Thursday, April 27, 2006

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism?

I have been thinking further about the Baptismal Covenant, as we call it in the American Book of Common Prayer. Specifically, I have been thinking about the difference I noted between the Covenant in the American Prayer Book and its parallel in Common Worship of the Church of England.

The first difference, the one I noted in my last post, is in the last question. In the Book of Common Prayer (1979), it is phrased

Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among allpeople, and respect the dignity of every humanbeing?
People: I will, with God’s help.

In Common Worship it is phrased differently:

Will you acknowledge Christ's authority over human society,
by prayer for the world and its leaders,
by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?
With the help of God, I will.
(Note that I distinguish American or Episcopal usage from Common Worship, rather than "English usage," because I'm not reflecting on the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.)

Now, that seems an interesting difference. It clarifies who’s in charge in a way that our American usage does not. Of course, in a society that still has an established church, that may be easier to include. At the same time, there is something lost if we in the Episcopal Church imagine that the call to justice and peace is our own, and solely our, responsibility. I also think “defending the weak” puts some teeth, as it were, into striving for justice and peace and respecting dignity.

There are other differences in the use of the Covenant, or as it is called in Common Worship, the Commission. These are things you have to read the rites themselves to find. In Baptism in the Episcopal Church the Baptismal Covenant is repeated by the entire congregation in all baptisms. In addition, it is used in the Great Vigil of Easter, whether there is a baptism or not. Thus, the Covenant, and the call to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” is repeated several times a year by all members of the congregation. In Common Worship this version of the Commission is specified for “the newly baptized who are able to answer for themselves....” (Another version is used for parents who are speaking for infants.) Thus, it is an individual, even private, commitment. I don’t find on line a rite in Common Worship for the Great Vigil of Easter, and so I can’t exclude the thought entirely; but it would not appear that there is any time when this is spoken by the entire congregation, whether in Baptism, or at another time.

There is another difference. In the American rite, the Baptismal Covenant is recited before the baptism, and in fact before the blessing of the water. It is, in fact, directly connected to the Apostles’ Creed, which is included in – indeed, is the foundation of - the Baptismal Covenant. In the rite in Common Worship this Commission is recited after the baptism, separated from the Creed (which is referred to as the Profession of Faith).

The implication I see is that in American usage the questions of the Covenant are seen as integral to the Christian faith. They are included with the Creed, and required of all. They are required before the baptism, spiritual “informed consent” as it were. We are saying, in a sense, “You need to know what you're getting into. Belief in Jesus Christ and participation in his Body will necessarily be reflected in these ways.” On the other hand, in the usage in Common Worship this is a mission undertaken by the adult believer, an expression of but not necessarily integral to a lively Christian faith. It is, again, separated from the Creed, and not required of all. (This is not inconsistent with the use of these questions in Confirmation in Aotearoa /New Zealand and in Ireland.)

Now, are these differences that make a difference? Perhaps not; but if the crisis in the Anglican Communion has been described as a difference in understanding of the Christian faith – and it has! – these differences seem worth thinking about. What difference does it make that in America we do not claim “Christ's authority over human society?” What difference does it make that we do claim these social actions as integral to Christian faith, almost equal to the baptismal Creed, rather than as ministries rooted in the faith but not part of its content?

I have heard that, for all our claimed trust in God’s grace, Christians are prone to being at least semi- Pelagian. We want to claim some participation in our salvation, if only for the sense of control that it allows us. I fear we Americans may be among the worst in that case. I agree with the Letter of James, that truly accepting the content of the faith will result in actions in the world. At the same time we may so embrace the concept of being co-Creators that we lose our understanding of our place – our necessarily inferior place – in that participation. We have been accused of heterodoxy at best, of framing “a new religion” at worst. I think we can make clear that we understand that, for all God’s grace in allowing us to be agents in the world, participants and co-Creators in God’s plan, we are still saved by grace through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection for us. I think we can; but perhaps we need to do a better job, both abroad, and at home.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Divided by a Common Prayer Book

I am a regular reader of, and occasional responder to, the Thinking Anglicans web site. Among those sites where current issues in the Anglican Communion are discussed, this is one of the best. It is, at least, one of the few that focuses on civil discourse, with voices from a variety of perspectives.

