July 30, 2008

The Word as Seed

As some may know, I had hoped to attend the Lambeth Conference, but other responsibilities, and a few kerfluffles, got in the way. Nonetheless, I am in virtual attendance today, via this short essay in the Lambeth Witness, which is also available on-line.

Jesus portrays the Word as seed scattered abroad, a striking image for the generosity and breadth of Christ’s mission to the world — but also the extent to which the Word requires soil as well as sowing in order to bear fruit.

This is in keeping with the truth that the Son, the living Word, does nothing on his own (John 5:19,30; 8:28). So, too, the Bible, the written Word, does not work alone, but takes root in the heart, and is interpreted under the stewardship of the church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, becoming fruitful through the Church’s mission and its many members. Ultimately, the truth of the interpretation will be found in the fruit and harvest they bear. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

As the deacon and evangelist Philip showed the Ethiopian, true interpretation of Scripture will point us to Christ (Acts 8). Christ is the living Word to whom the written Word leads us in the Way to the Truth, and thence to Life; and Scripture is fruitful as it performs the task for which we are assured it is sufficient. God’s purpose is to bring people to the new Life of faith — as it did the Ethiopian, who, with the Spirit’s guidance and at Philip’s teaching saw the Truth, and immediately asked to be baptized into the new Life, into Christ’s Body, the Church.

That whole Church (laity, deacons, priests and bishops) is engaged in this process, each and all called to be ‘soil’ for the word to take root — to bear ‘fruit with its seed in it’ (Genesis 1:29), seed which they will further spread. Bishops, as the senior presbyters, have a specific role in teaching; but in coming to decisions at Lambeth, do well to recall Resolution 24 of Lambeth 1968: ‘That no major issue in the life of the Church should be decided without the full participation of the laity in discussion and in decision.’ The harvest is most plentiful when the seed is cast most widely, to many fertile fields, by many workers, all of them servants of the one Lord, whatever their order of ministry. §

Tobias Haller BSG

Relativism and Universalism

Two of the most common accusations directed these days at The Episcopal Church is that it tends towards a relativistic ethic and a universalist view of salvation. I'm concerned to clarify these terms a bit, for they seem rather vague. I tend, myself, towards absolute moral standards tempered by an ethic based on certain biblical principles elaborated by Jesus and Paul. And I hope for universal salvation, but hope is not belief.

That being said, some further clarity is warranted. As to what moral relativism might look like, would this qualify: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean." (Romans 14:14 )? I would call that "subjective" — and I suppose one might see subjectivism as a subset of relativism.

But I also think that the actors, situation, intent, and so forth have to figure in any moral or ethical judgment — there are very few acts that in and of themselves are always morally wrong regardless of these other factors.

To use the late Richard Norris' example, it is o.k. for a surgeon to stick a scalpel into someone, but not for an assassin. The act of "knife insertion" is only deemed moral or immoral on the basis of these other factors.

To take an example closer to home, you could not, if shown a photograph of a couple engaged in heavy necking (or more), be able to tell simply on the basis of the photograph if this was a moral or immoral act. You would need to know certain things concerning them and their relationship with each other, and possible others, to make such a determination. But once these other things are known, it is possible to make an absolute judgment, and to stand by it: for instance, assassination and adultery are always morally wrong. (Utilitarian, teleological, or consequentialist ethicists might fudge on these both, given the circumstances; I would rather stick, as Bonhoeffer himself did, with the notion that sometimes wrong acts have extenuating circumstances, but that they are still wrong, and those who commit them are responsible for them. Thank God, God forgave even those who crucified him, and they were about as wrong as wrong gets.)

Which brings me to universalism. Would this, also from Paul, qualify: "For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob." (Rom 11:25-26)?

Paul makes a compelling case for universal salvation (the healing of the wound of sin; not the same thing at all as "going to heaven" whatever that unbiblical phrase might mean), and he bases it on his understanding of the universality of sin itself. It is reciprocal: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Cor 15:22) Just as we did not fall under sin on our own account or by our own actions, so too we are not saved by our own efforts or actions. It is the faith of Christ (even unto death), not our personal faith in Christ, that saves us (from eternal death).* He is the savior, not we ourselves.

