient account of it.

One issue is the question of virtual communion (internet communion) which was canvassed a little in the post below and in comments in the thread to that post; albeit the main debate referred to is on Bosco Peters' Liturgy blog. That debate concerns Bishop Tim Harris, Adelaide's reflections on the eucharistic theology in the BCP (1662) in relation to virtual communion.

My question here is whether there are limits to considerations of past practice (considering, for example, the question of "spiritual communion" in relation to sickness per the rubric of the BCP) because technology enables a different form of community than anything the BCP (or, say, our NZPB of 1989) envisaged. We are in a genuinely new situation where the church gathers online, visually and audibly, for meetings, for fellowship in Christ, for synodical decision-making, for connecting around the globe and around local districts, constrained by travel restrictions, lockdowns and, yes, sickness (or signs of it, so that we dutifully stay away from a physical gathering together) ... but not for communion.

I suggest that the kind of discussion/debate cited here (but occurring in multiple ways around the globe through these strange times) is both helpful (e.g the range of questions being raised for theological consideration, the issues being canvassed for possible future synodical resolution) and not yet reaching the critical question for all novelty. I'll leave that question to further down, suffice to suggest that, all in all, all discussions and debates to date re virtual communion are prolegomena to the actual debate we will yet have.

Another issue, at least in some significant parts of global Christianity, is the role of women in the life of the church and in the Christian home. Outside of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity this issue seems to be largely confined as an evangelical Protestant issue, captured in a seemingly endless "complementarianism" versus "egalitarianism" range and rage of books, articles, blogposts, social media comment, often but not exclusively anchored into North America and just possibly fuelled by surrounding culture wars there. 

A very recent expression of the debate, with barbs and edges is found in this review by Kevin DeYoung of Beth Allison Barr's book The Making of Biblical Womanhood and a response by Michael Bird to Kevin DeYoung's review.

The review is a shocker on the ad hominem front, even if it is standardly academic as well (as Michael Bird notes). Michael Bird's response, however, keeps us focused on Scripture and the question whether Scripture is "complementarian" or "egalitarian", and thus on trying to resolve a present issue in terms of the past. Scripture clearly has some things to say about men and women, about God and humanity, about the order of the church and about family life, but does it deal with life today in which (I would argue) women - at least in Western culture - are in a novel situation relative to previous generations? 

Is the resolution of evangelical, Protestant Christianity's understanding of men and women only able to be determined through Scriptural consideration, given that what it says about equality and mutuality of men and women is so few words, and what it says about men's leadership and women's submission to that leadership is so fraught with risk of misunderstanding the cultural context of the times in which it was written?

Another way to respond to novelty?

Here is my radical yet familiar suggestion: we should ask ourselves, What would Jesus do?

By "ask ourselves" I mean with due theological seriousness, commitment to enquiry with open hearts and open minds, regard for the common life of the church (including determination to arrive at a common answer to the question), and so forth.

By "Jesus" I am, yes, invoking Jesus of Nazareth as we read of him directly in the gospels and through his apostolic interpreters in the epistles, but not wanting to bypass or exclude from consideration the Jesus whom (say) Cranmer also knew.

Faced with lockdown excluding people from physically gathering to obey the command of Jesus to "Do this in remembrance of me", what would Jesus do?

Faced with a human society in which women are encouraged to do anything men can do, what would Jesus do about appointing leaders in the church and what would Jesus say about men and women in the life of the Christian home?

Answers in the comments!

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Too much?

Is there too much going on in Anglicanland right now?

Among various items of news and issues of the day, several matters stand out for a wee bit of Antipodean commentary.

(1) The [latest] row in the Church of England

Ian Paul on Psephizo has a bracing response to Giles Fraser's column provocativly titled "The Church is Abandoning its Flock." I seem to be noticing on social media some Kiwi Anglicans approvingly drawing attention to Fraser's words.

