Saturday, April 6, 2013

Easter as a Template for Episcopalians Going Forward

When the temple police had brought the apostles, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us." But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him." (The first lesson for 2 Easter, Year C – Acts 5:27-32)

It is an open secret that during much of its history, the Anglican Tradition has been deeply imbued by Erastianism. This doctrine, loosely put, sees the Government as being the locus of temporal authority for the Church. Erastianism tends to look to the State to execute the power to “bind and loose” in matters of Faith. In short, we tend to take our lead from Those In Charge because we like to think that God put them there to do just that.

Early Anglicanism made this quite explicit. Henry VIII and his son Edward VI were both “Supreme Head” of the Church of England—a very bare statement of Erastian thinking. Archbishop Cranmer (the chief architect of the Book of Common Prayer) subscribed completely to Erastianism, interpreting St. Paul’s views on the rights and dignity of Civil Authority quite broadly. It was, after all, Cranmer’s pliability on this topic that helped provide his neatly-crafted solution to the “King’s Great Matter.” Such loyalty to the authority of the Crown in Church matters continued in the Church of England for a very long time. So, while the Sovereign on the British throne is no longer “Supreme Head” but “Supreme Governor,” that Sovereign (and the cultural elite such Sovereigns symbolize in every age) is still “Supreme.”

This tendency to look to the State for guidance about the Faith continues even in the democratic USA. The Episcopal Church, for so long closely allied to economic, governmental, and social power, has often wrapped itself in the Erastian mantle of access and significance. In some cases, this access yielded great results in terms of service to those in need, legislative and judicial decisions favoring Gospel-based ideals of compassion and mercy, and in public affirmation of faith as a necessary part of creating and maintaining a truly civil society. But as with Henry VIII, Lord Acton’s dictum looms large in this story: such colossal power tends to lead to colossal corruption.

At some point, the Erastianism latent in American Anglicanism caused us to cling to the movements of our cultural “Supremes” even when many of this class ceased to believe in God or value religion on any level—profound or trivial. When the State became more secularized in its public character, and when Late Capitalism embraced Freudian psychology and German philosophy with its concepts of fungible “values” and power-as-truth, Episcopalians gradually found themselves in dialogue with an elite who thought Christianity not so much quaint as contemptible. The “Supreme Governors” of our placid and reasonable faith now saw no need to keep up the charade, and—in the parlance of our disposable era—moved on from God after declaring him dead in the late 1960’s. 

The response from the Episcopal Church has been something between bewildered denial and a child’s anxious efforts to regain an alienated parent’s love.

Some Episcopalians hoped that the cultural changes would all just blow over, and clung passionately to their elite and arcane Anglo-Saxon traditions even as that demographic accelerated its slide into minority status. Admitting no change in the mission setting (and not even particularly interested in seeing it as such), they preached a gospel amounting to the Pharisees’ "Tradition of the Elders." Looking to the past for truth, they violated a key American dogma: the absolutism of the Now. This group’s grasp on power, already tenuous in the brave, plastic world of postwar America, slipped away to nothing by 1970. Largely dead, buried, and un-lamented, they are today merely a dim echo whose primary legacy is found in diminishing endowments and emptying neo-gothic church buildings piloted by their institutionally more adept (but perhaps theologically less rigorous) successors.

The second major response to the failure of American Anglican Erastianism in a secularizing era was to embrace the thought and practice of Secularism itself, but in such a way that it simultaneously seemed Christian and yet had no truck with the cultural “untouchables” of the emerging religious right—the traditional class enemies of enlightened Episcopalians. At first, this project looked to have energy and vision: the reforms of the Church’s ministry, liturgy, canons, and self-understanding—though fraught with various problems and shortcomings—reflected a tremendous investment of time, effort, and (occasionally) scholarship.

The hopefulness of this epoque was based on a renewed notion of the Church as both engaging with the world and leading it to the Kingdom of God Jesus so often spoke of. Fueled by the renewal of the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council (and in a heady ecumenical climate promising great things), it seemed a season of rebirth in spiritual creativity and possibility.

Yet, the promise turned out to be more complicated than expected. This was, in part, due to  the central problem of assumptions. The leadership of the Episcopal Church was willing to make major changes to its culture with the hope that the Church would become more “relevant" and thus more accessible and influential. Predictably, decades of internal warfare over matters of identity, sexuality, and power ensued. In many ways, a radically different body emerged: battle-scarred but hopeful, it tried to engage a society that was at that very moment losing faith in the entire project of "Church." 

