A Past, a Present, and a Future

A Past, a Present, and a Future: an address delivered by Jamie Howison to the Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Brandon on Friday, October 19, 2010

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ne of the great things about being asked to give an address as a visitor to another diocese is that it comes with a considerable liberty. Like the visiting preacher, one can offer the message one is most inclined to deliver; if people don’t much care for it, what’s the consequence? They won’t invite you back. On the other hand, if what you have to say is actually helpful, that’s a bonus.

Bishop Jim Njegovan gave a few suggestions as to how I might approach this address, and among them was an invitation to say something about my vision for the church’s unfolding ministry. Here goes…

Let me begin with the bad news. We live in a time of extraordinary cultural and social upheaval; a time in which all of the assumptions on which the Anglican Church of Canada has built its life are no longer holding. Almost every building block on which we’ve based both our corporate institutional forms and our local parish life are in the process of failing.

Now, the good news. We live in a time of extraordinary cultural and social upheaval; a time in which all of the assumptions on which the Anglican Church of Canada has built its life are no longer holding… well, you get the point. And in the long run, that may actually be very good news indeed.

In her 2008 book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle suggests that Western society is in the midst of a shift that rivals the one that took place some 500 years ago, in the Reformation and the rise of the so-called Age of Enlightenment.[i] The difference between the Europe of the 1400s and the Europe of the 1600s is quite utterly astonishing, with deep change having taken place in virtually every sector of common life; in government, finance, technology, education, and of course in the church. In the midst of all of those shifts and changes, it would have been near impossible to say where things were headed, and the rattling of established social norms and institutions would have been at times dislocating, if not downright frightening.

Sometime around the beginning of the 1900s, suggests Tickle, we entered a similar period of upheaval and transition.[ii] The times in which we live did not arrive on our collective doorstep overnight or unannounced, and depending on where you live it may only now be starting to feel like things just ain’t what they used to be.

In the world of the Anglican Diocese of Brandon, I suspect it is becoming increasingly clear that old and established patterns are not delivering the goods the way they once did. That is certainly true in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, and if you look at the financial statements and statistics produced by head office in Toronto, it would seem to be true coast to coast to coast. There may well be exceptions to the rule, but taken as a whole the church is clearly finding that the ground beneath its feet is shifting.

Now, Phyllis Tickle also suggests that society and church have been faced with such upheavals about every 500 years or so, and one of the things she asks in her book is how we might learn from the past in a way that informs our future.

To my mind the most significant source of insight may actually be found in a massive upheaval that took place in the life of Israel five or six hundred years before the birth of Christ. If you’ve spent any amount of time in church—and I’m going to assume that as synod delegates you have—you’ll have at least a passing acquaintance with the story of the Babylonian Exile. A remarkable percentage of the Old Testament texts we read in the Revised Common Lectionary have the exile as the defining background reality. Tomorrow morning in your study groups you’re going to be invited into a reflection on two key exilic texts: Psalm 137 (“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”) and Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 (“seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf”).

The problem is we most often hear these texts and stories as something from long ago; as the past, as ancient history. They may well be that, but they are not merely that. The story of the exile is in fact one of our deepest and richest resources for this current age. If we hear it in that way, we’ve begun to find our way to our new home.

Here’s the short version. In and around 600 BCE, the dominant world power was the Babylonian Empire. Israel, or what was left of it, was small potatoes, not a contender at all. But Israel was in the way of Babylonian trade routes, and so in a manner typical of empires Babylon basically took over. “Resistance is futile,” was the message, and when Israel did offer modest resistance the Babylonians responded with strategic brilliance; they moved in and deposed the king, replacing him with a more cooperative one, and then they took into captivity the members of the population on whom that Israelite society most depended. They shipped these captives hundreds of miles away to Babylon, placed them in what amounted to prison ghettos, and in so doing completely undermined the fabric of Israelite society. A few years later those still behind in Jerusalem did mount an attempt at a rebellion, but it was crushed… crushed in a calculated, violent and humiliating way. Read the Book of Lamentations if you want to get a picture of just how awful it was.

And in those Babylonian prison ghettos, how does life proceed? That’s the question that burns for that community. They have been moved from their beloved promised land, from the temple which had defined their religious life and from the social structures that had told their common story in everything they did. The kings of Israel were not always particularly faithful, but in principle they shared the same story as the priests. Temple and palace, at least in principle, were on the same page. And whenever either got off track you could always count on one of those cranky prophets to come along and call them to accountability.

But in Babylon? No temple, no palace, no Sabbath, no socially embedded story. And Jerusalem, the city that had been the shining centre of everything for some 400 years? News has come back that it lies in ruins, devastated by the ruthless Babylonian army.

Now, listen to that line again: “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” How can you possibly sing those great old songs of worship and comfort, when you’ve been totally dislocated and displaced?