That's how it works, folks, and it is a great mystery.

* With due regard to the shades of meaning in pistis Christou.

Tobias Haller BSG

July 28, 2008

Where I Was Last Week

This is the chapel at Mount Alvernia retreat center, where my community, the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, gathers every year for its convocation. It was good to spend time with my brothers there, and now we are all strewn literally to the four corners of the world again, taking up our local ministries in the spirit of being servants of the servants of God.

Here we are arranged on the steps outside the chapel. It is a very diverse group of servants, with a variety of skills and talents. We try to make the most of them.

And that's me censing the altar at the eucharist last Saturday. And yes, Virginia, that is a maniple. As the appropriate vestment symbolizing service I think its use is important, especially by clergy, to help remind us of our primary task.

Tobias Haller BSG

William Reed Huntington

Today is the transferred feast of William Reed Huntington, the 99th anniversary of his death. He was renowned for a number of his writings and his patience as a pastor and teacher. Perhaps best known as the creator of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, he was an optimist about the possibilities of the church holding varying views together in dynamic tension. I don't know what he would say about our present state of affairs, other than to deplore the divisions and to appeal for unity in spite of differences of opinion. Here is a brief passage from his 1891 book, Popular Misconceptions of the Episcopal Church, from the chapter, "That it is a house divided against itself..."

The great need of American Christianity is unification. The civil system of the country has been so knit together that we are able proudly to declare it "an indestructible Union of the indestructible States." Our commercial system also has become so completely welded, part with part, as to defy breakage. It is in the ecclesiastical system alone that we note the mortifying lines of fracture. One people as respects the administration of law, one people as respects the transaction of business, we are still many peoples as respects the endeavor to win supremacy for the faith of Christ. In religion, disintegration is our curse.

The new consciousness beginning to dawn in the heart and mind of the Episcopal Church is the consciousness of a special call to play an intercessory and mediatorial part in the needed work of a general reconciliation. What makes it possible for an Episcopalian to take this line of remark, without subjecting himself to any just charge of arrogance, is the fact that he bases his peace-making effort wholly upon historical, and not at all upon personal grounds. He does not say, "Trust us as reconcilers because our ecclesiastics are so much more astute, our theologians so much more profound, and our communicant members so much more devout, than yours." He simply says: "Look at the history of Anglican religion, as a history, and judge for yourselves whether it do not give evidence of a greater power of inclusiveness, a more promising facility at comprehending a large variety of types, both of character and of action, than any rival system..."
. . . . .
The unity of which American Christians are in search is a "live and let live" unity. They perceive that the shutting-out policy is what has brought us to our present broken estate. What they are reaching after is the Church that shall be intolerant of these two things, and of only these two things — first, wickedness; secondly, the denial of what is confessedly central to the faith. Purity of character, as estimated by the ethical standards of the New Testament; purity of belief, as tested by the primitive Creeds — these are the only points upon which a united American Church would find it needful to insist.

But the overtures ventured by the Episcopal Church in the matter of unity are met with merciless ridicule, on the ground that the theological divergences and party differences within its own borders are so marked as to have become notorious. "Physician, heal thyself!" Is the not unnatural rejoinder of those to whom Churchmen address their affectionate invitations to reunion.

I propose to meet this rejoinder by taking the ground that it is the existence of these very divergences alleged, and the continuance of their existence within the Anglican Communion, that gives to that communion its best right to make a plea it does....

I hope at some point to post the entire essay. For now, especially in light of the Lambeth Conference now in session, this should provide us enough food for thought.

Tobias Haller BSG

July 23, 2008


I am away at a conference and so have very limited internet access at present. (So apologies for slow comment approval and my even rarer than usual comments and posts.

