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Pope Francis’ Address to the #UMC

His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a 'funeral face,' courtesy Wikipedia.

His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a ‘funeral face,’ courtesy Wikipedia.

In, “Wow, he never ceases to amaze” news, Pope Francis just dropped a Petrine hammer on his own inner circle.  The Vatican Curia – the upper echelon leaders of the vast Vatican administrative machine – got some coal in their mitres during what is usually a pretty benign Christmas address.  The short version: he said the Curia was sick. Of the 15 ‘ailments’ he named that are harming the life of the Roman Catholic Church, I thought a few especially applied to my own communion, the United Methodist Church.  The full list, and the original numbering, is found here from the AP, from which the following selections are quoted.  The commentary attached is my own.  See if you think the Holy Father’s words are fitting for today’s UMC:

1) Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable. “A Curia that doesn’t criticize itself, that doesn’t update itself, that doesn’t seek to improve itself is a sick body.”

Going on to perfection is kind of our thing, isn’t it?  In 2012, the UMC showed a remarkable ability to avoid self-improvement.  How can we become a healthy body instead of a sick body?

2) Working too hard. “Rest for those who have done their work is necessary, good and should be taken seriously.”

For too many Christians, lay and clergy alike, busyness has become a status symbol and an idol.  Why don’t our clergy preach sabbath? Why don’t our churches expect it of their pastors?

5) Working without coordination, like an orchestra that produces noise. “When the foot tells the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ or the hand tells the head ‘I’m in charge.'”

It is easy to look upon other corners of the church as backwards, or out there, or fruitless, or whatever.  But we are all in this together, folks. (By the by, Bishop Grant Hagiya recently had some great things to say about the Pacifict-Northwest, often dismissed by Methodists here in the Bible Belt, on episode #7 of the WesleyCast).  Moreover, coordination – aligning our ministries, resources, and energies – is critical to accomplishing our ministry.  See also #1.

6) Having ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’ “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias, in those who build walls around themselves and becomes enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

Ask about rescinding the Guaranteed Appointment and watch our clergy suddenly develop ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’

7) Being rivals or boastful. “When one’s appearance, the color of one’s vestments or honorific titles become the primary objective of life.”

We are too damned competitive with each other.  The megachurch pastors all want the number one spot.  The mid-size church in town competes with the large downtown church.  On a charge, the smaller church or churches feel inferior to the larger.  Clergy boast about “God’s work” in their church, sharing posts on social media about all the amazing things going on but really we just want our colleagues and superiors to think better of us. In internet parlance, this is called a “humblebrag.” All of this is poison. Pure poison.

9) Committing the ‘terrorism of gossip.’ “It’s the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.”

Christians should not be gossips, and we in the UMC are as guilty as anyone. We talk behind the backs of our pastors, our lay leadership, our bishops, etc..  We of all people know the power of words to make and unmake lives, galaxies, families, and churches.  Clergy should take the lead in condemning gossip in all its forms.  Dave Ramsey’s (I know, I know) take is helpful.  If you think Ramsey is too strong on this, remember – the Pope just called this terrorism.

12) Having a ‘funeral face.’ “In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity. The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes.”

The subtext for too many of our denominational gatherings – international, national, and local – is death.  We Methodists wear the funeral face well. We shouldn’t.  As another Bishop of Rome, John Paul II, said, “We are Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

14) Forming ‘closed circles’ that seek to be stronger than the whole. “This sickness always starts with good intentions but as time goes by, it enslaves its members by becoming a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes so much bad — scandals — especially to our younger brothers.”

If all or most of your friends are on the same side as you, in the church or in the world – you need to rid yourself of this sickness.  Caucuses (such as the IRD, RMN, Good News, and Love Prevails) have done the UMC precisely what some of the Founders – quite correctly – warned that parties would do the the US.  If you want to affiliate with some sub-group of the UMC, fine; but we are contributing to the dissolution of the church and our own spiritual myopia if we only associate with like-minded folk.

