I have gotten, in the last few days, no small amount of flack about my post on the Presiding Bishop’s Christmas message. I will say that my willingness to post such a missive demonstrates one of the things I love about the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism – we can have the conversation. I love being part of a Church in which the things that frustrate us are points of conversation and debate.
I thought, after a day or two, that it might be helpful to talk a little about the cultural context and why I think our new cultural realities demand a different kind of engagement with the world than the message offered.
One critique I heard was that it was obvious that she was talking about Jesus – look at the terms she uses “Word” and “Prince of Peace.” Yet, even as those terms were used, there was little declaration about what it exactly means for the whole of humanity that a Savior was born among us who is the Word made Flesh and the Prince of Peace.
We are reaching a cultural point in which the majority of those coming of age will have little or no real exposure to the Gospel message. I cannot count the number of people who come through the doors – young people – who have no idea who Jesus is. I have been literally asked, repeatedly, “Who is Jesus?”
Public messages from leaders in our Church are an opportunity for us to lay out, for a new generation, who Christ is and what his birth and resurrection victory mean for the whole of the human family. Whether we like it or not much of our engagement with the emerging generations is going to feel a little remedial. That’s because people are asking us “Who is Jesus?” because they haven’t heard it much before and they haven’t seen it much lived out either.
Too many of our churches, across denominational lines, are offering training for our youth that is, as writer Kenda Creasy Dean says, a form of “therapeutic moral deism.” It is the kind of faith that is comforting for those who grew up in religiously abusive environments and it is vague enough not to scare off those who have only experienced Church as a source of shame or fear.
(If you doubt the challenges we face in Episcopal Christian formation – I invite you to look at this post I did on the National Study of Youth and Religion – and the follow up piece here.)
However, the fruit of that kind of religion has been, quite simply, the hollowing of the Church. There are many, many more factors at play in the decline of churches across the spectrum. But here is the core problem – when people ask (aloud or silently) “Why does the Church matter?” We often aren’t offering much.
We are meeting a national cultural identity crisis with an identity crisis of our own. There are people across our country who are begging to find hope and meaning in the world around them and the Church is that place which is most poised to answer that yearning – if we have the courage and conviction to welcome others to the Body. We can boldly do this not for our benefit but in thanks for all of the benefits of Christ’s own victory.
The challenge for the Church now is not soft-peddling our message of Christian hope found in Christ out of fear of offending but to know ourselves so caught up in the saving love of Christ that the only thing we can do is share that hope with others. Messages like a primate’s Christmas and Easter messages are a prime place for this to happen – to set a vision and course for the Church and her faithful people.
There is a desperate need for a faith in this country that is clear, welcoming, and theologically orthodox. I use the term orthodox not to create boundaries and limits but to indicate that we can be a Church that welcomes and affirms not because we are avoiding theological truth and spiritual rigor but because of them. I use the term welcoming not to indicate that we fling open the doors and just gather about and do yoga and hold hands – but because we welcome all into the life-giving work and labor of the Christian faith as we come to know Christ at the Altar and are sent out in reckless joy.
Those coming to our churches are not looking for one more place to be affirmed or marketed to – they are looking for a place that will unmake and remake them. Whether they can articulate it or not their search for hope and meaning is grounded in a search for the grace and hope we hold dear.
They are yearning for Baptism. They are yearning for Communion. They are yearning to be transformed.
The commitment so many young people are making to things like the Episcopal Service Corps, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, and Jesuit Volunteer Corps demonstrates the real longing that our young people have not only to make a difference but to find out who they truly are in the context of a community that offers not a new identity but gives them a chance to know their true identity bound up with Christ’s own.
They are not looking for an easy, vague, or veiled faith. They are hyper-marketed to and don’t have time to sift through what they think we might be saying.
They are struggling to find a place that is authentic and real – that offers a faith that is a both mysterious and gritty – that breaks bread with dirt under the nails. Messages that soft-peddle the Incarnation and the Resurrection are simply not going to communicate the kind of authenticity and vigor that a new generation of seekers is demanding of us.
If we want people to hear, see, and know that the Church is making a difference we must be clear that we are different not because we are here but because Christ is.