The Episcopal Church leadership had, it seems, assumed that the culture would essentially wait for it to get relevant and then flood in once we were "just right." But this did not turn out to be the case. In a consumerist society, it is tempting to turn the things of the Spirit into mere "goods." But, once done, this means constant market research and product updating. That level of revision and change was unexpected, even to the revisers and change-agents of the 60's, 70's, and early 80's. To put it colloquially, we came to the party too late, and wearing the wrong clothes.

While the Episcopal Church had been "retooling for relevance" and ridding itself of wrong-thinking opposition, a postwar scientistic and consumerist society based on philosophical materialism had bundled off the familiar old world of denominational loyalties and rivalries, replacing it with something quite different. The entire metaphysical category had ceased to register with most Americans. Evolution became the mantra. Unlike crusty old religion (now firmly linked with a repressive past), a consumerist society could really solve problems and make people feel better.

Imponderables requiring long periods of disciplined practice to understand no longer made any sense. In a secular society, time is of the essence because we don't have eternity anymore. With life ruled by the clock and the scale, measurement is everything. Since Faith could not be measured like so many cases of Coca-Cola being sold or episodes of a sitcom being watched, it ceased to be a category that matteredHeaven was out; the Mall was in.

From that point on, the Church gradually became either a tool in the endless Culture Wars that were hammering out postmodern America, or merely a niche “lifestyle” deserving only as much attention as its consumers’ spending on “spiritual products” justified. Either way, it simply wasn't relevant in the deepest sense; a more limited relevance had to be sought.

While today the Episcopal Church may have finally learned to preach all the correct thinking and official attitudes held by the folks it admires (the successors to the “Supreme Governors” still haunting the Anglican Erastian mind), it turns out that very few people, either in its pews or outside its doors, are interested in listening to sermons of any type whatever. If you want this crowd's approval, they need to be entertained, to be told that the spontaneous self is always right, their politics justified, and to be sold products and lifestyles appealing to their carefully-formed consumer identities. They are elusive, demanding, and complicated. Staying relevant to them is harder work than ever.

And this brings me to the point of this little journey: the First Lesson read in the Sunday Eucharists during Eastertide. It is the custom of the Lectionary to take us on a multi-week journey through the first half of the Acts of the Apostles during the Great Fifty Days of this glorious season. In so doing, we are nourished in the experience of the first Christians as they began the work of sharing what is sometimes called the missio Dei…God’s rescue mission to this broken and death-focused world through the person of Jesus Christ. This is the message St. Peter is sharing in the lesson read this Sunday.

One of the things that must strike any student of Anglicanism reading Acts is that it cannot be construed as an Erastian document. The State—while acknowledged—simply is not looked to as the locus of authority for the Church. In Acts, the Church has only one Supreme Governor: God. Indeed, the Church tends to find itself continually at odds with a State that sees itself as God: the final and highest arbiter of Truth. For Christians to refer to Christ as “Lord” was an utterly subversive action in Roman Imperial terms, arrogating to this Jesus a term reserved to the Emperor alone. The followers of Christ understood things from a radically upside-down perspective: while God may allow human rulers to exercise authority, they are all ultimately under the judgment of the Gospel. It is this sense of mission which gives the Church authenticity, energy, and vision.

Functionally, the Church in Acts demonstrates zero interest in making God relevant to the world; rather, it seeks to bring the world into relevance to God by proclaiming and living out the Gospel. As Christ’s Resurrection is the re-creation of the world in a radically new type of life (ZoĆ«, rather than Bios), so the Church in Acts is the instrument of that New Life in Christ being delivered to a dying world.

This gift of an apostolate or ministry of living and sharing the Gospel fuels St. Peter's tremendous boldness in these early chapters of Acts. It also has fueled the explosive growth (against tremendous resistance and oppression) of Anglican Christianity in Africa and Asia, where the Church often has no Erastian pretensions whatever. It is the common denominator of truly free Christianity throughout history.

In the passage above, an unlettered man in a despised class speaks without a hint of fear to the “Supremes” of his day. While not showing disrespect or contempt, he carries no nascent Erastian need to gain the approval of the High Priest or other religio-political elite. They are simply bypassed. By obedience to God through Christ and the Holy Spirit rather than in trying to turn obedience to the culture or its elites into a replacement for that direct participation in God, Peter and the whole Early Church knew they had something much more than a lifestyle or a product to share: they were midwives to God’s mission in Christ. 