There’s my annotated, partial list of Pope Francis’ recommendations for United Methodists.  What do you think?  What should be added? Might the UMC benefit from a similar speech from one of our Bishops?

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“A School for the Lord’s Service:” 6 Lessons from a week with the Benedictines

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An elderly monk-priest enters the sanctuary to prepare for one of the many prayer services of the day. Personal photo.

I spent last week at Belmont Abbey outside of Charlotte, N.C.  I was warmly treated by the Benedictine brothers who live and work at the Abbey, which is on the campus of a small Catholic college.  While the purpose of the week was to study and plan sermons for the upcoming year, I also enjoyed the rich prayer and worship practices of the Benedictine life and learned  much during my all-too-brief time with the community.  Here are a few of my takeaways from the week, along with some pertinent reflections from Benedict himself.  I would be interested to hear your own experiences with monastic and/or retreat communities as well, and discover what insights others have gained in such contexts.

1) Community is a blessing

Monastic life is built on the principle that the Christian life is a community experience.  As John Wesley – sometimes compared to Benedict – said, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”  In their daily prayers, the monks remembered their brothers who had most recently died.  Portraits of deceased Abbots (leaders of monastic communities) adorned the hallways.  They know that a personal search for the face of God is inextricable from a community dedicated to the same.  After all, these dedicated men possess a timeless social network; not one built on clicks, pixels, and limited to 140 characters at a go, but flesh-and-blood brotherhood established by a communal effort at what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction” over time.

2) Community is difficult

The only way to live a life without annoyances might be to leave human interaction all together.  This, of course, would not be without its own problems.  But the point remains that community is a discipline, and one that is sometimes more task than gift.  After just a few days I found myself picking out which brothers annoyed me during prayer times.  This one constantly rubbed his face; that one seemed to always be sneezing and snorting; another appeared to be giving me the stink eye from across the chancel; and WHY did the fellow behind me have have the LOUDEST ticking watch in all of Christendom?? (You get the idea.)

Last week I had to face, once more, that I can be a  rather petty creature.   I suspect I am not alone.  That tells me that we shouldn’t be too triumphalist about community, because human sinfulness affects even the most well-intentioned persons and reaches into the holiest places.  Community – any community, religious in orientation or not – is a challenge because it is always made up of flawed creatures.

3) Reverence is a rare treasure

Something that continually struck me last week, because of its ubiquity in the monastery,  was the absence of something significant in my life: reverence.  Awe.  Rudolph Otto called this sense the “numinous,” that deep intuition that something greater, something worthy of our highest adoration, is both accessible and yet not fully within one’s grasp.  I appreciate the incarnational nature of so much of today’s Protestant worship.  God is our true joy and our friend, and we should celebrate that with gladness.  But I fear we have sometimes so embraced these aspects in our shared worship that the transcendence of God, the holy Otherness of the “I AM” who gives life to Israel and the Church, gets lost.   We need reverence as much, if not more so, than we need comfort.  In his instructions to his Order, known as  the Rule, Benedict says,

“When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, 
we do not presume to do so 
except with humility and reverence. 
How much the more, then, 
are complete humility and pure devotion necessary 
in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe!” 

4) Hospitality is a beautiful spiritual gift

UMC Bishop Robert Schnase has reminded us that one of key practices of a fruitful congregation is “radical hospitality.”  The Benedictines who welcomed me this week embody this virtue in a truly gracious way.  The Rule of Benedict, again, says:

“If a pilgrim monastic coming from a distant region 
wants to live as a guest of the monastery,
let her be received for as long a time as she desires, 
provided she…does not disturb the monastery by superfluous demands, but is simply content with what she finds.”

I especially appreciated the gifts of hospitality shared by the Guest Master, Br. Edward, and his assistant, Br. Emmanuel.  They were exceptional hosts, doing everything from eating with me, to making sure I knew how to follow along in the worship services, to simply making me feel welcome.  As I prepared to leave, Br. Edward took me in the chapel to offer a prayer for me.  He then told me how blessed they were to welcome me, and how much he loved his role in the monastery because, “God has brought you to us, and now, after you leave, I get to welcome two more Christs today.”  He is so shaped by the gospel call to see Christ in the stranger, that he refers to the guests in his charge as “Christs.”  What a humbling gift, and a saintly heart.

