Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Grand Assumption

Yesterday I received an e-mail from the Diocese of Virginia entitled, "All Will be Well:
Reconstituted Congregations Retreat at Shrine Mont" and it opened with this paragraph:

For the 110 Episcopalians who shared their stories at "The Abundance of God's Love" retreat at Shrine Mont in Orkney Springs, Va. October 7-8, their tales were not entirely unique. Unhappy with the actions of The Episcopal Church at General Convention in 2003 and 2006, their leadership decided to reconsider their membership in The Episcopal Church and The Diocese of Virginia. Parishioners noticed a shift in the climate of their congregations: Episcopal flags were removed, or rectors focused their preaching primarily on "the issues." They entered into "40 Days of Discernment"--in hindsight, with a sense of naiveté, said some participants. And they all entered into a journey categorized by confusion, frustration and, for some, hopelessness. "It's like the stages of grief," said Church of the Epiphany Episcopal, Herndon parishioner Suzanne Fichter. "Denial, anger, acceptance."

The gathering of 110 people out of the approximately 7,000 members of the fifteen churches that voted by overwhelming majorities to separate from the Episcopal Church was interesting. But I think what struck me most about the article, which you can see in the tone of this opening paragraph was what I might call The Grand Assumption.

What is The Grand Assumption? It came home to me while I was in New Orleans for the Episcopal House of Bishops meeting. There was - in addition to all the other national and international media gathered there - a documentary team from PBS. They were focusing on the Virginia story and talked to me about my experiences. As their questions went from soft to hard, it occurred to me that they also were making The Grand Assumption as well and it was in this interview that, to indulge in a pun, I had what might be called an epiphany.

I had talked in my interview about the rise of small groups at Truro, based on Bible Study and the equipping of the "priesthood of all believers." In other words, one of the hallmarks of the "renewal" movement in the Episcopal Church had been a virtual turn "upside down" from a clerical-centered church to a laity-equipped church.

In the renewal movement with the rise of small group Bible Studies, the laity were now reading the Bible on their own, studying it, taking courses on it, discussing it, praying through it, and asking questions, questions that were often the center of the study of the scriptures. In other words, the Episcopal Churches where the renewal was alive were becoming biblically literate. No longer were the laity sitting in the pews while the clergy did all the teaching and preaching, now the laity were leading the way in teaching and preaching, from the livingroom to the pulpit.

One of the questions I was asked came near the end of the interview. It was one of the "tough" questions I see now, that the other questions were soft compared to this one. "When did Martyn Minns beginning preaching against homosexuality in the pulpit?" the documentary makers asked me.

I envisioned then a man with an agenda, a man with a mission imposing his agenda on a blank group of laity, just sitting in the pews like sheep, like those stupid sheep just waiting to be pushed off the cliff. I think I nearly jumped out of my seat. "You've got it backwards," I told them in effect. "It was the other way around. It was the laity, the people in the pews who were reading the scriptures and wrestling with some of the tough things in the scriptures - the people were going to the clergy and saying to them, 'What are we going to do about this?' The clergy were responding to the people," I told them.

And that is The Grand Assumption in the Episcopal Church. It is a clerical-centered assumption, much like you would find in a doctor's office. The doctor went to school, the doctor knows everything, and the patients just come, have their check-up, get the advice from the learned doctor, and go home full stop. The people are dependent on the clergy to know what's going on, what's wrong, what's not wrong, and then they just carry on with their lives.

What an infuriating, pompous,and condescending presumption - and you see it throughout this article propagated by the Diocese of Virginia. The laity are assumed to be a bunch of stupid sheep blindly tossed off the theological cliff by shepherds with nothing better to do. So Bishop Lee turns around and inhibits and then attempts to defrock them all - completely missing the point that it is the people who spoke, the people who voted.

Clericalism and seeking to protect one's collars and miters may be more at what is at stake here than any sort of theological disagreement. How dare the people actually read the Bible, ask questions, and seek to get those questions answered. Just come, do your prayer book thing, throw your money in the plate and for God's sake, go home. Don't actually think for yourself - or worse yet, vote.

You can read the entire article here. But watch carefully the tone and the use of The Grand Assumption.