Such to and fro in the CofE blogosphere over recent weeks started with the publication of a church planting strategy associated with Canon John McGinley, a priest in the Diocese of Leicester and a leader in New Wine, who proposes thousands of lay-led church plants and unfortunately described buildings and trained clergy as "key limiting factors". Then there has been a paper, from Archbishop Stephen Cottrell himself, along somewhat similar lines, and much CofE angst resulting thereof - all told in one handy article by Catherine Pepinster

While I want to be, and must be sensitive about wading into an internal ruction thousands of miles away in another Anglican church, I wonder if a couple of observations might be in order, noting in my own church the popular reception of the Fraser column, and the parallel observable fact that we have rather a large number of greying, quantitatively diminishing congregations here in the Blessed Isles? Here goes:

On the one hand: when safeguarding of ministry performance (i.e. maintaining of high ministry standards) is in the spotlight (both in the Blessed Isles and in the British Isles), isn't there a renewed importance on educating, training and formation of missional leaders such that "key limiting factors" is a "what do you not get about investing in clergy" clanger of the highest clanging and clashing of cymbols?

On the other hand: when actual numbers of Anglican congregations, when proportion of growing populations identifying as active Anglicans are so low and plummeting lower (in both the Blessed Isles and in the British Isles), isn't there an urgent need for open minds and open hearts to any and every possibility of growing congregations? And, relatedly, what do we (especially the "we" of clerics) not get about the unlikelihood of younger generations of new Anglicans turning up en masse to existing congregations of older Anglicans?

Put differently: the likelihood of new Anglican growth by new Anglican initiatives alongside and/or beyond existing congregations and current structured ways of doing things is intrinsically much higher than the likelihood of new Anglican growth by doing things the way we have been doing them for the past half or even whole century.

In sum: here, there and everywhere in the Anglican Communion, we need great clergy; and here and there, there is desperate need for re-growing Anglican churches; and we may or may not be able to regrow our churches with the clergy we are currently recruiting and training with current methods.

(3) Anyone for virtual communion? 

One of the lovely challenges of Anglicanland issues is that I have lots of friends to be even handed to, on various sides of multi-faceted matters of debate :). 

In this case, Bishop Tim Harris (Diocese of Adelaide) has had an article published recently on virtual communion and Bosco Peters (Diocese of Christchurch) has made a series of responses (one, two, three, four, [update from original post] and now five) which take up the questions +Tim raises (see citation of Tim's paper in the first response).

Here I don't wish to take up the matter beyond one observation, but encourage you to head to Bosco's series of posts (where you will see a couple of comments by me).

My observation is this: sometimes in responding to a situation we respond to a crisis which drives a very pragmatic approach, but such approach is not likely to then be taken as some kind of new norm; and other times we are responding to a situation conscious that our response will determine a new norm.

With respect to the former, and the eucharist, in circumstances such as Japanese prisoner of war camps in WW2, there are stories of communion being celebrated using water and rice instead of wine and bread. This seems a reasonable pragmatic response to a crisis and we can assume that no one participating in that particular crisis of deprivation of a number of norms was going to propose when back in normal life that water and rice should replace wine and bread.

With respect to the latter, and the eucharist, within our own ACANZP, we have liberalised reception of communion at certain points in recent decades: for instance, to no longer require confirmation as well as baptism as a prerequisite to receiving communion; and to no longer require that a communicant be a member of our church. By making such changes we have formulated a new normality and it is unlikely that we will go backwards on these changes.

With respect to discussion about virtual communion (for want of a better description of the matter under discussion), I think one question (among, it turns out, a large number of questions) is the question of whether we are discussing a pragmatic response to the crisis of being in lockdown (i.e. unable to physically gather in the normal way for congregational worship in one physical space) or a (new normal) response to having the facility in the modern age of gathering a congregation virtually via Zoom and the like, with bread and wine handily available in each of our own kitchens?

Then, if lockdown is a crisis justifying a pragmatic answer to the question(s) re virtual communion, how long is required for lockdown to be a crisis? Seven days or seven weeks (2020's first NZ lockdown) or seven months?

(3) Evangelical Anglicanism is somewhat indebted to Calvin, is it not? So what about Calvin on ... indirectly ... That Topic?

Does Calvin's attention to justice and equity point the way forward for evangelical Anglicans in the controversy on That Topic? A little while back Bowman Walton drew my attention to an article by Andrew Goddard which I have only this weekend found time to track down and to read. The article is called "Semper Reformanda in a Changing World: Calvin, Usury and Evangelical Moral Theology."*

This article has occasioned - a few years ago - some debate between Goddard and Crockett, then Bishop of Bangor - links at this Thinking Anglicans post.

