Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Christianity After Religion

Diana Butler Bass’s most recent book Christianity After Religion is probably worth the time to read but I’m not sure worth the money you might spend, maybe if you get a good deal in whatever e-version you read. She is an Episcopalian so as a fellow Catholic-lite church member I do appreciate her work and am thankful she is offering some hope for the mainline church. My struggle with this book is it seems she does not understand the constraints imposed on the local Episcopal clergy in designing worship. She grew up a Methodist where the congregational pastor has a fair amount of freedom in preparing the weekly Sunday worship service. Evidently, she thinks the priest of her Episcopal parish has the same latitude in constructing the Sunday liturgy. Unless the Episcopal bishop of her diocese is very liberated on what happens during the Sunday main service it is hard to imagine that her bishop would be comfortable with some of her suggestions. Not that I disagree with her, because I do not, I like and appreciate her progressive theology—however, she seems to suggest the local priest can replace the Nicene Creed with the Masai Creed or something else less orthodox. I have used the Masai Creed, written by an African community to reflect their local understanding of Jesus, for non-Sunday worship—however, most bishops would not be permissive of using such a radical non-orthodox creedal statement for Sunday morning’s regular fare. (The use of the Masai Creed is just one example.) Christianity After Religion would get a lot of traction as a book study in most moderately centralist theological Episcopal churches. I also imagine many mainline churches would find her ideas palatable. The emergent folks have probably already incorporated some of her thoughts into their weekly offering. Her incarnational theology reflective of the Celtic influence is refreshing from someone respected by the mainline market. While she never mentions, J. Phillip Newell and Pelagius, her earthy understanding of how to interpret scripture is replete throughout the book. She is courageous to speak to those churches practicing the “same old thing” but supposedly begging for new ways to attract the “spiritual but not religious” into Sunday attendance. How she tolerates their questions at conferences (she is an excellent story teller), well, I respect her patience. Diana Butler Bass writes for the mainline church desiring to survive at least another forty years. She looks to the past for encouragement while casting a realistic sociological light for those desiring any hope for the liturgical church of tomorrow. Okay, I take back my opening line—her book is worth the price of admission.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Trinity Wall Street announced the closing of their conference center in Cornwall, CT. Due to financial reasons the center will be closed in November. The conference center has been the home to the Clergy Leadership Project. I am an alum of CLP having spent four weeks at the conference center. The Trinity Conference Center is a beautiful retreat house located along the Housatonic River, a perfect location to rest, reflect, learn, and fellowship. The staff was extremely hospitable and the cuisine was creative, healthy and at times exotic, a vegetarian’s heaven. The closing reminds me of the difficult decisions the Episcopal Church continues to face. An easy argument can be made that the church should not be engaged in such endeavors as retreat centers. The mission of the church is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, offer water to the thirsty, visit those who are sick and in prison, and to embrace the alien in our land. However, if the church is being fully hospitable in these ways, then I suppose it could also give rest to the weary at retreat centers. While not necessarily a similar situation, after Mt. Calvary monastery and retreat center was destroyed by fire in 2008, the Order of Holy Cross decided to not rebuild. Even now, the future of the Order’s presence in Santa Barbara, California is being considered tenuous. Institutional change is inevitable, even necessary, and mostly desirable but always difficult. Closing camps, retreat centers, monasteries, schools and churches will always be heart-wrenching decisions. I must trust to God these types of decisions will only be made after tearful prayers and long periods of discernment. I am not one of those Chicken Little types who runs around looking in the sky and shouting that the Episcopal Church will die in the next forty years (pick your own number, I use forty because it gets the most banter due to its biblical connection, I guess). I am, though, convinced the Church will undergo a continual firing process that feels like death until it finally reaches the point of finding itself so far into the margins that it then can live out the radical call of the subversive Jesus. The Episcopal Church, and any church for that matter, will retain only the part of its identity ordained by God and relevant to followers of the Way. I wonder what are those pieces and parts of identity that are found necessary by God and the faithful? Jesus said in order for us to live we must die. Albeit it painful, maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid of the process of death? It will bring about resurrection.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

An Imam, a Priest, and a Rabbi go to church

An imam, a priest, and rabbi go to worship service. How do you know whether they are in a mosque, a church, or a synagogue? Depends on the day of the week. Okay, I know, it’s a really bad joke. But, last Sunday an imam, a priest, and a rabbi were together in worship at St. Augustine’s. Sunday May 6, 2012 St. Augustine’s Episcopal Parish, Tempe participated in National Pluralism Sunday by hosting Imam Yahya Hendi and Rabbi Gerald Serotta as co-preachers. Later that afternoon St. Augustine’s was the site of a clergy conversation led by Hendi and Serotta focusing on problematic texts from the Abrahamic traditions. Imam Yahya Hendi, founder and president of Clergy Beyond Borders, is the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, the first United States university to hire a full-time Muslim chaplain. Imam Hendi also serves as the Muslim Chaplain at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. In Imam Hendi's message during the worship service he said, "All of us Americans, in general, and committed Jews, Christians and Muslims, in particular, must find within their own traditions sound reasons to value other faiths without compromising their own. They must realize that what happened on Sept. 11th cannot divide us. We should not tolerate voices of divisiveness. We must use Sept. 11th to explore the best in each of us. Let us keep in mind that Diversity is in itself not a bad thing provided it occurs within unity, cooperation and coordination. So let us all chose to be united with all of our differences for the best of this nation and all of humanity." Rabbi Gerald Serotta served as a university chaplain and Hillel Rabbi for 28 years, the last twenty at The George Washington University where he was Chair of the Board of Chaplains. He held the position of Senior Rabbinic Scholar-in-Residence at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, working on issues of globalization and economic justice from a Jewish perspective. He is currently the Chair of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the executive director of Clergy Beyond Borders. Rabbi Serotta led the afternoon dialogue reviewing a few sample texts that typically cause concern from within and without each of the three traditions. Admittedly, those present representing Christianity, Islam, and Judaism were of the more liberal persuasions among their particular faiths. Texts from the Koran included those about the treatment of women, perspectives on war, and Islamic views of Christians and Jews. The Hebrew text concerned the Jews being the chosen people of God and the particularity of the land of Israel. The Christian text discussed the exclusivity of the statement by Jesus in the Gospel of John regarding he is the only way to heaven. The apparent common thread throughout the discussions was whether each particular faith had a willingness to find room within the texts and their specific tradition for an open interpretation. None of those present for the discussion represented a fundamentalist position. Honestly, my observation from attending several interreligious events is fundamentalist rarely attend these gatherings. The work of continuing the momentum from such a gathering is difficult to sustain. The question is how to stay connected and continue the dialogue. My opinion is the answer lies in relationships. This event was brought together because my colleague and friend Imam Ahmad Sqheiret put together an entire weekend gathering, including worship at the mosque and synagogue, asking our church to host the Sunday event. He and I have worked together at several such events, attended workshops, and maintain a personal connection. I see Islam through Ahmad’s eyes and through his heart. He is a faithful man of the One Holy God. He is kind, gentle, compassionate, curious, understanding, generous and loved by his congregation and by many in this city. I understand his tradition because he shares his faith with me and he listens to my perspective of Christianity. Together, we seek to serve God and our neighbors. I am thankful Ahmad is my neighbor and I am his. Thanks be to God.