David Glaser said:
Bravo Father! I for one so appreciated your post on the PB’s message and this follow up. I was disappointed in her message for many of the same reasons you wrote about. And quite frankly, I expect more out of the Presiding Bishop especially at this time of year when I think most people are more open to hearing about Jesus – and hearing about him that is not merely historical, but how he lives within us today.
I am sorry you got so much flack, but know that your message also touched many people in a good and constructive way.
Peace, Fr. David Glaser
St Barnabas Chelsea http://www.stbarnabaschelsea.org
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”
Ron Fox, BSG, SCP said:
Sorry you got grief Fr. Robert….I got lots of grief on FB when someone noted the PB had not mentioned Jesus by name and I mentioned your blog and agreed that she was wrong.
Shawn Strout said:
Thank you for your words! You give me hope that we can continue to engage vigorously with our Christian tradition while remaining open to contemporary struggles! We need to resist the quick answers that both the fundamentalist right and the liberal left wish to give us. The real journey of faith is in the struggle.
Peace, Fr. Shawn Strout
Beth M said:
It seems to me (old end of GenX, came into the Episcopal church from being raised atheist) that Episcopal leaders in general nearly always vastly overestimate how much contemporary people know about Christianity, its language, and its meaning system.
Yes, churchy insiders with good prior theological knowledge and good prior background in mainline church allusion-speak are likely to be able to parse the PB’s message, and if it’s intended only for them, that’s one thing. But they are a vanishingly small part of the overall population. If TEC is interested in offering good news to a general audience, we need to speak to the audience that is really there, the very large one that barely knows who Jesus is, what he is supposed to have done, or why that might matter.
We are very out of practice at this, but my experience, anyway, is that if you even take a decent shot at doing it, with an open and kind attitude, people fall all over you with enthusiasm.
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Karen Johanns said:
For all our talk about sharing the Good News with the “unchurched” generation we do a darn good job of using the exact behaviors that keep people away. Churchy insider language is used in local congregations as a way of expressing discomfort with change and keeping things nice and orderly, and when our leaders do it it’s just churchy insider language write large. In my ministry I’ve had the opportunity to work fairly extensively with young adults, and I’ve learned that the fastest way to alienate them is to use code talk and insist on doing things a certain way without being able to explain the importance of doing so. We in TEC may pride ourselves on lovely liturgy and important outreach ministries, but if we keep acting as if everyone knows exactly what we mean when we’re speaking, we’re in big trouble.
Barbara (bls) said:
For what it’s worth, I couldn’t understand the PB’s point at all. It seemed definitely to be in some kind of code, which was opaque to me. Why all that stuff about “shoulders”? What’s the thing about “authority,” and what does it ultimately relate to? I just didn’t get what she was driving at.
Perhaps this the logical end of “Anglican Fudge,” once theological liberalism has worked it over for a few decades. But it would be so easy to simply express joy of heart, wouldn’t it – even if in some sort of understated Anglican way? That’s what’s lovely about Pope Francis; his joy is clearly the thing that motivates him. And Anglicans have had people who were good at this; I’ve read some wonderful, simply joyful stuff by Austin Farrer, for one example.
One website I found especially helpful when I was new to the church explained the services, the prayers, the gestures, etc. Simple things. The thing that stuck with me, though, was that the writer said a friend had told her that “You Anglicans are cool on the surface, but I know that underneath it all you’re a bunch of holy rollers.” (That was meant in a complimentary way, BTW!)
I’m thinking that “underneath it all” thing is not coming through anymore….
Darren Miner+ said:
It seems to me that the problem people have had with the letter centers on the implied reader of the text. The implied reader is clearly an informed Christian who knows that Jesus is the Incarnate Word and the Prince of Peace. In other words, the text works for faith insiders who know the code language and can fill in the gaps. It does not work for outsiders to the faith. If the letter was intended exclusively for the faithful, then there is only one problem, namely, that the letter was intended exclusively for the faithful!