July 19, 2008

Covenant Thought for 07.19.08

Responding to a comment at TA to the effect that neither "side" in the current Anglican to-do is willing to submit to mutual accountability...

What we are facing is the anti-gospel of some demanding that others submit to their authority, versus the willingness of all to bear each other's burdens. It is about putting up with each other because we love each other, not the deadly game of trying to make the other into what we think they ought to be — or else. The Covenant, even in its modified version, persists in casting its language along these lines: those who do not submit to the authority of the rest shall be dealt with. The Gospel invites us to a different kind of submission — not to each other's authority, but to the willingness to live with and forgive the faults of the other. This is why a Covenant based on discipline and threats of expulsion or dissolution is unacceptable; it is a prenuptial agreement. What is looked for is a Gospel-based Covenant in which all will commit to each other "for better for worse" and for ever.

The kings of the gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. Luke 22:25-26

Tobias Haller BSG

July 18, 2008

Include Me In

In opposing the use of inclusive or expansive language to describe God, some have expressed themselves in ways which a cooler temper and more reflection might have prevented. For example, reference is made to our “understanding of God” and “language which changes the nature of God.”

The first is over-broad — few can claim to understand God. The second betrays a kind of platonic attitude towards language, one which is not uncommon in some circles. This attitude treats words as having, rather than conveying, meaning. It also imbues language with a kind of magic power. It is as if our describing a wall as blue made it blue. The wall, in fact, is what it is, however we perceive it or describe it.

Of course, those who say these things (with a few exceptions) do not really mean them literally. They mean something like, “If we change language about God people will come to have ideas about God that don’t fit the revealed knowledge we have.” And so far, so true. The question is, How useful is the revealed knowledge of God, and is such revelation — given the fact that God has depths we can never plumb — at an end?

A balanced picture

If we turn to the revelatory text (the Scripture) we find that things aren’t quite as monochromatic as the critics of expansive language suggest. In fact, as I examine the Psalms and the Prophets in particular, I find that the Hebraic use of parallelism — a multiplicity of metaphor and image — quite often pairs images about God: male and female, human and nonhuman. And this is exactly what the new inclusive or expansive language liturgies are designed to do: not to remove all male imagery, but to supplement it and enrich it with other language. For examples of such parallel passages, see Deut 32:18, Prov. 1:8, Isa 42:13-14.

I could also note that insistence on an all-male vocabulary for God is a departure from the will of God, who seems opposed to the use of images to represent divinity:

Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice... Therefore take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female... — Deut 4:12,14-16 (Emphasis mine)

Unnatural history

But what is the source of the tendency towards emphasizing the “maleness” of God, and the predominance of this image? My belief is that the attribution of maleness to God is a result of misapplied natural history concerning God as the source of life. This is an anthropological theory, based on human experience. In earliest times, Mother Nature (Mother Earth) seemed simply to bring forth life. Women likewise were simply fruitful, and the Goddess held sway. With the rise of agriculture and animal husbandry (why isn’t it animal wifery?) there was a general shift in analogizing how things came to be born, and the seed — the vital principle deriving from the male, was perceived (somewhat mistakenly analogized from agriculture) to be the source of life, with the female reduced to the passive level of good soil. This cultural passage into an agricultural world is recorded in Scripture as the expulsion from Eden. The Mother of all Living (Eve) comes to be treated just like the land — someone to be subdued and subordinated. And so, while the female was reduced to a role of nurturing — passive, nourishing, protecting, but not creative, the male came to be seen as the human source of creativity and life. It is during this period of human history our Scripture was given its form: and so God, as Creator, came to be seen (metaphorically, and predominantly) as Father. But that did not mean that God was male.

Of course, there were many corrective voices along the way, alerting people to the fact that this was metaphorical language: “I am God, not man” (Hosea 11:9); as well as the patristic warnings not to attribute such human qualities to God. Still, even today there are some who seem not to appreciate this distinction between what God is as God is, and what we call God. It is those who insist that God must always be described as male who are neglecting the wealth of the biblical and ecclesiastical tradition, and the commandment to avoid placing our understanding of God in the place of God.