5) Obedience and freedom are connected

Because of certain things happening in my own tribe at present, I was curious to ask the monks how discipline works among them.  I inquired about how things are handled if a brother fails to live up to their obligations by, say, skipping prayers, being constantly late, or shirking their duties in some other way.  The reply was pretty simple: the Abbot gets involved and, if needed, so does the Bishop.  Eventually, if a monk is recalcitrant and refuses correction, he can be released from his vows and asked to leave and thus  avoid, as one brother put it, “harming the whole community.”

The Prologue to Benedict’s Rule reads, in part,

“And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.

But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity
for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity,
do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation,
whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14).”

Obedience and true freedom, order and charity, ultimately hang together.  Every healthy organism – and a community is an organism – has boundaries.  Though asserting such an interrelationship is anathema to the cult of “authenticity” and “self-actualization,” it is nevertheless true.  Obedience without grace devolves to legalism, and love without some sense of order will self-destruct under the weight of its own incoherence.

6) Silence is holy

Continuing in the theme of “things the 21st century has forgotten,” I will end with some thoughts on silence.  The Benedictines with whom I shared this week cherish the power of silence.  They know that cultivating the Spirit of charity requires space to listen, pray, and reflect.  This community kept silence from after dinner though lauds (the 2nd prayer service of the day, following vigils and breakfast).  The worship services themselves contain intentional silences, as well.

In the chapter on maintaining silence after compline, Benedict says,

“Monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times,
but especially during the hours of the night.”

I confess am too often fearful of silence; I love “background” noise, whether from CNN, or Pandora, or some other source of distraction.  My week with the brothers helped me better appreciate how impoverished this cacophonous existence of ours – so full as it is of iPhones, tablets, and Beats headphones – really is.  After all, sometimes God is in the silence (1 Kings 19:11-12).

Concluding thoughts

This experience was a great blessing, both in terms of my vocation (I had a truly fruitful week) and my own spiritual walk.  I will certainly return to be among these simple, devoted men again.  They have much to teach the Body of Christ and, indeed, the whole human community.

Benedict concludes his Rule by indicating that his text deals with only the “rudiments” of the virtuous life, the bulk of which is found in the Fathers of the Church and, especially, the Old and New Testaments:

“Whoever you are, therefore, 
who are hastening to the heavenly homeland, 
fulfill with the help of Christ 
this minimum Rule which we have written for beginners; 
and then at length under God’s protection 
you will attain to the loftier heights of doctrine and virtue 
which we have mentioned above.”

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Wasting Time With God

by Drew 4 Comments
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The Monks of St. Mary Magdalene at Mass

Could you live every day wasting time with God? In the majestic documentary Watchmen of the Night, viewers follow along the daily routine in the life at St. Mary Magdalene Monastery in Le Barroux, France. These holy men, following the Rule of St. Benedict, have their whole lives shaped by prayer, and everything that is not prayer and worship (either corporate or personal) is lived under obedience to the Abbot (a term derived from “Abba,” or Father, who is in charge of the monastery).

As one of the monks interviewed put it, “You make one choice: to become a monk. After that, you have no more choice.”

And yet, there is a profound freedom in the discipline and order of their days, and we see joy interspersed in and with their work and worship. For me, the most profound statement came near the end, in a voiceover during Compline (the last of eight offices of prayer celebrated each day). This addresses what many viewers no doubt wonder as they watch the Benedictine day unfold:

“People often say to us,
‘You serve no purpose. What do you do? Praising God for 5 or 6 hours a day. That’s pointless.’

That’s the highest compliment we can be paid.
It’s true, it serves no purpose.
We do not serve a purpose.
We serve someone.
We serve God.”

As Marva Dawn put it, worship is A Royal “Waste” of TIme. It serves no purpose, it has no utility in the conventional sense. The purpose of worship is union with and adoration of God.