I note the following to readers here:

  1. The author of the original article, Andrew Goddard, is a consistently pro clarity of tradition and Scripture opponent of liberalization, often writing in evangelical contexts (but with reason and charity).
  2. The linked "Semper Reformanda" article clearly carries 1 along; yet
  3. The second half of the article, on Calvin’s revision of formerly clear tradition and Scripture teaching on usury, is not – in my reading – as easily dismissed as Goddard does in respect of Calvin setting out a pathway for present day re-reading of Scripture. Consider for example the somewhat blithe way in which he finds no moral qulams in the use by Anglicans of contraception in the modern age. The more he articulates what Calvin did re usury, in the face of Luther and co to the contrary, the more he presents a case against his overall thesis! (You could check out what Bishop Crockett has to say via the links in the Thinking Anglicans post).
  4. Whether Calvin (on usury) or Goddard (on Calvin’s exegetical example for today) is right or wrong etc etc, my surmise is that, at the least, Goddard effectively presents the circumstances under which evangelicals might agree to disagree on tradition and Scripture on homosexuality.
  5. Calvin's key hermeneutical approach to usury/Scripture/his present context was to invoke considerations of justice and equity. Now, are not "justice and equity" considerations in 20th and 21st century Anglican debates.
  6. And for any Anglicans reading here who are not familiar with the influence of John Calvin on Anglicanism's Reformational foundations, there is more Calvinism than Lutheranism in the BCP and 39A.
(4) And for those who worry about Anglicans cornering all the debates and controversies in global Christianity ...

A new battle in Roman Catholic Liturgy Wars has emerged as Pope Francis has issued a directive restricting use of the old-style Latin Mass (i.e. pre Vatican 2 Latin Mass, noting there is a Vatican 2 Latin Mass).


"Pope Francis cracked down Friday on the spread of the old Latin Mass, reversing one of Pope Benedict XVI’s signature decisions in a major challenge to traditionalist Catholics who immediately decried it as an attack on them and the ancient liturgy.

Francis reimposed restrictions on celebrating the Latin Mass that Benedict relaxed in 2007, and went further to limit its use. The pontiff said he was taking action because Benedict’s reform had become a source of division in the church and been used by Catholics opposed to the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s meetings that modernized the church and its liturgy."

Further insight on the way in which Benedict XVI's previous decision has been hijacked is here.

In short, sadly, divisions in Christianity are all around us. To quote the best bit of Latin re the church, it should not be so because Jesus prayed, "Ut unim sunt."

Incidentally, did you know that Latin versions of Anglican eucharists are acceptable in certain circumstances?

(Feeding off a witty point I saw on Twitter) Article 24: Of Speaking in the Congregation in such a Tongue as the people understandeth expressly gives permission for Latin speaking/comprehending Anglicans to celebrate the eucharist in a Latin translation :).

Have a great week!

*(Originally published in Sung Wook Chung (ed), Alister E McGrath and Evangelical Theology: A Dynamic Engagement, Paternoster Press, 2003, pp235-63. Reprinted [at the link above] with the kind permission of Paternoster.)

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Life in Christ - a sermon

This weekend past, I preached at the induction of the new incumbent at Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson. Below I give the sermon text - partly because time does not permit me to post something “original to the blog”; partly because what I am trying to say, from passages chosen by Graham, with a request that I emphasise Philippians 2, lines up with some recent themes in posts: that we move beyond a conception of Christianity as “sin management” to a conception of Christianity as … well, why not read on …

INDUCTION SERMON: GRAHAM O’BRIEN, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson and Vicar of Christ Church Parish, Nelson, Sunday 11 JULY 2021

Readings: Ps 24; Phil 2:1-11; John 1:1-14.

Introduction

In my introduction I greeted a number of people and said some (nice) things about Graham. I also asked the congregation to permit me to talk about Graham as Dean through the sermon rather than as Dean and Vicar.

One Thing

What is the one thing Graham could best do as Dean?

I imagine there are some views here today among the congregation.

The new Dean should improve things around here. (Don’t worry; I am not picking on the Cathedral here; in every church, things could be improved.)

The new Dean should lead a fundraising campaign. I have never met a Cathedral that is not short of funds.

No, others will say, The one thing the new Dean should do is some systematic pastoral visitation.

And there may be that view which – to be fair – clergy quite like to hear, that being seen among the people, sitting in the outside tables of a popular café in Trafalgar Street, lingering purposefully is that one thing the new Dean should do.

To be sure, Deans do improve things in their Cathedrals, raise funds, make pastoral visits and, when there is a spare moment or two, enjoy café life.