So, not long ago in a discussion at Thinking Anglicans the Baptismal Covenant came up. An American in a comment justified actions of the Episcopal Church as appropriate expressions of the Baptismal Covenant; to which a number of respondents from other parts of the world said, "What? Baptismal Covenant? What's that?"

I think most of my readers are American and Episcopalians/Anglicans. For any reader who isn't both, let me explain the Baptismal Covenant. In the rite of Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer (1979) pages 304 and 305 are devoted to “The Baptismal Covenant.” The Covenant begins with and is built around the Apostles' Creed. This is consistent with other Anglican provinces, and with other Christian communions. However, the Covenant goes on to include a series of commitments to express the Creed in how we live:

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People I will, with God’s help.

Now, the American church is not the only place where this, or something like it, is used. It is also used in the same form in the Canadian Book of Alternative Services (1985), and an abbreviated version of it is used in Holy Baptism 2005 of the Episcopal Church of Scotland. The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand & Polynesia and the Church of Ireland do not use in Baptism, but do use it in Confirmation (New Zealand/Aotearoa I had to find in hard copy). In Common Worship of the Church of England, where it is an option in the baptism of adults, the commitment to “strive for justice and peace among all people” is rephrased as,

Will you acknowledge Christ's authority over human society,
by prayer for the world and its leaders,
by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?
With the help of God, I will.

This is from a limited and cursory review of liturgical resources available on the web. Not all provinces of the Communion share on their web sites what Book of Common Prayer is officially recognized. I’m also limited in examining those resources available in English and Spanish. However, what I did note in doing some further looking is that many provinces would not have this. This apparently was an innovation of the American church that was picked up by other, later liturgical revisions and authorizations. So, any church whose most recent version is about the same time or earlier is not likely to have it. For example, it is not in The Alternative Service Book of the Church of England (1980). As the Church of Nigeria – Anglican states on its web site that the official text is the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, they would certainly not use it. The web site of the Diocese of Singapore in the Church in the Province of Southeast Asia makes a similar statement. We cherish worship in “a tongue… understanded of the people,” as Article XXIV states. And if that worship were translated from an earlier English or American Prayer Book, again, these questions would not be there.

I find myself wondering what this says to the current controversies in the Anglican Communion. It was Shaw who said, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” I seem to remember from the days of Prayer Book revision some joke about folks being “divided by a common Prayer Book.” But, this is precisely what has happened. We have still the concept of a common Prayer Book; but one has to wonder how much we have in common.

In this instance, there is a distinct contrast between seeing faith primarily in action, as in the Baptismal Covenant; and in seeing faith primarily in acceptance of the necessary content. That isn’t to say that the former doesn’t take the content as necessary; nor that the latter doesn’t expect to see the content expressed in action. But we practice common worship precisely because we believe that we are conformed by it. How differently are we conformed when, in every baptism and/or confirmation and often with the bishop present, some of us focus on the content of the Apostles’ Creed, and others of us go on to illustrate the Creed with commitments to action? And when I look at my survey, incomplete and unscientific as it is, I wonder if the lines between those positions within the Communion don’t look an awful lot like the lines between the Global South and the liberal West.

In the current arguments those of us who call for full inclusion appeal to the prophetic call to justice. Those who think we go too far appeal to the authority of Scripture and received tradition. I can’t help but wonder whether being conformed with or without the commitments of the Baptismal Covenant hasn’t led us to grow apart. I have not yet despaired that we can continue to live together. I’m sure our divergence is far more complicated than this one specific difference of practice. Still, I have to think that a full generation with this difference in practice, in how we understand the faith, has played its part.