Who needs a “purpose” when you can have that?

I recorded Watchmen of the Night on EWTN, but it is also available in its entirety on YouTube. I commend it to your viewing and would love your own feedback. What appeals to you about the monastic life? What would you ask these monks? Have Protestants lost something in largely rejecting the monastic vocation?

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St. Gregory the Great’s Advice to Young Clergy

I interrupted my current reading with something special for my ordination: Pope St. Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule.  With his description of the ideal pastor and rather cutting remarks on the temptations to which clergy are prone, it was a humbling read to surround the days leading up to my ordination as an Elder in Full Connection.

A large portion of his Rule is devoted to specific instructions for people with opposite vices or situations; while this section gets a bit tedious and repetitive, there are nonetheless some gems within.  Especially interesting to me was the section entitled, “Those who are able to preach with dignity but fear to do so out of humility [does anyone know one of these people???], and those whose lack of skill or age prevents from preaching but who nevertheless rush into preaching.”

In that section, St. Gregory elaborates:

“…those who are prohibited from preaching because of a lack of skill or age, but nevertheless rush into preaching, should be advised that in their arrogance to assume the burden of the office of preaching, they do not cut off the opportunity for their own future improvement.  Moreover, as they seize prematurely what they are not able to do, they should be careful that they not lose those very skills that they might otherwise have achieved at a later time…they should be advised to remember that if young birds try to fly before their wings are fully developed, they fall from the height that they sought.”

He goes on to use – and really, who could be better? – the example of Jesus:

“And so it is that our Redeemer, though as the Creator he remains in heaven and is always by his power the teacher of the angels, did not wish to become a teacher of men until his thirtieth year on earth.  Clearly, he did this to instill a wholesome fear into the hasty by showing them that even he, who could not err, did not preach the grace of the perfect life until he had reached the appropriate age.” (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007 [163-164].)

I am struck by how much this is the opposite impulse of many churches today, including that of my own (United Methodist) tribe.  Denominational authorities tell us everywhere that we need more young clergy, and many claim (or at least imply) that our time to ordination should be faster/simpler/easier.  I have my own thoughts on why “The Process” is so complex, and why it should be so in every corner of the Body, but here I am mostly interested in the age factor.

St. Gregory regards it as a vice that one would seek to preach at too young an age; we seem to act and think the opposite.  Mirroring, rather than challenging, the cultural assumption that everything new is good and the way of the young is the way it should be, the church too quickly and too often runs after the young like a drunk stumbling for a lamppost. Thus the values of the market win out over wisdom, and we effectively despise those whom most healthy societies have revered.

I am almost 31.  I am about to enter my 5th year of full-time ministry, and I have much to learn.  I have no illusions that I have achieved the heights of pastoral wisdom or preaching excellence, and I am horrified that anyone my age or younger would already be showing interest in the Episcopacy.

Wisdom is the fruit of years, and more specifically years of prayer, study, discernment, experience, and some serious grace.  While the young should be cultivated for spiritual leadership, and I understand that the investment the church makes via ordination (if for no other purpose than the rather mundane reasons of insurance and other benefits) means that younger clergy may be preferred by the system, we who are young should not seek to speak of God too soon or too lightly.  We should not presume that being young gives us some kind of monopoly over leading well or preaching with power and conviction.

In short, we could use a dose of Gregory’s advice: don’t be in a hurry to speak the words of salvation, to presume to speak for God.  Jesus didn’t get going until he was 30.  Don’t be too proud to walk before you run, or to sit in the chair of the apprentice before assuming the role of the master.

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Here Comes the (Catholic) Boom

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I regret that I have yet to see Here Comes the Boom.  I’ve been excited since I first read reports about it, but between writing my Full Connection papers and getting writing for Charge Conference, I’ve been stuck in the purgatory of bureaucratic minutiae. Alas, had I taken the time, I would’ve known about what is apparently a strong faith element in the MMA-themed film.  Kevin James, of King of Queens fame, is a faithful Catholic who made it a point to show Christianity in a prominent and positive light in the film.  Via the United Methodist Reporter by way of Patheos:

Was there a deliberate decision to include scenes where faith is organic to the lives of the characters?

