Unflattering Mirrors: Tag clouds reveal content…or lack thereof

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Tag Clouds make good Advent and Easter mirrors. Who knew?

Episcopalians, in our neck of the woods anyway, are a small and remarkably insulated bunch from the goings on in the wider Christian community. That was why I was surprised to be fielding questions from the outside world regarding a blog post that amounts to Episcopal insider baseball.

Father Robert Hendrickson, a bright light of a young priest working in a diocesan cathedral, recently made a tag cloud of our Presiding Bishop’s Christmas message. He compared the key words revealed by her cloud to those of Pope Francis’ recent Lumen Fideiand described her sermon as “bordering on gnosticism.” Last year he compared tag clouds of her Easter sermon to those of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Pope, and even Ricky Gervais’ atheist Easter message. Let’s just say that, from the tag clouds, even the atheist’s message appears to have significantly more Christian content. In cloud format our Presiding Bishop’s sermons appear to be long on insider lingo and social engagement and low on Jesus…that there just isn’t much “there” there.

Pointing out your national leader’s theological shortcomings is a gutsy move for an up-and-comer…a move that caused friends outside of the Episcopal Church to ask, “What’s that guy thinking? ” Would I have criticized our national leader’s sermons online? My strategy in criticizing sermons that I don’t appreciate has generally been the same strategy I use when my wife tries on something that just doesn’t work for her at the department store and asks,  ”Do you love this as much as I do?” I will pretend to have a conversation with a mannequin if necessary to maintain, “If you can’t say something nice.”

But Father Robert’s tag clouds, for all the conversation they are creating, illustrate much more than sermon content…

For one, they reveal a very odd concept for those not of our tradition to grasp: That Episcopalians, as a rule, crucify neither our orthodox nor our gnostics. Our Presiding Bishop will not, as my evangelical friends would like, be charged with violating Christian orthodoxy, nor will her critic’s career be harmed, as many of my progressive friends would like. The ability to stomach dissent, although under fire, is a historic and endearing quality of Episcopalians, a group theoretically not together on theology as much as on the agreement to pray the same words.

However, the theory that “we need not agree” has limitations. I am no fan of Confessional statements, but if there is no real creedal and quadrilateral agreement binding us together as Episcopalians, around what will we orbit when we write the prayers we will pray in unison? There is a core to the faith that makes us recognizably Christian. Or not.

Father Robert’s tag clouds also reflect a growing awareness that our missional strategy – the Episcopal church as “Christianity lite,” a doubt embracing, culturally accommodating, theologically easy onramp for those wanting to consider a practice-based rather than a propositional faith, has not worked very well…in many places we appear to have a creeping universalism that seems lumpy and out of date. Like a microfiber sofa, public doubts about core teachings (resurrection anyone?) and “all roads lead to God” do not make an attractive invitation to come check us out. Our Sunday attendance numbers since our last national leader was selected bear this out: 765,000-640,000 from 2006-2012.

Finally, in Father Robert’s tag clouds we see a hint of what is for me, a person who has spent his adult life working with people from 18-35, a seismic and positive generational shift: Young Episcopal clergy and bishops are both more progressive politically and more traditional theologically. And they are not content to sit on the sidelines and wait for the boomer generation with its (and I do believe this is missionally-motivated) theological fuzziness to get out of their way.

Out of curiosity I made a tag cloud of my sermon for this weekend. I preached out of Isaiah 35 as part of an Advent series, so I expected its references to Jesus to be lowish. Also, my purpose was to sneak up on the Christian message: That just as the Holy Spirit had dropped Isaiah 35 as seemingly a word out of place in the middle of Isaiah’s judgments on Israel, Jesus is God’s Word out of place, dropped into history where least expected. Still, my references to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, were minimal enough in the key words that it caused me to cringe like a glance in a mirror at a look that just doesn’t work. Missing too was any indication of our need for a savior. I tore the sermon up and went back to the drawing board.