Monday, April 24, 2006

A Chaplain's Sermon: The Road to Emmaus

Every hospital has one corridor that, at 2:00 a. m. seems seven miles long. That's something I've learned in all my years as a chaplain. Things like: hospitals do not all look alike, and yet they all look like hospitals; and every hospital has one corridor that, at 2:00 a. m. seems seven miles long.

It doesn't really matter how long that corridor actually is. It doesn't matter that in daylight, in the hustle and bustle of patients and families and staff it's nowhere near that long. At 2:00 a. m. it seems to stretch out forever - at least seven miles.

We know that hallway well. We've seen it in those empty hours. We know just how long it is. We know it's longest when we walk it with a grieving family. We walk with them as make that long journey, leaving in shock and bewilderment, leaving someone they love behind.

The road from Jerusalem to Emmaus is seven miles. Cleopas and his companion walk that long road, walking in shock and bewilderment. Trying to make sense of it all, they are talking of the past few days, of loss and hope and mystery and confusion. They walk and talk, and realize they are not alone. Someone is with them, someone who at first seems clueless, and then seems to know more than they do about their subject. Once he is on their topic he explains to them the context for what has happened - how scripture predicted it, how prophets foretold it, how the love of God required it. He speaks and carries them with him, and suddenly the road is not so long. He stops with them when they ask. He sits at table, he breaks bread, he is Jesus - Jesus whom they know, Jesus whom they love, Jesus whom they mourn - and then he is gone. He is gone, but his presence continues to lift them up, and they run - they run as if their feet had wings - all that long road back to Jerusalem; and they remember that while he was with them their poor, sad hearts were not cold anymore.

Every hospital has a corridor that, at 2:00 a.m., seems seven miles long, and longest when we walk it with a grieving family. And as we walk with them, at first we seem clueless – we are clueless. But as we walk with them by God’s grace we can reflect to them the presence of Christ. We may not break bread with most of them. We may not even share the same scriptures. But we can reflect that presence. We can provide a context, because we know what the Scriptures promised, what prophets foretold, what God’s love has accomplished.

Every hospital has a corridor that, at 2:00 a.m., seems seven miles long, and longest when we walk it with a grieving family. But we can walk with them, as Christ walked to Emmaus. We can share the love of Christ, made visible in us; and by God’s grace their walk can seem shorter; their feet can feel lighter, and their poor, sad hearts can feel less cold.

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year A
Preached at the Eucharist at the Annual Meeting of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains
April 10, 2005

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Whom Are You Looking For?

Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:11-18, NRSV; the Gospel for Tuesday in Easter Week)

This is, of course, the ultimate lesson to justify ordination of women to the episcopate, because it establishes the apostolate of Mary Magdalene. Mary saw in the tomb what even Peter and the Beloved Disciple did not: the angels in it, and the Lord freed from it. Sadly, I can’t really say, “of course,” because those who oppose ordination of women know the verse; they just argue around it. Even our Christian Orthodox siblings, who, based on this verse and parallels in the Synoptics, call the Magdalene “Apostle to the Apostles,” will not take that next step and recognize this as at least as clear a call as Jesus gave to the Twelve.

But that wasn’t what struck me this year in reading this verse, either as part of the Easter Gospel (in the RCL) or on Tuesday in Easter Week. What struck me was Jesus asking her the question, “Whom are you looking for?” What struck me was that we had seen that question before. In the Passion Gospel according to John, read on Good Friday, Jesus asked that question of the crowd who came to arrest him.

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" They answered, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus replied, "I am he." Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, "I am he," they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus answered, "I told you that I am he. “(John 18:4-8a)

I found myself wondering if that wasn’t what really convinced Mary who this was. I wondered if she wasn’t in Gethsemane, unnoticed but faithful as always, and heard that question the first time. I wondered if she knew the Lord when she heard once again not only that voice, but that question.