That mission is a fiery coal of compassion, truth, justice, mercy, and mystical participation in the very Divine Nature itself. This mission always puts us at odds with the powers of this world who feast on death and its tools of sin, division, and fear. Nothing could—or can—hold the Church back from its ministry when it bears this message. 

What of that spirit today, in our own part of God’s vineyard?

A pervasive sense of anxiety threads its way through our part of the Church today. Amid the nervous chorus of realized eschatology and ritualized pageants celebrating an increasingly monotonous and flavorless diversity, the grim facts of demographic and institutional decline fall like a steady rain, with predictable results.

Still locked in the bitter aftermath of the Great War for Relevance, we look for quick fixes and new gurus to improve the product line, refine the lifestyle, or market the brand. We regularly “re-invent” ourselves with various Decades of Evangelism or mission plans. New “metrics” are trotted out for a time, each one intent on measuring things for no clear purpose, then folded up in futility as we await the next “new thing” that will somehow coax new life from dying embers. Though the results don’t seem to justify it, we continue to reaffirm our trust in the tools of biblical criticism, sacramental minimalism, and theological reductionism that helped get us here over the last half century or more.

This misplaced conservatism (again, a fruit of Erastianism) becomes apparent even when we are most self-consciously trying to be progressive: the notion that we might need to reexamine the whole assumption that the Church is an institution or a lifestyle rather than a Body is resisted again and again as a distraction from trying to find out where “the Supremes” are heading and getting out in front. The language of business, entertainment, government—anything—is preferable in our discourse to opening the Bible and spending time in Acts and its story of ordinary people transformed not by mimicking elites but by intimate contact with God.

All of this tends to result in less and less enthusiasm or energy in places where Erastianism lingers in the marrow of Episcopalians. The joy and hope of the new Church in Acts can seem unimaginable when our highest good is propping up the burdens of an antique and failed way of discipleship. When it is not God’s mission but ours, the labor is simply beyond us.

It is time to terminate our association with this hideously out-of-date mindset. It saps us of far too much energy and joy. Clinging to this "wrong end of the telescope" way of being a Christian makes us anxious and depressed because we see our job as trying to service a large institution, not live and freely share a new way of Life. 

The Sundays of Easter focus on the nature of Resurrection as a dynamic reality inaugurating the Kingdom of God; they carefully re-tell of the story of how the first Christians didn’t confuse themselves with the mission of God itself (Christ Jesus). These Sundays are the opportunity par excellence for Episcopalians to cast off the shackles of a dead worldview and embrace the possibilities for mission our God is setting right here before us.

Alexander Schmemann, the prominent Russian Orthodox liturgical theologian, once remarked that one of Eastern Orthodoxy’s enduring problems was that it believed history “came to an end” in 1453 with the fall of Constatinople. He characterized much of the Christianity practiced from this mindset as essentially tragic and closed. He was criticizing the Eastern Church’s own form of Erastianism and its paralyzing effects on mission and witnessing to the Resurrection of Christ. He frequently pointed out how this confusion of history with mission produced both ignorance of the Church’s actual journey through time and the abandonment of its true purpose for fixation on lesser matters. At every turn, Schmemann’s writing, lecturing, and thinking was filled with the radiance of the Resurrection and the utterly new kind of Life it presents.

Out of his efforts—and those of many others in that era of renewed spiritual vision—arose a new openness to the Church as Life itself, and not merely a department of State clinging to an imagined relevance. It can be so for us.

When we join St. Peter in proclaiming “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” taking seriously what it means to be witnesses to the things of the Paschal Mystery in each dimension of our being, we take our first steps towards liberation. By witnessing in its worship, preaching, and membership a commitment to the New Life in Christ and the kindling of that new life in specific believers—rather than maintaining the tattered remnants of a bygone Erastian past—the Episcopal Church will already possess the relevance and authenticity that it has sought for so many decades. Having that relevance, it will then stop turning on itself or focusing on the endless project of substituting method for message, proclaim from its own experience the truth that:
“God exalted Christ at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him."
This is the message those who cry out for salvation desire. They are frequently not the "Supremes" of this era, but then, neither were the Apostles themselves. It is such company we in the Episcopal Church would do well to keep.

The Collect for the Second Sunday of Easter:
Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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