Tobias Haller BSG

July 12, 2008

A teacher's death

I just learned from Deirdre Good's website, On Not Being a Sausage that one of my professors at GTS in the early 90s, the Rev. Dr. Joanne McWilliam, died last week. She was a wonderful teacher, and a sharp intellect, and I am sorry to hear of her death. She taught systematic theology at GTS (the first woman to hold that chair), and also dove into the work of a faculty member on various committees. I recall an example of her wit, which was dry as a good martini. She was on the committee charged with establishing priorities for the many, many building needs and deferred maintenance at GTS. When asked how the priorities were being ranked, she said, calmly, "We're working on the lethal ones first."

God bless her and rest her, who now beholds unmitigated the glory she studied here below...

Tobias Haller BSG

On the Inspiration of Scripture

Scripture is the inspired Word of God, but it is always written in a human tongue. People do not speak God’s language, or have God’s knowledge, so God, when speaking to people through inspiration, must employ the human language of the culture and time of the one inspired, in order to impart any knowledge at all. God always “talks down” to us, and our finite human capacity always limits how well we understand the infinite God, and express that understanding. One cannot put the ocean in a bottle; and new wineskins must be used for new wine. As Jesus himself would later say, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13)

The inspired recipients of God’s word in Genesis believed the sky to consist of a dome, in which the sun, moon, and stars were set, and which had windows to admit the rain stored in the pool of waters above. God, of course, knew that this was not true, literally or in any other sense, but the minds of those God inspired could have no place to hold such concepts as gravity and freely floating planets, stars and moons — or that the earth was not stationary at the center of a revolving universe. They had the evidence of their senses to the contrary, and would not, as Jesus would later say, have been able to “bear” the truth. So God communicated to them in a language that did not seem outrageous to them, that met their expectations, and explained and ratified what they perceived. The primary truth God intended to convey, after all, was not a literal account of the composition of the cosmos, but the theological principle that God is the creator of all that is.

In the same way, the accounts in Genesis 2 through 4 do not present a literal history of the first human beings, but a theologically relevant account, God’s word designed to explain truths to people in keeping with what they perceived, within their time and place — to address the really big questions to which the account provides the answers: primarily, why is it that people do wrong things; why do they die; why do they marry; and why should a perfectly natural thing like childbirth be so painful.

Tobias Haller BSG

July 11, 2008

Thought for 07.11.08 S Benedict

On this feast of St Benedict, and as a thought stemming from the former one on the fate of stringent versus more tolerant movements, it is helpful to remember that Benedict's Rule prevailed over and against the earlier Rule of the Master in part because that rule micro-managed everything, while Benedict put things in broad and charitable terms. The Rule of the Master, for example, regulated nose-picking and passing gas in choir, and provided a recipe for leftovers. Benedict trusted his priors and abbots to be able to handle such things without spelling everything out for them.

The Anglican Communion, which owes its existence in part to Benedict and his follower Gregory the Great, can learn from this wise and gracious approach.

Tobias Haller BSG

July 9, 2008

Thought for 07.08.08

Why is it that a group calling itself the ‘Global Anglican Future’ seems so intent on repeating the errors of the past? The history of the church is littered with the shells and remnants of purist and separatist movements, as is the world. From Babel to Utopia, from the Zealots to the Taliban, from the House of Shammai to the Sanctified Brethren — such efforts to lift and separate more often fall and dissipate. The church will always be a hospital for sinners, a field strewn with weeds and wheat; it is not the task of one sinner to judge another, nor the task of anyone to weed the field. We are instead called to grow and bear fruit — and it is the fruit that will be gathered in the harvest, not the stalks, be they weed or wheat.