From there, Mary went to the Eleven and shared her good news. Even then, they did not believe her. It wasn’t simply that she was a woman, although that was a difficulty. The fact was that the story didn’t make sense. These were people who knew dead. People died at home, with family. People died in executions, in public. People died in the streets, lost in the night, only to be discovered in the morning. These were people who knew dead, who knew that the dead didn’t come back. That’s why Peter and the Beloved Disciple had dived into the tomb. They knew a body in the tomb made sense. What they had seen had shocked them, but it could have had an explanation. But now Mary reported that she had seen the Lord, that he was risen, that he would see them all soon.

And, of course, this story still doesn’t make sense. If you watch enough of the Discovery Channel or the History Channel, you’ll see lots of shows by folks trying to make the story fit into some framework, naturalistic, historic, or political, that makes sense to them. This is not to reflect badly on those channels. And many of the shows make their best scholarly efforts with integrity. But, they’re still trying to make it make sense.

Conspiracy theorists are doing the same thing. Dan Brown wrote a novel – for all the facts that seem to be woven in, it’s still a novel – that tries to make sense of the story in ways that make sense to him. And before The DaVinci Code, there was Holy Blood and Holy Grail (if you’ve been watching the news, you know the authors of that book sued Brown for plagiarism – unsuccessfully.) And before Holy Blood and Holy Grail was The Passover Plot (by Schonfield; 1965). And before that – well, the effort goes all the way back to the very beginning.

While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day. (Matthew 28:11-15)

But all these efforts to make sense are like Peter and John. They’re still looking into the tomb. They are still looking for a dead body. They’re still looking for the Messiah they had expected, the Davidic king who would send the Romans packing, or at least make them take notice. They’re still looking for the wandering wonder worker, the traveling preacher. They’re not looking for Jesus because they’re not looking for the Risen Lord.

Jesus’ question is still pertinent: “Whom are you looking for?” Whom are we looking for? If we’re looking for Jesus, we have to hear Mary’s story and look where Mary looked. We have to listen as Mary listened, to hear that familiar voice asking that compelling question. We have to look beyond what makes sense, into the mysterious darkness of the garden, to seek and encounter our Lord. He is not dead. He is risen!

“Whom are you looking for?” If you’re looking for Jesus, don’t go looking in an empty tomb.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Meditation on the Passion

Even now as I‘m writing, I’m engaging in my traditional Holy Week meditation: I’m listening to Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. In fact, listening specifically on Good Friday seems almost to have become the tradition; there have been too many Holy Weeks in recent years when I have let my schedule rush on, and left my traditional meditation on the Passion wait until the eleventh hour.

I have been moved by this music, and by this creative telling of the Passion story ever since. I was 15 when it was first published, a two-disk vinyl set. I was 16, I think, when the first stage presentation came to my home town. It was more a concert then, and less an opera production. There were the principles, a rock band, an orchestra, and a gospel choir. There were no props, no costumes, and little pretence. The music was all we heard. The music spoke powerfully enough.

Outside there were picketers, proclaiming that this was a “blasphemous” production. They had not heard it, I expect, at least not most of them. (Isn’t that still the way when there is a major retelling of a Biblical story: too much complaint from those who have no idea what they’re really complaining about?) Even if they had heard the music, they had certainly missed the point. Even today, as I have been listening, I have looked at articles on the web about this opera. Even today, most miss the point.

Why do I find this so moving? Part of the answer to those questions, of course, is that this is music, and music is powerfully important in my life and in my spirituality. I was raised in a “stiff-upper-lip,” Appalachian culture. We do not readily or easily share emotions. We are modest and quiet in joy; we are restrained and private in grief. The life and history which that culture reflects is hard and constant: hard rocks in thin fields, hard rocks in deep mines. It often took my ancestors all they had to keep getting the work done, and there was little time and energy for emotional expression. The exception was music: in comic songs and sad ballads, in hymns and gospel songs they opened their feelings to themselves, to one another, and to God. I have learned much about sharing my feelings in therapy and in clinical training and in loving relationships. Still, I have that restraint deep in my soul. Musical reflection on the Lord’s Passion moves me in ways that I will not otherwise allow.

