When I was in seminary, the Rev. Dr. Kathy Grieb—who served on the committee working on the Anglican Covenant (who remembers that?)—would say to us that she believed the next fight in the Church would be theological rather than social (as I recall, we all welcomed the fact that we could debate theology and move on from talking about sex). She felt that it would specifically be about the theology of the atonement*.
Well, the atonement is surely part of the discussion here, but it has expanded to so much more.
What is at issue here is, in short:
—Language for God. Is it too masculine?
—Gendered pronouns in the Prayer Book in general (they default to male—most often italicized to denote that they can be changed). Should there be more flexibility? Does the English convention of male pronouns serving a gender-neutral role help marginalize women?
—Who gets to determine the language we use for God? Is our language a mechanism that reflects our experiences of God, or is our language rooted in God’s own self-disclosure of God’s self to the world?
There’s much much more to be discussed than what I’ve listed here, but from my perspective these are the main statements I’ve seen. And I will try to write a more detailed summary about this in a later post or series of posts (akin to what I did three years ago for the changes to the marriage canon, which you can read here). But for now I want to note two thing that deeply concern me about this discussion.
The first thing that concerns me—and, really, should concern anyone who takes the Christian faith seriously—is the lack of the Holy Spirit.
Now, I want to be clear here: I’m not talking about the gender of the Holy Spirit. That is, unsurprisingly, a big part of this discussion. What I am talking about here is the presence of the Holy Spirit, at least based on the comment threads and think pieces I'm seeing online.
The hemming and hawing that I’m seeing online, from many of the various sides to this issue, is the assumption that this is all going to be decided by a committee and no one else. And it’s all about making sure the committee does what (insert particular group here) wants.
“Progressives**” are upset that they don’t feel included because of certain gender conventions. “Conservatives” are upset that we’re quick to abandon theological orthodoxy for some notion of societal convenience. Furthermore, this discussion also seems to be rooted in a divide between (white?) Baby Boomers and Millennials the Church (with folks like the Rt. Rev. Greg Brewer noting that, to him, it seems that non-Anglo Episcopalians are aligning with Millennials in their calls against Prayer Book revision—which is something I’m interested to learn more about when I’m in Austin at the Convention this week). And so, it means that, perhaps, the Baby Boomers who are currently in positions of power in the Episcopal Church are seeing their time running out and they want to make good on the work they began in the 70s (and ramped up in the 90s with Enriching Our Worship***). While Millennials are concerned that a group on the verge of retirement is making decisions for them without their input.
We seem to forget that, in our immediate emotional reactions (which is the currency of social media, after all), the Holy Spirit is quite capable of taking care of God’s church—yes, even the Episcopal branch. It’s true that much of this work is done by way of committee (and is then put to trial use, where it is work-shopped by the various congregations of the Church), but those committees are made up of people who, one hopes, feel they are being lead by the Holy Spirit to shape the words and worship of the people called into our little branch of the Jesus movement.
Which brings me to the second thing that concerns me in these discussions, a thing that Billy Joel knew to be true:
It’s always been a matter of trust.
This is a problem of our wider American culture and you’d think that Christians might be capable of avoiding these sorts of pitfalls.
Baby Boomers don’t trust that Millennials actually care about the stuff they care about. Millennials don’t trust Baby Boomers to craft a liturgy that isn’t rooted in outdated hippy ideas.
Conservatives don’t trust that the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music will work toward a liturgy that is both expansive in language while also remaining discernibly Christian. Progressives don’t trust that Conservatives care about them or their values.
I know all of this because I’m guilty of it myself. And I’ve never been under the illusion that I’m all that original.
My first impulse to all of this news is to join with the “sky is falling” crowd and lament the loss of “our liturgy.” To start saying that “they” want to ruin Christianity with their progressive agenda.
But here’s the truth: Christianity cannot be ruined. That’s because Christ can’t be ruined and anything rooted in Jesus is much bigger than the theological/social issue du jour.
Furthermore, as a Christian I am called to trust that other Christians, redeemed by our Lord through the waters of baptism, are trying to be faithful to the Church that they love and Jesus who saves them. This is not to dismiss the fact that Christians can sin and get things wrong. Of course not. But I am trying to avoid falling into believing that there’s actually some great agenda being worked on behind closed doors that is going to force me to worship a Sun Goddess or something. I want to believe that the faithful people of this Church are just that, faithful. It may be that my faithfulness looks different than someone else’s faithfulness. After all, God calls each of us in different ways. Saint Paul’s call is very different than Saint Peter’s and both of theirs is very different than Jacob’s, or the Blessed Virgin Mary’s, or Saint Mary Magdalene’s, or Ruth’s.
So, for me, I’m going to try and avoid the knee-jerk responses and the assumptions that come with this news. We have a long time and a long process ahead. It doesn’t make sense to, using a common phrase of my wife’s, “borrow trouble.”
Jesus, in Saint Matthew’s gospel, says “stop worrying about tomorrow because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Mt. 6:34 CEB) That’s good advice. A new Prayer Book is inevitable. But that is a thing for tomorrow. Today is what we have.
I want to focus on today and trust that the Holy Spirit has tomorrow figured out.
* Atonement refers to the “how” of the cross of Jesus. Of particular disdain in many quarters is what is known as “the Substitutionary Atonement,” and which comes from Saint Anselm and is the de facto “theory” of the atonement held by probably most Christians. It states, in short, that Jesus suffered the punishment owed to humanity for our sinfulness—Jesus serving as a substitution for humanity in general. Wikipedia has a decent summary of the doctrine.
** I’m not a huge fan of the terms “progressive” and “conservative” because they are very inaccurately used (people on “both sides” want progress and conservation, they just differ on how to go about progressing or conserving). But these are the terms most generally used, and since I’m not writing a definitive tome here, I’ll defer to what is common.
*** Enriching Our Worship is a series of supplemental liturgical resources for the Episcopal Church that offer inclusive and expansive theological language. If you came to the Independence Day Evening Prayer, you got to experience a few things from it (in the form of two canticles, a different confession prayer, and ending the lessons with “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people”).