Tobias Haller BSG

July 7, 2008

Forecast: Less Blog

A quick note to all that my blogging will be a bit restricted over the next month or so. The good news (from my and I hope others' perspective) is that this is because I have signed a book deal to put into published format some of my ruminations on sexuality and theology. This is quite exciting, especially since it results from the publisher approaching me rather than the converse, so I know there is a real interest in seeing this happen. But it does mean a bit of work in rearranging, restructuring, and all-around writing, that will keep me a bit occupied — amongst my other duties as a vicar and member of the standing committee. I promise to post a note from time to time, and also to keep you posted on the progress of the project; and I will do my share of continuing to browse what others contribute to the blogosphere.

Tobias Haller BSG

Wright Still At It

Bishop Wright of Durham is still fulminating against America while protecting Merrie Olde England to a fault. (I'm inclined to think that Fulcrum, with the implication of leverage, has still got the wrong end of the stick.) Wright still talks about an America I do not recognize — and an Episcopal Church that is the fabrication of the militant minority, who trot out the same tired and weary druids, wiccans, muslims and Spongs with dreary regularity, to prove the collapse of all good order in North America.

Wright describes

the almost incredible situations that people face for the sole crime of continuing to preach and teach the orthodox faith in Jesus Christ as the true and only Saviour, the final revelation of the one true God, and the standards of behaviour which Christians around the world have taught, and tried to live up to, for 2000 years...

and that he continues to stand by those who have "suffered much" for their stand in TEC. Suffered? Much? For being opposed to Gene Robinson? For not approving of same-sex marriage? For opposing the ordination of women? For criticizing the PB for saying things about Jesus that can be found in Vatican documents? Last time I looked, no bishop has been caused to suffer for not having consented to Gene's election; nor has TEC in fact approved of same-sex blessings, and any number of bishops have said there would be no such things done in their dioceses, and have suffered nothing for it.

Perhaps Wright is, as some suggest, simply spouting this nonsense in order to win back some of the Evangelical friends he has alienated. Others have suggested he is positioning himself to be next Archbishop of Canterbury. All I know is that his writing is verging on slanderous, and he is enough of a New Testament scholar to know that slander is among the worst of faults in the church.

Tobias Haller BSG

July 5, 2008

When All is Only Some

The Church of England is gathered in its General Synod. High on the agenda, once again, is the vexed question of the ordination of women to the episcopate. This is, no surprise, hotly contested in certain Anglo-Catholic circles, and by a few others. For the Anglo-Catholics, though, it seems a reminder is in order.

It used to be, in such Spikey circles, that the things the Articles of Religion refer to dismissively as "those commonly called Sacraments" (but which Anglo-Catholics just called "Sacraments"), were described under the catchy rubric: "All may, none must, some should." It seems that the "all" here was perhaps not intended as such. It appears rather to be the ecclesiastical equivalent of the mathematical set theorists' hierarchy, originated by Georg Cantor. This use of "all" is rather like Aleph-null, the "smallest" of the cardinal sets, the set of enumerated natural numbers.

As the opponents of women in the episcopate would have it, due to natural limitations, while a woman can become a Cantor, she cannot be a Cardinal.

Tobias Haller BSG, leaving the stage

July 3, 2008

Other Foot, Meet Shoe

Bishop N.T. Wright has responded to the GAFCON pronouncement with trenchant words, including this:

When one finds people coming high-handedly, who don't actually know what's going on, and say, 'We've now drawn up this list of 14 points and you've got to sign up to them and then we'll authorise you and you can be part of our club, and if you don't then we're going to sweep you aside'... anyone has a right to feel angry when faced with that kind of thing.... And to be told that I now need to be authorised or validated by a group of primates somewhere else who come in and tell me which doctrines I should sign up to is not only ridiculous it's deeply offensive.

My! Perhaps now that he's woken up and smelled the schism he may be getting a tiny inkling of how TEC felt in response to Windsor, Dromantine, and Dar es Salaam, to say nothing of multiple trumpets from the South -- all of them driven by the same engine and fueled with the same energy source he is facing now. Then there's this gem:

[As to GAFCON] taking a global sledge hammer to crack the American nut... There's a lot of bits that's going to fly around the room if you do that, especially here in England where we do not have the same problems that they have in America.