LATER: One of the ways in which we see The Grand Assumption played out is with the use of the word "congregational" or "congregationalism" or worse, "Baptist." To levy that word against Virginia Episcopalians or Anglicans is - at best - ironic. It is used by those who either don't know their Virginia history or seek to appeal to the Virginia (and perhaps more widespread in the Episcopal Church) antipathy toward the "lower forms" of Protestants. It's not a theological issue so much as a social one. The use of the word reminds us on one hand that we are not part of the great unwashed, we are higher on the social strata, for God's sake we're in the same denomination as the the Queen of England Herself. We drink our tea strained and out of the pot, thank you very much, and please pass the gin and tonic.

But on the other hand is it not also meant theologically -as a veiled way of pushing the laity back into their pews where they can sit idly by and wait to be told what to do - or better yet, what to think - next? The term "congregational" is usually said with a sneer or a sniff and it can be said by progressives and orthodox alike. Is it a power-word, class-based and clerically driven and before we used it again, we might want to pause think about just exactly who we are pointing at?

In Virginia there are long memories and when Episcopalians use the word "Baptist" it's not said in tones of celebrating our fellow brothers and sisters in Jesus. Virginia Baptists, we might remember, used to be Anglicans. Yes, they share the same common heritage as today's Virginia Episcopalians.

As we recall, Virginia did not see or hear from a bishop for the first two hundred years of the Church. Virginia Anglicans came and went without either a view or touch from a bishop. Some young men were sent back to the Old Country to be ordained, but as the years went by more and more clergy were Protestant immigrant ministers (in my family tree the Anglican clergyman in my family's hometown was actually a French Huguenot Protestant minister who became the pastor of the Anglican parish in Buckingham Courthouse, Virginia). This arrangement suited folks until after the Revolution when the issue of bishops once again came to the front. The majority of those sitting on Anglican pews did not want bishops (and even those who did, wanted a severely limited in scope and power one - they just finished a War to get rid of the whole lot) and guess who the majority of those Virginia Anglicans became - well, you guessed it. It happened in Buckingham Court House and it happened in Fairfax Courthouse too. Even today you can drive by the site where Payne's Church of Truro Parish once stood and that site is Baptist. The parish church in Buckingham Court House (which still stands and has others of my ancestors actually buried under it) has been Baptist for over two hundred years, though the building is clearly in the same design as old Payne's Church was in Fairfax. They were Anglican.

So when we say "congregational" or "Baptist" to Episcopalians or Anglicans in Virginia, it carries with it two hundred years of cultural history. I remember being at a joint meeting of the Standing Committee, the Executive Board, the Deans, and the Presidents with the Bishops at Shrine ont and listening to a presentation by the Church Planting committee that the Diocese had bought an old Baptist Church in Arlington. After touring through the building after it was bought, they discovered that they now had one of the two largest built-in baptisteries in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and that the departing Baptists had left behind a giant supply of two things - old Baptist Choir robes (orange robes as I recall) and a complete set of Baptist Hymnals. It was asked with rolling eyes if anyone wanted the leftover items and I spoke up right away. "Truro will take the hymnals!" I said enthusiastically. I am not sure, even after two years, if I can adequately describe the response. Needless to say, I didn't mention who had the other largest baptistery in the diocese.

The use of the word "congregationalism" or "baptist" is meant as a slur (whether the users realize it or not is another matter). It's not a compliment, though especially socially. It's to denote social status. One must say it with a sniff and a narrowing of the eyes. "Oh please, you aren't one of them," you can hear in the voice.

But it's also meant as a way to keep the laity silent, to keep the laity as victims, to keep the laity from catching on and not putting their cash in the plate. The laity are meant to be seen and not heard and if the laity wake up - well, who's fault is that? The clergy that woke them up. If they start reading the scriptures on their own, well, who's fault is that? Real Episcopalians don't know their scriptures - that's for the clergy to know. If they do know, well, who told them to do it? Those damn clergy who forgot that it was their job to keep the laity in the pews smiling sweetly and passing the plate. Unseen forces are out there, sausage making and we just can't have the laity getting their hands messy. And so the laity just sit there and smile, stupid sheep that we are until we wake up one morning and find out the thousands and thousands of the stupid sheep voted.

Laity equipped for ministry, for evangelism, for mission, to pastor, to teach, to preach, to lead others the Christ, is to truly be equipped to be the priesthood of all believers. The clergy's job is to equip the laity to do the ministry (not the other way around).

This may have been the best kept secret in the Episcopal Church.

Please pass the tea and crumpets.


Kevin said...