And this music has stayed with me. I know it by heart, and in order. I listen to is as a unit today; but all through this week I have been hearing it. I cannot contemplate the Procession of the Palms without hearing, “Hosannah, heysannah.” I cannot reflect on the trial before Pilate without hearing, “We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?” With each Gospel reading this week, with each event recalled, some piece of this opera comes to mind.

And there is a more basic reason, a more important reason, that I meditate with this work. I believe we pass over – indeed, we run away from – what it means that Jesus is fully human, “true Man of true Man,” as in the Nicene Creed. We cling to the full divinity of Christ. It gives us comfort because we know it is the full divinity of Christ that insures that God in Christ has the power to save us from the fallenness of the world, and the fallenness of our own souls. We want to focus on the miracles and the wonders, and miss the human frailty. We want even to skip the Passion most of the year; and even in Holy Week to touch it only as a whistle stop on the way to Easter. That is not the teaching of the Church, of course, in any of our variations of the Christian Tradition; but it is our human response. We have enough fears out of our own humanity. We don’t want to see any of those in Christ, or in those closest to him.

But this telling of the Passion focuses brightly and fiercely on the sheer, limited, adulterated humanity of all involved. There is nothing pretty or romantic or sanctified about these people, from Jesus on down. This is, I believe, how we would see these events, and how, I believe, the disciples may well have seen them. Scripture is clear that again and again, called to see God doing something cosmic in Christ, the disciples saw only the son of David, called to reestablish the Israel of the past, and not to create the Israel of the future. They did not know what was going to happen; and so they were terrified, hiding, betraying Jesus and running for their lives. Superstar does not end in the Resurrection; it ends in the tomb. And that is where Friday ended for those first and closest disciples.

We try to hold this fact: that for our humanity to be raised, Christ’s humanity had to be full. Christ and those around him had to be every bit has human, every bit as limited as anybody else was – as we are. As Fr. Howard Rhys, who taught me New Testament, was wont to say, “You can’t see the Messiah as God the Father walking around Palestine on two feet;” you can’t, at least, without losing Jesus’ humanity, and without risking ours. It is oh, so comforting to pass over all this: to see this Passover as involving no human risk and no human grief at all; as saving us without engaging and confronting us as we really are. But if we do not understand what they saw, those first disciples; if we do not feel the grief and the confusion and the real fear that they felt – that he felt: “My God! My God, why have you forgotten me? - we do not really understand what God in Christ was willing to give for us. We will not really understand what it will mean for them – what it can mean for us – when on the third day they discover the tomb empty.

May God be with us all through the power and the grief and the sadness of this day, through the fear and the confusion of tomorrow; so that we may be with God on the Third Day for the glory that will be revealed.

The Episcopal Church on Health Care: Convention 2006

I’ve written a series of posts about actions of past General Conventions of the Episcopal Church with respect to health care. In posts to come I will say more about those past actions, and about positions expressed in General Convention resolutions. So, you can imagine that one of my first steps when The Blue Book became available was to see what might be in there about health care.

Oh, what is the Blue Book? There are four sources for resolutions to General Convention: individual bishops; individual deputies; actions of dioceses; and Commissions, Committees, Agencies, and Boards (“CCAB’s”) of the General Convention itself. The CCAB’s meet between General Conventions, and prepare reports to General Convention, along with proposed resolutions. Those reports and resolutions are published before Convention as “The Blue Book.” (Reports are that this year The Blue Book is green. That won’t change the name; after all, we are Episcopalians, and it is a tradition.)

So, I went to The Blue Book, to take a preliminary look at what might be available. I looked first at the report of the Standing Commission on National Concerns. That’s where health related issues normally come up. I was initially disappointed. The Health portion of the report is brief. It does make reference to two organizations that have valuable resources for health ministries in the parish: National Episcopal Health Ministries (NEHM), and The International Parish Nurse Resource Center (and both are good resources). There is also a discussion of Futile Care and institutional policies on futile care. This is, of course, an important discussion, one on which I’ll have more to say another time. On the other hand, there are no resolutions rising from either section, and no health resolutions in the report.