The problem being: I don't think +Dunelm has the slightest understanding of the "problems that they have in America" or how they differ from those in England. From his earlier writing, it is abundantly clear he doesn't really understand our Constitutional polity -- one of the things that is different from England, along with the fact that the English say "different to" instead of "different from."

It is also clear he felt it appropriate for Windsor (et alia) to make demands to which TEC had to "comply," but doesn't like it much when others make demands of him. The real problem is that Bishop Wright has been indifferent to the reality of The Episcopal Church, so absorbed is he in the "90 to 100 hours a week" he spends "doing the work of the gospel and the kingdom of God in my diocese and around the place." The "around the place" in particular can be taxing, as we all know. Perhaps in all the to-ing and fro-ing he forgot the Gospel maxim about not demanding of others what you are not willing to demand of yourself. Hard stuff, this equal weights and measures business.

Still, one hopes this is the dawning of some awareness as to what's going on, and of the mess into which, with his well-intentioned help (especially around the place), the Communion has been drawn by people who "have a monopoly on Biblical truth" and want everyone to do as they do.

Tobias Haller BSG

An additional note: Bishop Wright is still at his America bashing.

A Social Gospel

When I look to the Gospels, I find significant support for what is called "the social gospel." I find nothing at all, one way or the other, about faithful, life-long, same-sex relationships, those who live in them, and whether they should be ordained or not. Those who elevate concerns over the latter to the level of "gospel" are the ones who have some explaining to do, not those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give cups of cold water to the thirsty.

Jesus appears, in the Samaritan woman, to have been quite capable of making use of one living in an out-of-wedlock relationship to spread the real Gospel -- the Gospel that points to Messiah. Even broken vessels can still hold their share of living water, and spread it to other thirsty people.

Tobias Haller BSG

July 2, 2008

Thought for 07.02.08

Isn’t it strange that we take more care over a funeral than over a dying person? We treat the comatose dying person as ‘a vegetable’ (what an assault on human dignity!) but treat the dead body with incredible ritual respect. Haven’t we got it backwards or at least unbalanced?

With special thanks and prayers for all who serve in hospice work and hospital chaplaincy, and those beginning their CPE this summer.

Tobias Haller BSG

July 1, 2008

Thought for 07.01.08

Spurred by reading Bishop Pierre Whalon's fine essay:

Ecclesiology revolves around the difference between what the church is, as opposed to how it is administered. These are really two entirely different things, as different as Humanity (which is one, inclusive, and global) and Government (which is diverse, particular, and local.) It is the old dichotomy between being and doing. Perhaps if we acted more as we are, we would be better off, both in the world and the church.

Tobias Haller BSG

The Whole Church

In a July 2008 Episcopal Life article, my colleague Ian Douglas quotes the Archbishop of Canterbury as saying, in reference to the upcoming Lambeth Conference:

The main focus I long to see at this conference is the better equipping of bishops to fulfill their task as agents and enablers of mission, as co-workers with God's mission in Jesus Christ.

Clearly it would be good thing for the bishops to improve the quality of their own collegial work. However, what is most important, when they leave Lambeth and return home to their dioceses, is that the work continues with a different set of co-workers: the rest of the church: laity, deacons and priests. Mission isn't just about God and the bishops. God does not appear to intend a model of trickle-down mission, but rather grass roots. Jesus, after all, came to fisherfolk, not the hierarchy, to choose his missionaries. So the bishops need to be prepared not only to work with their episcopal colleagues, domestic and foreign, but with all of the other missionary members of the church, not lording it over them, but as Christ did, working among them. To paraphrase John the Evangelist (1 John 4:20),

If you cannot work with your brothers and sisters in Christ, whom you have seen, you cannot work with God, whom you have not seen.

I understand that the work of the Apostle John is to be part of the substance of the Lambeth Bible study. May the words of the Scripture enlighten the minds of the bishops, to strengthen them in the mission they share with the whole church.

Tobias Haller BSG