Beth M said:
That is a great point about the implied reader, but I would see the PB’s implied reader as substantially narrower than “the faithful.” I was rector of a parish with many very faithful folks who “knew that Jesus was the Incarnate Word and the Prince of Peace,” but they would largely not have related enough to verbal nuance, subtle Biblical allusion, etc for the PB’s message to be meaningful to them. Barbara (BLS), above, is such “an informed Christian” that she follows theology and liturgy blogs, but says that she could not grasp the message. I think the implied reader is a subgroup of people already steeped in the Episcopal church, a much smaller subgroup than most of us clergy and other leaders are inclined to think.
Barbara (bls) said:
It wasn’t the Biblical allusions – unless I’m missing something. It was the fact that “authority” seems to have nothing to do with anything; it has no definition or referent in the piece – not to mention that it’s a word we associate with bureaucracy! I was puzzled by the repetitive use of “shoulders” and “mantles,” too. Does this mean something?
Then there’s the problem with the “peaceable commonwealth”; what, exactly, is that? And since there doesn’t seem to be any such thing, why would it give people under oppression or (especially) depression hope?
And then: “That mantle of authority does continue to grow, through a life offered for others, raised into new life, and passed on to new generations of fleshly God-bearers. ” I mean: what?
Louie Clay said:
I like the PB’s Christmas message for much the same reason that I don’t sing Hymn 561, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus, ye Soldiers of the Cross.” I am a disciple, not a soldier. A disciple is a student. A disciple does not expect sermons or episcopal messages to address primarily those who know little of the faith. That’s why we have inquirers’ classes.
The best way to draw people to the faith is by our loving one another. The best way to teach the faith is by careful, prolonged intellectual inquiry.
Students at Rutgers who take my classes in the Bible as Literature spend 90 hours in class over two semesters and are expected to spend at least another 180 hours of study outside class. They write papers and take exams. All sorts of students (atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians….) elect these classes because they want to know about this literary treasure.
It would take 31 years of 15-minute sermons to cover the amount of time these two courses require, and these are just introductory.
Brief clergy messages should not even pretend to give disciples all we need to know about the faith. They will have a better chance of whetting appetites if they don’t dumb down the message. Maybe we would have more disciples than just docile clients if we offered less pablum and more of the gospel meat. The PB does that in her message.
— Louie Clay (né Louie Crew)
Barbara (bls) said:
Maybe we would have more disciples than just docile clients if we offered less pablum and more of the gospel meat.
I must say, the arrogance of the Episcopal Church’s “leadership” never fails to astound…..
Beth M said:
This morning I have been attempting, as an exercise, to write a “translation” of the PB’s text — not what I’d want such a message to say; what she said, but directed to a much broader “implied reader.” One of my top reactions is how extremely difficult this is to do in a text of comparable length to hers. It makes me really appreciate how many significant aspects of the Christian universe of meaning she manages to touch on without actually saying them.
(For example, the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost are gently evoked, but not directly mentioned, in 19 words. The episode with the Magi as a symbol both of the Gentile mission and of the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ authority is referenced abstractly, but not directly mentioned, in 11 words. Both these things, to be overtly explained for non-insiders, would need several sentences. So do you leave them out, in your translation? Or do you leave something else out? Or do you produce a 5-page Christmas message?)
I recommend this exercise to (at the very least) my fellow clergy! And then, of course, check your Wordle….
Barbara (bls) said:
I really feel like I’m through the looking-glass here. To me, the message is incomprehensible, the written in insider newspeak that takes a huge amount of work to even parse as English. I can’t understand how anybody can grasp what her point is without reading and re-reading it – and making dozens of guesses as to what she’s referring to.
The sentence I referred to above – “That mantle of authority does continue to grow, through a life offered for others, raised into new life, and passed on to new generations of fleshly God-bearers,” – is, to me, simply incomprehensible – and I don’t think this is intentional. It uses unworkable mixed metaphors (“mantles” – whatever they are – don’t “grow,” for instance); it’s written in what I believe to be Spong-speak, employed in order to avoid using ordinary words for ordinary theological concepts (“raised to new life,” for instance); when it uses theological concepts (“God-bearers”) it uses them in “original” – yet unexplained – ways. It mixes tenses in a weird way – unless it’s not actually doing this; it’s hard to tell – and seems to be – deliberately? – confusing Christ with individual Christians.