But then I found something exciting. I found it in, of all places, the report of the Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church. The larger theme of that report was a plan to streamline and standardize characteristics of all of the CCAB’s. Within that theme I found two specific points that excited me.

First, the report calls again for the reestablishment of the Standing Commission on Health. According to the report,

It shall be the duty of the Commission:

1. to recommend policies and strategies to the General Convention for the development, affirmation and exercise of the ministry of all the baptized;
2. to encourage and facilitate networks of individuals, institutions and agencies engaged in education, training, deployment and formation for ministry by all four orders;
3. to study the needs and trends of theological education for all four orders with this Church, including issues of recruitment, training, deployment, evaluation and continuing education; to make recommendation to the several seminaries, the Executive Council and the General Convention; and to aid the General Board of Examining Chaplains in the exercise of its function;
4. to discharge such other duties as shall be assigned by the General Convention.

Of course, this interests me as a hospital chaplain. Beyond that, health issues are important for us all socially, morally, and politically. Health care has been explicitly a part of every national political campaign since the first Clinton election; and periodically for long before that. I have shared my thoughts on recent legislation in Massachusetts, which is one experiment in that ongoing discussion.

Now, the 2003 General Convention also called for the reestablishment of the Standing Commission on Health. However, no funding was provided. That was the second exciting point for me. The report includes two resolutions: one to fund the Commission, and the second to assign HIV/AIDS ministries to the Commission. Thus, if the report is accepted the Commission would be reestablished with both funding and some ongoing responsibilities. Both of those give me sense of a Commission reestablished with substance.

I’m looking forward to General Convention (yeah, I know I’ve said that before). I am certainly interested in the issues that will get a lot of attention: the election of the Presiding Bishop; the response to the Windsor Report and the report on Communion; and the confirmation of newly elected bishops. However, I am also very interested in where the Episcopal Church stands on health issues. I believe reestablishing the Standing Commission on Health, with both funding and some immediate responsibilities, can greatly improve our capacity to speak on these issues within the Church, and beyond the Church, in the world.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

"So that no one might boast in the presence of God"

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

I have been thinking about these verses since I celebrated the Eucharist today. I thought about it particularly when I was reviewing Thinking Anglicans and the many comments on what may or may not happen in the Episcopal Church.

One of the themes that keeps coming up in those discussions is leadership, and specifically the leadership shown, or according to many not shown, by Rowan Williams and Frank Griswold. Why do they seem so passive in the face of provocations from the conservative leaders, and especially those who choose to violate tradition and canons of the Council of Nicea and actions of the 1998 Lambeth Conference to cross diocesan boundaries? The others (Reasserters? Conservatives? Orthodox? Since I consider myself Progressive, sometimes I say “Regressives.”) make so much noise, and seem so aggressive and confrontational. Why do Rowan and Frank seem so quiet, so passive?

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

I am not myself comfortable when the leadership of the Episcopal Church seems so silent in the face of confrontations, and even apparent betrayals by some of our own bishops. At the same time, I see those betrayals, and the larger actions of organization and consolidation and calls to “walk apart” as just the sort of power politics and power media that are the common currency of this world. How many times have I heard – how many times have I said – this is all a big power play. If it is that, then a Newtonian equal but opposite power play is still the common currency of this world. It is not the model that we have in Christ.

I fear in these days for the Episcopal Church. It may indeed not be here in a few generations. It will certainly be injured by these power plays and these militant acts. It will certainly be changed. I am not comfortable as my Church remains quiet in the face of these attacks on us, and on our commitment to include all Christians in all the ministries we have in Christ. I sometimes long to see a strong response, a response that claims and proclaims and calls to arms. But I have to recognize that I may be thinking as the world thinks, and not as God things. I have to recognize this week of all weeks that such a response is not what we see in Christ, and is not, ultimately, what will save this Church.