Tag Cloud

It is not my first rodeo. I know that people come to church quietly desperate for help. If I, as the proclaimer, hold up a fun-house distortion of the Gospel…one that merely reflects back at people what I think they want to see, well, shame on me. I know that the hungry do not need the illusion that we are spiritually well-fed, when in truth we are starving for a Savior. If I fail to hold up a mirror of our deep brokenness and need and then bring the true comfort of the transforming Good News that the Creator of the universe loved us too much to leave us alone, then why bother? God entered our world, not just to demonstrate how to live, but to finally redeem us on Calvary and rise in victory. Christ returned to the Father to intercede on our behalf as his Spirit makes us a people and sends us to extend his Good News in word and deed. Less than the whole Gospel is an unhelpful diet, white bread for the soul. Looking into a mirror that distorts an emaciated spiritual reality may comfort for a while, but eventually hungry people will go somewhere else, some place a meal is served.

I have too many shortcomings as a preacher to criticize another’s sermons. For me, Father Robert’s tag clouds sent me scurrying back to the drawing board to craft a message that better reflects The Message…one that is clear on the reality that, as fourth century bishop, Athanasius wrote,  “It was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that, in His great love, He was born in a human body.”     (On the Incarnation)

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Ballplayers Doing Brain Surgery: What might have been done in & about South Carolina Episcopalians.

In case you have not been following events between the Diocese of South Carolina and the Episocopal Church, here is a short version: South Carolina is very traditional in terms of biblical interpretation and marriage. The rest of the Episcopal Church tends not to be. A conflict, brewing for quite some time, came to a head a week ago when a “letter of restriction” was placed on the ministry of their bishop, preventing him from any ministerial duties during the investigation. This triggered automatic disaffiliation clauses South Carolina had put in place. The accusations involve two old charges that were previously dismissed and a new charge of abandoning the Episcopal Church by giving Quit Claim deeds to the churches in their diocese. The Episcopal Church has canon law saying that church property belongs to the national church, rather than the local body that built it. This seems counter-intuitive to non-denoms, but that is our polity. The whole thing is presumably now headed to court where years of lawsuits will consume millions of dollars given to the work of God. The following is a response to many questions as to “What would you have done?”

Jordan Haynie, Candidate for the priesthood in Fort Worth (and many others) had the following question:

“I do not think the Episcopal Church is as big a tent as we claim to be, nor are we as big as we want to be. But I do not think that is the issue here. Bishop Lawrence and the diocesan convention of South Carolina were making the moves to make it possible for them to leave. How should the Disciplinary Board of Bishops respond to actions like that? What do you recommend?”

Hi Jordan,

Thank you for joining the conversation. I am excited for you in your candidacy to Holy Orders.

I will give you my best shot at where the people I know in SC were coming from. I think it will be instructive as to how we got where we are, and then I’ll attempt my best shot at what I hope I would have done…

I am not a bishop, presiding bishop, or member of the disciplinary board. Asking me to solve this problem is a bit like asking a basketball player to perform your brain surgery. I have neither experience nor training, so I am weighing in on a subject that is far over my head so I wade into these waters with fear and trepidation.

Although I am not someone with authority, influence or power, I am a person whose primary friendships in our church, outside of my own diocese, are in the Diocese of California and the Diocese of South Carolina. My connections are primarily relational rather than theological. I am convinced that the great people I am friends with in the SF bay area would really appreciate the great people I am friends with in Charleston…on every subject minus one. And vice-versa. As my connections are relational, any solutions I attempt would be as well…and would have involved being in one-another’s world.

I did not understand Charleston until ministry took me to South Carolina three times. Because I have spent probably two weeks there, at their camp, diocesan office and with their youth ministers, I understood where they were coming from. Because I am not from there, I understand where we are coming from and our institutional need not to “give away the farm.”