Well maybe you can’t. In Spirituality of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann suggests we should think in terms of three different categories of psalms: psalms of safe orientation, psalms of painful disorientation, and psalms of surprising reorientation.[iii] Those old songs of Zion were born of safe orientation, and in exile they just don’t say what needs to be said. But then new ones are written; psalms like 137, that insist on naming the depth of loss and despair and even anger. They’re written and they’re sung; maybe through clenched teeth, but they are sung. And then comes this other moment, when by insisting on wrestling truthfully with God this people finds a new voice, and begins to write and sing of a surprising reorientation. There in the prison ghettoes, hope is born.

While it is true that no foreign army has come marching through the Diocese of Brandon, and no one has been shipped off into a prison ghetto, there is a level at which we have been quite deeply dislocated, and the reality is that we don’t quite know how to sing the Lord’s song in what is an increasingly strange land. The church no longer stands at the centre of public life, and the government no longer speaks our language of faith. Perhaps in some smaller communities a public school will still be able to hold an annual Christmas concert, and even to have students sing Christmas carols. But by and large it is all holiday concerts and seasonal songs. Any small town theatres still refrain from showing movies on Sunday? I’m not saying we should get all nostalgic for some imagined “good old days,” or wage great fights to wind the clock back. It is just that many of the things that were assumed to be a part of the fabric of our society fifty or even twenty-five years ago aren’t any longer. This is not the society into which the Solemn Declaration of 1893 was written, nor the one for which the 1959 Book of Common Prayer was designed.

So, if we can’t turn things back, what do we do?

That’s where I’d want to suggest that the experience of Israel in exile is more than a story of long ago.[iv] As that community learned to write new psalms—first those ones of painful disorientation and then the ones of surprising reorientation—it was doing so in the midst of one of the most creative and foundation-setting periods in its entire history.

The book of psalms as we now have it began to take shape there in exile. The extraordinary writings of Ezekiel are exilic, while Jeremiah and the latter half of the Book of Isaiah are written in light of the violence that had flattened Jerusalem and in full knowledge of exile. The delightfully subversive stories that fill the first six chapters of the Book of Daniel are set in the exile. In fact, the Old Testament begins to come into its collected form in and through this experience of devastation and upheaval. The synagogue movement is birthed—offering a gathered form of study and devotion not dependant on the temple—and that is the form that has sustained Judaism for 2500 years now. And Sabbath practice, which was not a part of Babylonian culture and economic structure, was solidified during this time.  Sabbath is one of the great and defining marks of Judaism, and it is in a strange land that it becomes deeply embedded as such.

So, no, we don’t attempt to turn the clock back, but instead with an eye on our deepest stories and deepest tradition, we move forward into the future to which God is beckoning us.

Drawing on an image borrowed from Bishop Mark Dyer, Phyllis Tickle writes that every five hundred years or so the Church feels compelled to clean out its attic and hold a giant rummage sale, and that we are currently living in and through one of those rummage sale times.[v]

So, as is always the question when one holds a rummage sale, what do we keep, and what can we safely get rid of? For Israel in exile, the shocking reality was that Babylon had done a lot of the sorting for them, and had disposed of Solomon’s splendid temple and of a monarchy. But then they found that they didn’t need the sacrificial system, and they didn’t need a king, and in fact they weren’t entirely dependant on that place called “the promised land” in order to be God’s people. They had their stories—old and new—and their songs—old and new—and their meals and fasts and home-based practices, and in all of those they could be faithful.

What about us? I have a few thing that I will offer you—and be sure, there is much sorting and selecting still to do—but I wanted first to share a part of a news release that came across my computer screen while I was beginning to think about this address. This is from the September 2010 meeting of the Provincial Council of the Ecclesiastical Province of Canada:

Among the decisions coming out of those reflections was a unanimous decision to cancel next year’s usual meeting of the Provincial Council and instead dedicate the $40,000 budgeted for it to the organization of an event “that will further God’s mission.” A consensus emerged around the holding of an event for youth and young clergy from across the ecclesiastical province in 2011, the planning for which is already underway.

Did you hear that one incredibly significant piece? The one referring to “a unanimous decision to cancel next year’s usual meeting of the Provincial Council and instead dedicate the $40,000 budgeted for it to the organization of an event ‘that will further God’s mission.’” I just about danced in my chair when I read that.

Now I don’t know if the event for youth and young clergy that will take the place of the Council meetings will do all that much, but it is a start. To move out of a place in which budget priority is given to institutional infrastructure and into one that wants to speak seriously about “God’s mission” is such hopeful sign.

So let me offer a few things that come to mind as I climb up into the attic and think about that rummage table.

1. We have a funny thing in this church of ours about what I’d want to call ‘honorifics,’ and for me one of the clearest examples of this is in the tradition of naming “canons of the cathedral.” I don’t know what your practice is here—and for all I know you named some new canons at your liturgy last night—but in Rupert’s Land we do like our canons. In theory, ‘Canons of the Cathedral Chapter’ actually have some responsibilities, but in practice it is simply an honorary designation, generally given to recognize long-service and good team-play. We now have seven such Canons, but we also have what is called the “Honorary Canon”, which has long struck me as odd because being appointed a canon is really an honorary thing, so an honorary canon is what? An honorary honorary? We have nineteen of those. Yet given all that the gospels tell us Jesus had to say about things like servanthood, about not striving for places of honour or roles of prestige, and about the last being first, why aren’t we at least a bit nervous about honorifics? I think for the most part they can land on the rummage sale table.