Yes, absolutely. There are so many movies out there that go the opposite way. There’s so much negativity. To show faith and prayer as positive things was important to me. You’re right in that it’s difficult. You don’t want to beat people over the head. They’re hip to it, and they know when you’re just banging them over the head to get them to believe it. So that was important to me, to make it organic, and to have it be in the main stream of this movie.

I’ve written a couple of times (here and here especially) about the intersections between Christianity and MMA, and I’m glad to see a devout Christian so public with his MMA fandom (I often get blank stares and agape mouths when I name my favorite sport in a room full of preachers).  Fighters, like other athletes, are complicated people – driven, often superstitious, and more faith-oriented than one might think.  So says James:

Faith plays a HUGE part for the fighters I’ve met, following the sport. I became a fan of the sport back in 1993, and as I grew to know these people and these fights, to see them and work out with them, it wasn’t even the fighting so much that impressed me. They seem like gladiators going at each other in a cage — but they’re real people…In the fighting world, I see it all the time. I know how much prayer and a strong relationship with God is needed, and they rely on it.

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Eucharistic Adoration: Don’t Call it a Comeback

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File this under “commenting on things I know nothing about.”

Still, it’s interesting.  Over at Christian Century, this is an interesting article about the Vatican’s attempt under the two most recent pontiffs to renew the practice of eucharistic adoration.  This is the practice by which the consecrated host – in Catholic view, the actual body of Christ – is displayed publicly for the purposes of prayer and spiritual reverence.  Some churches even have round-the-clock hosts on display, while others have particular prayer times dedicated to the sacramental bread.  Though discouraged in times past, John Paul II and now Benedict XVI are encouraging the practice once more.

But the tradition – admittedly ancient – has its detractors.  CC asked Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame for comment:

McBrien acknowledged that some Catholics find adoration “spiritually enriching,” but said many liturgists see it is a “step back into the Middle Ages.”

“It distorts the meaning of the Eucharist,” McBrien said. “It erodes the communal aspect, and it erodes the fact that the Eucharist is a meal. Holy Communion is something to be eaten, not to be adored.”

For that reason, McBrien said, the practice should be “tolerated but not encouraged.”

To be fair, it looks as if Catholics who like JPII and Benedict aren’t going to listen to McBrien.  If wikipedia is to be trusted, McBrien is not very popular among traditionalist Catholics, both for his writings (which “overemphasize” change in Catholic history) and for serving as an adviser to the filming of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  Yeah, that last one kind of offends me too.

But still, his take on the adoration of the host is very similar to what I have just been reading in The Oxford History of Christian Worship (edited, in part, by the awesome Geoffrey Wainwright, one of my favorite professors from seminary).   Timothy Thibodeau of Nazareth College argues along similar lines to McBrien, that the adoration rather than the consumption of the consecrated host – in addition to the medieval feast of Corpus Christi – led to an “objectification” of the Eucharist that undermined its sacramental and communal nature and reduced the body of Christ to something more like a saint’s relic:

By the end of the Middle Ages, however, the Eucharist had been reduced to  an object, the Eucharistic host consecrated by the hands of a properly ordained priest.  The late twelfth century practice of elevating the host at the moment of consecration – which first appeared in northern France at the close of that century – was the logical outcome of this reification of the Eucharist into a sacred object or relic par excellence of Christ’s body, to be seen, reverenced, and adored but not regularly received at communion….for a great majority of the laity, “seeing” the host had become an acceptable substitute for “receiving” it.