But what is the one thing Graham should do because it is critical to the Christian life, because it is primary to the life of the church, because it is the thing which if we get it right everything flows from it?

John 1 and Philippians 2

Our readings today give us the answer.

Both readings speak to us of the big picture of our faith. 

Both speak of the movement of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, from the heart of God and the privilege of the divine life to sharing and embracing the vulnerability and humility of humanity.

And both readings speak of the consequence of that movement for humanity – for you and me.

John speaks about how we can become “children of God.”

Paul in Philippians speaks about how we are “in Christ”.

- “in Christ” meaning that Christ lives in us and we live in Christ,

- in a union which enables us to share all the privileges and blessings of Christ.

What Christ comes to achieve in sharing our humanity is the possibility of transforming us, of actually changing our lives so that we become new people living through the power of God working in us.

Unfortunately, we who call ourselves Christians often settle for second best. 

We worry about whether our children are learning Christian values. 

We bewail the loss of Christian morality in a society accelerating away from its Christian foundations. 

We speak about God’s love for us all and reduce that love to a kind of nice comforting message which will somehow encourage the world at large through the travails of life.

But “values”, “morality” and a “comforting message” are not the limits of what God in Christ came into the world to achieve.

The reality of God’s work in Christ is the possibility of a new way of life – a new way of being, as God’s children, as those who are “in Christ” 

That’s the first best: Christian life as new life, as much more than values, morals or comforting message. 

And Paul, writing in Philippians, is asking his readers to understand what this means for their life together as the church.

His plea is that in their common life together they might be united in love, setting rivalry aside and putting each other first.

This is not a plea using the word “should” which asks for more effort: 

-        you should be better at being one body of Christ, 

-        you should be less antagonistic to each other, 

-        you should work harder at being better Christians.

No, no, no! Paul’s plea, beginning in the first verse is: 

“if you who are in Christ, who are united with Christ grasp what this means, then you will act accordingly, you will be what you are, a people motivated by God’s own love to look out for one another, and to live in common purpose and common commitment to Christ’s mission in the world.”

Then in verses 5-11, Paul underwrites what he has just said by saying, 

“What you are called to do and be in Christ as children of God is modelled by Christ himself.”

But, again, Paul doesn’t tell his readers, 

“You ought to be better at imitating Christ; you should work harder on being more like Jesus.”

What he says is again an appeal to a careful understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Verse 5: “τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ”

“Let this kind of thinking be in you which is also in Christ Jesus.”

You are in Christ, think Christ thoughts, think the way Christ does – let Christ’s thinking be your thinking, Christ’s attiude be your attitude.

Paul then sets out the distinctive thinking and attitudes of Christ Jesus:

- Christ was equal to God yet did not cling to the privilege of that equality;

- Christ emptied himself of all divine privilege in order to share our human life, 

- Christ shared our human life with utmost humility and obedience which led to execution by crucifixion.

That is the Christ whose life is our life, whose mind is our mind, whose attitude is our attitude:

That means, it is possible to love others, to have the humility to treat them as better than ourselves, to look out for their interests ahead of our own, because Christ himself is united to us and motivates us to be Christ to others. 

George Hunsinger, in his commentary on Philippians says,

“The mindset which is already theirs in Christ Jesus needs to be reclaimed ever anew. It encounters them not as an ideal possibility but as a concrete reality – one in which they already participate. It is not something to be constructed but something to be appropriated. It is a gift before it is a task. It means becoming what they already are. … They are to appropriate in practice what is already theirs by grace.” [Philippians, p. 36]

One Thing

What is the one thing Graham could best do as Dean of this Cathedral?

To nurture the life of the congregation in Christ. 

Through teaching, through the eucharist, through your own life in Christ.

To be who we are meant to be in Christ we need teaching – like Paul is giving in Philippians – about the grace which is ours and needs appropriation.

We need feeding with the precious body and blood of Christ.

We need to see life in Christ lived out in inspiring example.

Graham, your role as Dean is a privilege and it comes with responsibility.

The primary responsibility is to nurture the life of the congregation in Christ.

A congregation fully alive in Christ, living in the way of Christ set out in Philippians 2, will be a witness to the gospel of transformation in the city of Nelson.

From life in Christ the mission of Christ will flow.

The greatest privilege of your role, Graham, will be to see God at work in the people you have been called to serve.

May God bless you and Leeann and the people of God in this place.