The laity have little conical standing. While I think Kendall's assessment is correct, 'manipulate bishops, bring fear to clergy and keep the laity in the dark' The Grand Assumption as you've called it is also the overall strategy rather than a blind supposition, maybe for some, but not for the strategist.

This post will divide people and is exactly what 815 wants you to do. Institutionalist and Anglo-Catholics will be offended by this for their own reasons. It's certainly more a congregationalist view of the world, which is exactly what a 815 strategist would desire to see. The "Clericalism" comment just alienated the Anglo-Catholics, you're lucky there is a female PB to be a worse evil, but this could earn mistrust which 815 is also counting on (that Common Cause will not bond as a single unit).

Do not be fooled. There seems to be much 'social engineering' going on and often reactions can actually advance a cause. I don't think it's an assumption as a strategy to isolate the damage.

Kevin said...

BTW - Cute bobble head sheep, I love it!!!

Anonymous said...

Anglo Catholics are not necessarily indulgents of clericalism. That's an assumption that because one is "high church" one is clerical. Not true. Low churchers can be just as indulgent.

Anonymous said...

Actually as an Anglo Catholic priest, I am not threatened or offended by the comments.

When A-C theology is truly understood and practiced it is not about priests being on pedastals but on their knees, praying and serving. The priests of the Oxford Movement went into the slums of London to serve the needy, and that did not diminish the high sense of calling of ordination. I think we A-C's can still do the same, when what we focus on is the theology of the movement and the seriousness with which we take the incarnation, and worry less about being fussy with the incense.

I don't believe there is anyone in my parish who does not recognize that I am the priest, the guy doing the sacramental actions. Still, I almost never wear vestments or a collar. The indellible character we priests believe to have received in ordination, should not be one that gives us power, but gives us more of the spirit of servanthood that was in Christ's character.

So, this Anglo Catholic is not offended ... at least not by my members thinking, reading the Bible and praying. There's no need to add to the assumptions being made ... OK?

Anonymous said...

110/7000 and naivete! I am reminded of the old saying about ass-u-me. The hierarchy of the ECUSA/TEC certainly has made that true of themselves, their 'church', and their laity. And they quite excel at it, do they not? Perhaps, there is a reason for their existence after all: remember, the purpose of your life may be to serve as a warning to others.

I doubt they see it that way with their invincible ignorance that God uses irony.

Unknown said...

I agree with Roger - one of my own "journeys" as an Episcopalian was to learn that "Anglo Catholics" were often less attached to their "authority" and "position" than the other clergy, especially in Virginia where it's not easy being Anglo Catholic.

No, The Grand Assumption has to do with the idea that the laity are biblically illiterate and easily led. That's the sort of "clericalism" we're looking at here, that the point of the laity is to sit in the pews, put money in the plate, and aren't able to think for themselves - or read for themselves, as this article assumes.


Kevin said...

Assumptions are vincible, strategies hold course. I think TEC is doing a wonderful job at it too. My evidence is the collapse of the "Windsor bishops" in New Orleans. The gaining loyalty of the institutionalist is pretty staggering. If it were a mere assumption, that could be easily corrected ... this I think is deeper

Anonymous said...

If 7,000 people had read the scripture and studied it on their own and came to the conclusion to walk, that would be one thing. But their study was "guided" by clergy, and others, in a extremely biased program of "40 Days of Discernment". It's naive to think that there's any less "clerical-centered assumption" in the ADV then the TEC.

The Spotsyltuckian said...

I attend one of the churches that was a part of this conference. I was also on the conference planning committee. The re-constitution of our Episcopal parish, after a majority voted to leave TEC, was fully laity-driven from the grass roots level, as was the idea for this conference - which began with the idea of one parishioner at another parish from mine. We requested assistance as required from the Diocese in both cases; none was mandated from above. I direct and teach Adult Education in our parish. I devise the cirriculum, choose the books, and prepare the materials without direction by either clergy or Bishops (is that also true at Truro?). I read Scripture and commentaries as a part of my daily routine of self-education, and form my own discernments. Our parish is comprised of diverse individuals who are valued for the variety of testimonies they bring to the table as derived from their various backgrounds. The only Grand Assumption I operate under is that all are welcome to introduce any idea or discernment within our midst as I am also free to introduce the discernments I've deduced from Holy Scripture, except perhaps for one: that there is only one way to discern Scripture and if I don't agree with that discernment, then I am not permitted, by clergy, Bishop or Archbishop, to hold that discernment, discuss it, or teach it in my class (is it the same way at Truro?). There is no Grand Assumption that drives our parish; what does drive us is the hard work and good will of a beloved laity in a cherished community that takes to heart the Scriptural command of hospitality as its grandest operating assumption, and lives it out with intention and purpose.