“Although clerical authorities insisted that the consecrated host was not to be treated as a relic per se,” he clarifies, “it was in fact subjected to the same sort of devotionalism as other objects associated with the cult of the saints.”  (from “Western Christendom” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, p. 236, 248)

As with all communions, there is a great deal of diversity in contemporary Catholicism.  The debates over the actual meaning and implications of Vatican II are just one instantiation of this diversity.  Obviously, the Holy Father and many high-ranking ecclesiastical officials believe strongly in reviving this practice.  Contemporary supporters will point out that this is a nearly thousand-year-old practice that deserves to be brought back in the modern era, for the good of the church.  Others will see this as a return to practices best left in history.  No doubt such arguments are heavily bound up on views of the Roman Catholic Church itself: whether its health, vitality, and faithfulness lie in reclaiming the past (“we move forward by moving backward,” as many in the ecumenical movement put it) or in stepping forward into the future, accepting the norms and arguments of contemporary culture and thus becoming “relevant” (a word I despise) to the modern era.  This argument is not unique to Catholicism.

A parting thought: if antiquity is the sole criterion for returning to former practices, one might also argue that clerical celibacy should be abandoned in favor of the more ancient practice: married clergy.   What say you?

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Scientology and Cadillacs

by Drew 0 Comments

First off, if you’ve never gotten the skinny on Scientology c/o South Park, check this out now.  You will be glad you did.  The only downside: this is why Chef left the show.

What does a Cadillac have to do with Scientology?  In the case of writer/director Paul Haggis (of Crash fame), it seems a Cadillac prevented him from staying in the Roman communion.  This is explained in an excerpt from the excellent (albeit lengthy) new piece in the New Yorker.  The article details the ongoing investigation into the “Church” of Scientology and Haggis’ own personal battle with his former social club.  Yes, I said social club.  I refuse to call what they do church.  Pyramid scheme is also acceptable.    Here goes:

Haggis wasn’t proud of his early years. “I was a bad kid,” he said. “I didn’t kill anybody. Not that I didn’t try.” He was born in 1953, and grew up in London, Ontario, a manufacturing town midway between Toronto and Detroit. His father, Ted, had a construction company there, which specialized in pouring concrete. His mother, Mary, a Catholic, sent Paul and his two younger sisters, Kathy and Jo, to Mass on Sundays—until she spotted their priest driving an expensive car. “God wants me to have a Cadillac,” the priest explained. Mary responded, “Then God doesn’t want us in your church anymore.”

The entire article is worth your read.  Fascinating.  File it under,  “How does ANYONE fall for this???”

Oh, time to go.  I should probably be finding an attorney at this point.

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Dare We Read Hans Urs Von Balthasar? (Or, Who’s Gettin’ to Heaven?)

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Hoping to finish up Dare We Hope? from the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar tonight.  I first encountered his ideas in seminary, and a recent bible study on the Revelation of John inspired me to finally take this off the shelf.  The question guiding the Swiss Catholic’s tome is a daunting one: from the Biblical and other evidence, do we have any grounds to hope (not claim!) that all might be saved?  Citing the RC Catechism, he points out that official dogma has never held that anyone is absolutely in hell right now.  Might it be that, as so many biblical texts imply (or claim directly), Jesus might achieve his stated goal of “drawing all men” to himself?

For anyone who has struggled with the question of salvation, particularly its scope, Von Balthasar is a welcome read.  Far from liberal claims that God would “surely” not damn anyone (because God, like liberal theologians, views all judgments as passe’), Dare We Hope insists in on nothing more than the what the title suggests: if we truly love our neighbors and wish for them their highest good, we can, and should, dare to hope that they will be saved…as well as ourselves.

I leave you with a succinct statement, from his Short Discourse On Hell (attached to Dare We Hope? as a response to his critics):

The question, to which no final answer is given or can be given is this: Will he who refuses [salvation] now refuse it to the last?  To this there are two possible answers: the first says simply “Yes”…the second says: I do not know, but I think it permissible to hope (on the basis of…Scripture) that the light of divine love will ultimately be able to penetrate every human darkness and refusal. (Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved” with A Short Discourse On Hell [San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1988], 178)

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Oliver O’Donovan, Church Discipline, and the Current Catholic Scandals

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Ask a typical Protestant what “church discipline” means, and you will probably get a blank stare.  “Are you talking about keeping the youth in line on a mission trip?” they might ask.  No.  Most Protestants probably will not know the word “excommunication.”  In our age of worshipping the individual conscience, Protestants have (contra the New Testament witness) abandoned any real sense of church discipline.  This is both an overreaction reaching back to Reformation criticisms and a capitulation to modernity.  As Professor O’Donovan narrates it, “the Enlightment swept away church discipline from all but sectarian Protestant communities.”  Unfortunately, the laxity with which Protestants treat church discipline at all levels, but especially at the level of laity, seems to be present in Roman Catholic treatments of scandalous priests.