2. I believe it is time to do some serious house-cleaning around our ceremonial, or more precisely around how our ceremonial practices do or do not reflect what we say in our liturgical rites. Don’t get me wrong; I very much like, value and respect ceremonial when it actually helps us to say something true. But let me focus for a minute on one of our rites, that of the ordination of the priest. In the Examination, the bishop speaks the following words to the ordinand:

As a priest, it will be your task to proclaim by word and deed the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fashion your life in accordance with its precepts.

In word and deed, I’m to proclaim the gospel of Christ? I’m to fashion the whole of my life according to the gospels? Frankly, anyone having such words spoken to her or him should probably be flat on the floor, face down; not as a sign of obedience to the bishop as it is in some traditions, but as a sign of our absolute inability, on our own steam, to even begin to fashion our lives according to the gospels. But you know, ordinations often end up feeling more like grand weddings or maybe even coronations, with the fresh scrubbed new priest treated as the star of the show. Odd.

Maybe at the heart of this lies our need to really lay hold of the words we pray in our liturgical rites. As Annie Dillard famously observed in her essay “An Expedition to the Pole,”

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.[vi]

Have you ever considered—I mean really considered—the words we pray at the beginning of most of our Eucharistic liturgies? “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.” Who has the courage to be truly known like that? Yet we say it by rote, in almost toneless unison. Maybe on some Sundays I’m ready to be so utterly known, but on most? Give me the crash helmet and life preserver.

We need to stop praying as if the words weren’t real. Because they are.

3. And what about our buildings? It is often observed that it is not the building that is the church, but rather it is the people. Fair enough. Yet Titus Presler, formerly on the faculty of General Theological Seminary in New York, once said to me that as Anglicans we can’t be too dismissive of the significance of church buildings, because theologically and spiritually Anglicanism is a profoundly incarnational tradition.

So maybe we have to rethink those buildings, and how we use them the other six days of the week. Given a growing appreciation of our call to be good stewards of our resources and environment, how can we possibly justify owning buildings that are only really used a couple of hours each week? Is there another model? Realizing that theft and vandalism are real issues for many churches, is there another way to get those doors pried open, so that they can at least be used as places where people can pray?

And do remember: the greatest agony as Israel went into exile was being taken away from their grand temple. More than simply surviving, they found a new way forward… or better, were drawn into a new future.

4. And finally, I want to speak about something that I think can’t be sold off in the rummage sale. We may be at the end of the days in which the twentieth century model of the priest-as-professional is workable. The twentieth century model presumes a particular kind of theological training, along with expertise as an administrator, a counselor, maybe an after-dinner speaker, and probably a furnace repairman, all for a salary and benefits roughly equivalent to that of a public school teacher. Most of the parishes in a diocese such as yours simply cannot afford the cost of such a person, and many people who have thoughts of ordination aren’t sure how they could afford the move to another city to pursue three or four years of post-graduate studies.[vii]

And so alternative models are proposed, including “Total Ministry” or “Local Collaborative Ministry,” in which the priest is someone raised up from within the parish to serve—for no financial remuneration—in that parish. It does make it easier to balance the parish budget, but there are more than a few possible potholes along that road. The one I want to flag—which is also the one about which I have no clue as to the answer—is that of theological education and spiritual formation. Simply put, I don’t believe that it is possible to move into the vocation of priestly ministry without a strong theological foundation accompanied by a solid spiritual formation. These are things that cannot be put out on the rummage sale table.

*     *     *     *     *

So, where does all of this leave us? The liturgical theologian Robert Webber used to speak of what he called the church’s “ancient-future,” by which he meant the need to dig deeply into the living tradition of the church—and I would say that has to include the stories and experiences of ancient Israel—in order to locate the kinds of resources that will equip us for our future. The last thing we want to be is narrowly or thinly “relevant.” I think that the musician Steve Bell summed it up best when he observed that in his travels across North America he keeps encountering this shared, felt need for a church that has a past, a present, and a future. And so we strive to draw from our past in a way that resonates in the present and prepares us to move into the future to which God is inviting us.

Jamie Howison

October 2010


[i] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008).

[ii] In fact, it was in 1907 that Walter Raushenbusch – one of the seminal theologians of what is called the “social gospel” –observed that, “(Western culture is) in the midst of a revolutionary epoch fully as thorough as that of the Renaissance and Reformation.” Cited in Tickle, p. 125.

[iii] Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).

[iv] Much of this material is based in Walter Brueggemann’s essay, “Rethinking Church Models through Scripture,” Cadences of Home (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997). pp. 99-109.

[v] Tickle, p. 16.

[vi] Annie Dillard, “An Expedition to the Pole,” Teaching a Stone to Talk (HarperPerennial, 1992), p. 52.

[vii] The material on the priest-as-professional is based on a rather more scathing critique offered by Robert Farrar Capon in The Astonished Heart (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), pp. 95-97.

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