I was on phone or text with friends during each of their “troubling” decisions. I can tell you that my diocesan friends in SC: a) wanted to remain in the Episcopal Church (unlike the four departing diocese’), b) were convinced that they were being attacked by the larger church, c) had voices in their midst that wanted to depart and d) were making their moves thinking they had both insured protection for their place in the church and maintained their own internal unity.

To the outside world, it was Tom Ferguson’s slow motion accident in the print shop he wrote about the other day on Crusty Old Dean. I could see how what they were doing made sense to them as a way to insure their continuance in the church…and that it would have the exact opposite effect with the rest of the church. Then I would talk to our people going to meetings to respond to SC and beg them to give room. We would then respond in equally predictable ways to insure our position was protected. In the end, like Tom as a teen in the print shop, I am too removed from the levers of power for my opinion to have any influence whatsoever. Unlike Tom, I do not think this was the way it is supposed to happen. I am not enough of a Calvinist I suppose – I think we all missed it. All of us.

People keep saying to me, “This is exactly what they were angling for.” There were those voices in SC. I do not believe Bishop Lawrence was one of those. I may be completely wrong. But if I am, he and his staff are the best liars I have ever met. What motive would they have had for being dishonest with a youth guy from Arizona…on multiple occasions over a four-year period?

Jordan, you asked what I would have done. I would have risked everything for unity. I think that was actually what the Quit Claim deeds were for a bishop whose rectors said, “We are with you because you will sue us.” Put yourself in his shoes for a few moments: Pawley’s Island had already gone against the diocese – making them the one diocese in which the courts have not sided with the us. I cannot imagine doing what Bishop Lawrence did, but bishop’s are under pressures that people who do not work in bishop’s offices do not see. What I was told was that Bishop Lawrence made an attempt to keep his diocese together on collegial bonds rather than canonical ones-which is the diocese’ understanding of what the courts in SC have said they wouldn’t uphold anyway. Like I say, I do not think I would have done what he did, but I my experience of bishop Lawrence is that, like my bishop, Kirk Smith, he is a straight-shooter. He was quite willing to say things to me he could assume I would not agree with.

I choose not to read motives into people on either side. I find it uncharitable. What is public is that Bishop Waldo and Bishop Lawrence were in dialogue with the Presiding Bishop. That was why I used the counselor’s office analogy in my previous post.

I tend to give bishops the benefit of the doubt – mainly because I work for one. I watch my bishop daily balance the needs of the larger church, the needs of congregations, the needs of individuals and what he is convinced is his proper response to the call of God. Being a bishop is complicated and he does the best he can as a follower of Christ, utilizing his experience and wisdom. And in that complexity, someone’s felt needs are usually thwarted. Win-win is often hard to achieve in a world of scarcity. So I give grace in my assessment of bishops.

I am not a Presiding Bishop either, so I want to be charitable with Katherine as well. None of us know the pressures that she is under institutionally. I do hope that I would have had the patience to let the attempts at reconciliation with Bishop Waldo work themselves out before presenting the restriction letter.

So, if I were bishop I hope I wouldn’t have given the Quit-Claim deeds…and I might have lost all of my cardinal parishes. If I were presiding bishop I hope I would have let the reconciliation process go on-in which case, I am sure that there are institutional needs of the larger church being met in the timing of the charges that we are not privy to…and I would guess I would have had a high price to pay for that action as well. If I were on the disciplinary board I hope that I would have looked at what was going on, asked questions, listened, expressed understanding as to the pressure the bishop was under. I then would have pointed out our ability and right to step in, then affirmed their right to differentiate. I would have asked the bishop what SC could do to show good faith that they wished to remain with us. I would hope I could have started with the assumption that we are on the same team…and remember that most bishops don’t really want to be congregationalists and ask more questions and then ask for them to throw us a bone…specifically to use more care in their language and to begin giving to things in the national church they could support in good conscience.

Would any of this have worked? I do not know. Maybe not. I’m just a basketball player. You are asking for brain surgery and that is way above my pay grade.