Kevin said...

BB -- I think where Anglo-Caths pull back is "The clergy's job is to equip the laity to do the ministry." Strictly speaking, even in the canons of the whole AC that's not correct (for it was tried in South America).

Clergy's job is to preform the sacraments and equip laity would be accurate.

Actually only the first part is needed for there are plenty of lay theologians around (including in the RCC, their license but often not ordained).

Also stating it this way has a dual advantage, Evangelicals tend to no have as high of a view as Anglo-Catholics on the sacraments (the latter often still holding to seven), so it can be oh yeah, we need this guy every once in a while but Anglo-Catholics do not actually have a problem with laity studying Greek to read the texts (ironically I only saw at a Ango-Cath parish) & more lay involvement in worship is even more folks to process (let alone march around the congregation on the feast day of the favorite patron saint).

You update -- "aye!" I think your getting what I'm saying between a vincible ignorant assumption verse deliberate strategy.

Anonymous said...

When I say an Anglican church is Baptist like, I'm thinking of a church where the pastor is the ultimate authority and is not under effective episcopal oversight. Sadly, that is the case in many Anglican churches with oversees oversight. The bishop is wonderful, inspiring, totally orthodox--but can have no idea of the nuts and bolts of the running of the church. I believe Bishop Duncan addressed this problem at the recent gathering of Common Cause. And I pray the the three ordinals can be re-established in a new American province.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Pardon me for my midwestern pun, but I think this is hogwash. But, of course, I am not in your parishes, I am in one in Southern Maryland. Verna Dozier was one of the leading voices encouraging laity driven ministry and I do not believe, if she were alive today, that she would agree with you on this matter either.

I come from a childhood and young adulthood within Quakerism. You can find no more laity driven congregation than that. I joined the Episcopal Church in the early 1970's.

The forces that divide the communion would divide it with or without more or less emphasis on laity empowerment.

What is at issue here is not the reading of the scripture, but the interpretation of the scripture. The texts are no more or no less important to folks on different sides of this aisle. Informed laity, who have been deepened in their faith by participation in EFM and other experiences of learning will disagree vehemently with what these "breakaway" parishes are doing. Others, who have been similarly trained in EFM-type laity strengthening programs would agree with the breakaways.

For example, I have spent many years active in cursillo. I love spirit-led worship and music. The words in most Baptist hymnals are indelibly imprinted in my memory to the point that I seldom need to read the musical page. I was raised so focused on scripture that I know the words of the Bible as well as most Episcopalians know their prayer book. And I know that my spirit-led and filled brothers and sisters are often leaders within this "breakaway" movement. I really DO get where they/you are coming from.

I simply disagree in these issues of interpretation, exegesis, or more importantly perhaps--hermeneutics. I approach my son who is gay and Louis Crew and Gene Robinson and all my lavender friends with a mind and grace and heart that informs me that "I am like them" and they are fully acceptable, as I am acceptable, to Christ.

This is a heart-breaking conflict but it does not really separate us into to non-overlapping parts, as does a dichotomy. We are all Christians. We are living in a time of great paradox and mystery and we are having great difficulty listening to one another and discerning the Truth.

I am in a parish that is led by a strong laity presently. I have participated in Bible Studies in that parish for many years. I think most of the folks in that parish would disagree with your interpretation, but I do know that there are many others among us who would not.

For the present at least, we have found a way to be respectful and listen to one another. When my son and his partner returned to my parish at the time of my mother's funeral service last year I did not have to think for one moment about the acceptance he would find. I doubt though, that he would feel the same acceptance in some of these breakaway parishes. But then, again, he would be very poorly received in others that are steadfastly supporting the efforts of the HOB and the recent Convention decisions.

My point is this simply: there is no "purity" among us in these divisions we are facing at this time. There is no One Great Assumption. One side is not long on orthodoxy and the other lacking. Nor does one of us have the final corner on the Truth.

But we do our best as faithful Christians to continue our journeys, discerning as best we can what the scripture and Spirit are teaching us.


Anonymous said...

So many truths, so little time.