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Toward an Episcopal Culture for Health Care: General Convention

I have been writing recently about actions of General Convention about health care. There's a lot more to be addressed in that vein: the Church's response to AIDS, abortion, care at the end of life, etc. General Convention has spoken on all those topics, and more.

And as I do this, it raises a question for me on my other ongoing subject: if there is an Episcopal Culture for health care, how is it affected by, responsive to, actions of General Convention? General Convention is the single authoritative voice of the Episcopal Church as a whole. Bishops can speak with authority, both as individuals and as a House. But as the current arguments in the Communion make clear, and as the bishops themselves have made clear, final authority to speak for the whole Episcopal Church rests with General Convention. So, how should an Episcopal culture of health care be affected by the actions of General Convention?

This is not an idle reflection for me. As the chaplain in an Episcopal hospital, in an Episcopal health system, I do get asked what the Episcopal Church has to say on certain issues. Abortion and end-of-life issues have been foremost among those, but there is also some general interest in other ethical positions of the Episcopal Church. Most folks here see that as in keeping with being a church-related hospital, in parallel with Catholic, Jewish, and Adventist hospitals. And taking seriously both the questions, and my own status as a priest of the Church, I do review General Convention actions that may be relevant.

First, we have to distinguish among the actions of General Convention regarding their authority for the Episcopal Church generally. We see differently actions affecting Constitution and Canons or Prayer Book and Liturgy from those expressing the opinion of the Church on social issues. While all have some room for personal interpretation and expression, the former are formative for us as a Church to a degree that the latter are not.

I think we can say also that the Episcopal Church has long valued individual conscience and individual thought. This is based on a number of themes in the tradition. The classic model in the Anglican tradition for sources of theological authority is the “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. In theological reflection “Reason” is more clearly described as “reasoned reflection on the action of God with God’s people as reflected in Scripture, and in the history and tradition of the faith, and in the contemporary lives of the believers.” But even with those qualifications, it is clear that the capacity to reason is valued as one part of how we recognize God’s presence and action in the world. By the same token, we take local experience seriously. For example, in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral the clause describing the Historic Episcopate qualifies it as “locally adapted… to the varying needs of the nations and peoples….” Again, rational reflection on current experience helps make this sensible.

What, then, should be the relationship between actions of General Convention and an Episcopal culture for health care? To be considered an “Episcopal” institution, and particularly for those health care institutions maintain an official relationship with an institution or agency of the Episcopal Church, we should expect some responsiveness to the most authoritative body of the Episcopal Church. This would surely mean some awareness and reflection of actions of General Convention. I would suggest that special responsibility for providing education about those actions falls to Episcopalians within the institution and/or the Episcopal agency with which the health care institution is affiliated. There should, certainly, also be an expectation of recognizing local experience in how these actions are reflected in the policies and actions of the health care institution. To take an example from my own experience, the General Convention has expressed the opinion that “legislation concerning abortions will not address the root of the problem.” (Resolution 1988-C047, reaffirmed in Resolution 1994-A054) At the same time, health care institutions can be expected follow federal and state laws respecting abortion. And certainly, health care institutions would be expected to base clinical care on the best clinical information, and not simply on actions of General Convention.

As with most of these reflections, this is only a beginning. There can be a deeper examination, beginning with our own understanding of how we view actions of General Convention within the Episcopal Church itself. I have noted a more or less official distinction between “constitutional” actions of Convention, and those more expressive of opinion or education. We also make distinctions as individuals based on our own personal reflections and experiences, in light of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Still, it makes sense to me that to claim connection with the Episcopal Church, an institution must be responsive to the most authoritative voice of the Episcopal Church, the General Convention. That calls me as an Episcopal chaplain in an Episcopal institution to the responsibility to relate those actions within the structures of my institution; and for all of us who want the Church to be involved in health care to be aware once again of what the General Convention has said.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

An Episcopal Perspective on the Massachusetts Insurance Experiment

The big news today in health care is the new legislation passed in Massachusetts which has the object of bringing all the state’s residents into some form of health insurance. While the new law will expand somewhat the state’s Medicaid coverage, the largest push will be to move most, and certainly almost all those employed, into some kind of private coverage. The law uses a combination of tax incentives and penalties for individuals, and incentives and penalties for employers, to bring this about. You can see a good description of the plan here.