What was lost?  For O’Donovan, the chief concern ought to be the public integrity of the Church, not first and foremost the well-being of the individual.  “The point,” he argues, “is that discipline does not exist first to serve the penitent; it exists to enable the church to live a public life of integrity.”

Of course, discipline applies not only to lay persons but also to clergy.  Unfortonately, all churches tend to approach disciplining the ordained as if they are walking through molasses.  On one level, this is not surprising: all systems will protect its own, and the closer you are to power within the system, the more likely you are to be protected.  All the various Church communions, on some level, simply protect their own.  This seems to have, in some Catholic dioceses, gotten out of hand.  I think that the whole narrative of “those sexless old white men need to marry so they will stop molesting children” is overplayed and viciously simplistic.  Likewise, I do not think the corruption goes all the way to the top, though it is natural to want “the buck” to stop with the Pope.

O’Donovan, both in Resurrection and Moral Order and in his magisterial Desire of the Nations, has a  vested interest in the public witness of the Church.  In the case of Church discipline, he sees the major turning point as “the fateful exchange of public penance for private.”  Thus, all discipline was rendered a matter of the penitent’s spiritual good, and the need of the community to exhibit an unblemished face was forgotten.  In his schema, it seems, any priests facing church discipline would and should do so publicly, sparing their own private interests for the sake of the Church’s witness.

In his discussion on the consequences of lacking true church discipline, I found O’Donovan quite prescient.  Tell me if you hear the current Catholic scandals described almost exactly:

Although the scandal may arise from private fault, though not inevitably, the function of discipline is to address the public problems that it poses for the church’s common life.  Until this is recognized, our churches will continue to be vexed by the all-too-familiar pattern of misunderstanding in which the people find themselves humiliated by some scandal and demand a firm line of their clergy or  bishops, the bishops think the people harsh and unforgiving, the people think themselves betrayed, and everything is at cross-purposes.  That is the necessary fruit of an attempt to render private and, in and individualistic sense, ‘pastoral’ what are in fact the church’s rites of public justice, namely, the avowal of repentance and the assurance of forgiveness. (Resurrection and Moral Order, 169)

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Oh That Pesky Infant Baptism…

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I’ve been slogging through the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics and noting occassional gems.  As a whole, the Companion is quite good, though it obviously leans heavily toward the perspective of its editors.  One particularly interesting chapter, by David McCarthy, explores the practices of marriage, relationships, and sex in the modern world in contradistinction to the Church.  A central focus is marriage (from his Catholic theology a sacrament), which he argues is a means of grace.  As a means of grace, it bestows certain gifts as an objective reality, regardless of the fitness of those who recieve.

So it is, he says, with infant baptism:

Infant baptism makes clear that our relation to God and our active faith are always gifts.  It makes clear that we do not make ourselves or will ourselves to have faith.  Infant baptism makes clear that the presence of God in the world is mediated through the gathering of a people, who worship him and are called to be holy as God is holy. (Hauerwas and Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics [Oxford: Blackwell 2004 ], 284)

As a Methodist in the Bible Belt, it’s always good to think about why we practice infant baptism  because many of the folks around me think it nonsensical.  But the idea of faith as a pure gift – here the Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace is particularly helpful – gets us away from so much of the works righteousness/faith-as-personal-acheivement theology that permeates Protestantism.  Even as babies, God, through the work of His covenant community the Church, makes us Christians.  It is a gift that we spend a lifetime receiving.

Thanks be to God.

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