“Peaceable commonwealth” is another apparent newspeak usage – and mixed metaphor – that doesn’t have any real referent. She seems to have rewritten the Bible in her head – but hasn’t bothered to give the new version to anybody else. (I mean, I actually Googled “peaceable commonwealth”; it’s definitely her own coinage.) This is not a “Biblical allusion”; it’s an invention; is she using the word commonwealth to avoid the word “Kingdom”? If so, why? Is this a deliberate reference to the political? Mystery. No idea what point she’s making here.
The point of communication is to use words and concepts that people actually know and can relate to – things that maybe even touch hearts and resonate within minds. Re-interpretation of Biblical passages and theological ideas according to an idiosyncratic personal worldview becomes simple obfuscation. Why would anybody want to spend time interpreting something like this? It’s the Nativity story, for God’s sake – the one thing that all people already can relate deeply to; it already touches hearts.
Barbara (bls) said:
(Sorry, Beth – I wasn’t directing that in particular to you, even though it looks that way….)
Beth M said:
(Thanks for saying that!)
I really appreciate how well you are articulating the hugeness of the communication gap (as you call it in another comment) here. My guess is that very few of those who write and preach this way have any idea how little of what they would see themselves as putting into their texts is actually coming across, and I wish feedback like yours were more frequently, courageously and honestly given.
Kris Stoever said:
I read Robert’s PB post with sympathy, both for the sub-dean’s impatience, and for the PB’s maddeningly opaque writing. As a longtime academic editor, I saw KJS’s difficulties as having more to do with her training as a scientist and academic. Not everyone has the searing personal history, the intellectual courage and training, or the cultural moment of Pope Francis. Not everyone can write, act, or speak as he speaks.
Barbara (bls) said:
Perhaps the problem is that theological liberals think everybody else is hip to that theology, and holds to it. That’s not true, though; for a lot of us, ordinary Christian theology is so much more interesting and coherent – and contains so much more in the way of actual content – that theological liberalism isn’t much of a consideration. We’ve found it seriously lacking, so we’ve passed it by. So perhaps we’re not reading the right books and so can’t “get” what’s being said here.
And, of course, we all know what the Creeds say, because we recite them on a regular basis. Spong-speak maybe doesn’t make much sense because, as I understand it, it’s precisely a rejection of the Creeds. (The worst thing about Spong-speak, to me, is that it’s so wooden and uninteresting! It just doesn’t go anywhere, or do anything. It’s a mystery to me why anybody would bother with the church at all, for that? I think I’d go to the Sunday Assembly, myself. But, this does explain perfectly why theological liberals want to do away with the Creeds; I thought as much!)
I can’t figure out what in the world “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus, ye Soldiers of the Cross” has to do with anything, either.
Really, there is a serious communication gap going on here. And I think we “docile clients” are actually a bit more on the ball, frankly….
Leaving aside the PB’s message, Robert’s insight into the needs of the cultural moment deserves attention. As a Gen Y layperson, my experience is that there is a tremendous generational divide in the Episcopal Church.
Those of an older generation, who tend to hold leadership positions, generally seem intent on softening the edge of the gospel message and deemphasizing the demands of the Christian life. That may well have been a viable strategy for keeping people in TEC in the 1970s and 80s, but as Robert points out that’s not what resonates with a younger generation.
We need clergy and laypeople who are excited about the gospel and can articulate a faith worth believing in — not obscure it with insider-speak. Clarity and authenticity cannot be emphasized enough.
Kris Stoever said:
David, I wonder sometimes if the powerful chords of the gospel aren’t sometimes soft-pedaled by gentle souls who deplore the prospect of alienating one single, timorous soul, fearful of sound itself. So they employ the vague and the obscure and the soft not because they prefer to “deemphasize the demands of the Christian life” but only because they lack the skill or the temperament to speak and write about their faith plainly and well. ABC Justin Welby is speaking and writing about the Gospel with great excitement and skill, and he is a Boomer. Francis is thrilling us all. He’s a Silent. Let’s rejoice in our exhorters and prophets and teachers, whatever their generation, and all those who have found their voice of faith at this critical cultural moment.
Kris, I agree. It was not my intention to paint with too broad a brush. There are certainly wonderful examples from every generation we can admire.
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