I have posted recently on the action of General Convention in 2000 (Resolution 2000-A079) and of the Formative Statement on Health Care that was one result. But I want to put that statement in context. In fact the General Convention had been speaking on health care for all as far back as 1988. That 69th General Convention passed Resolution 1988-D108, titled, “Advocate for Appropriate Health Care for All Who Are Ill:”

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That this 69th General Convention direct the Presiding Bishop and the Executive Council, in light of the strains upon the health care system exerted by the AIDS Epidemic, to direct the Washington D.C. office of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America to adopt a strategy to advocate for all persons suffering from illness by creating appropriate levels of cost-effective health care, for example, hospices and alternative health care facilities.

This resolution was followed at the 70th General Convention in 1991 by two resolutions, A010, “Advocate Legislation for Comprehensive Health Care;” and A099, “Call for a System of Universal Access to Health Care.” Both called for universal health care as a basic right, the former calling for advocacy from agencies of the Episcopal Church, and the latter for action in the federal government.

The most complete statement, however, was passed at the 71st General Convention in 1994. That resolution was A057, “Adopt Church Principles on Access to Health Care:”

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That this 71st General Convention of the Episcopal Church adopt the following four principles as the position of the Episcopal Church regarding health care:
That universal access to quality, cost effective, health care services be considered necessary for everyone in the population.
That "quality health care" be defined so as to include programs in preventive medicine, where wellness is the first priority.
That "quality health care" include interdisciplinary and interprofessional components to insure the care of the whole person--physiological, spiritual, psychological, social.
That "quality health care" include the balanced distribution of resources so that no region of the country is underserved.

The most interesting aspect of these principles is their inclusion under the definition of “quality health care.” In the early 1990’s we were first seeing the spreading within the health care industry of principles of performance improvement and quality management (about which I have also written). The understanding of “quality health care” in the quality management environment has been based on clinical and organizational outcomes. In 1994-A057 we as the Episcopal Church asserted that to provide “quality health care” also required certain social justice outcomes. For us, I believe these outcomes would be considered essential if we were to “seek and service Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [ourselves],” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” (From the Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer, page 305).

It remains to be seen whether the social experiment in Massachusetts will produce quality health care, either in the sense of better clinical outcomes, or in the sense of fulfilling the social outcomes that we as the Episcopal Church would seek. It will be, I think, worth the effort. But however it turns out, we have made clear in actions of General Convention our own goals and standards: to provide health care for all persons, care for whole persons from cradle to grave. You know, it looks like this will be an issue in the next few elections. Think what it might mean if we all made clear to those we support that we also support these statements of the Church in General Convention.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Confusion to the French - and to Tom Delay

Tom “The Hammer” Delay has resigned! Huzzah! Huzzah! Confusion to the French!

Now, if that last seems a bit strange, it reflects my appreciation for the Hornblower novels of C. S. Forester and the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brien. Much of the actions in both series takes place during wars between England and France. Both authors describe banquets involving military officers, both on land and at sea. Those banquets commonly end with stories and toasts given over wine and cheese, and one of the common toasts was, “Confusion to the French!” The point was that the French should experience bad communication and information, and uncertain leadership in battle and military campaigns; and that as a result the French should experience defeat, preferably at the hands of the British.

For some time now when I read the paper and observed setbacks for the militant social conservatives in this country, who were almost exclusively in the Republican Party, I would have a similar hope. I would hope that this would be a sign that their poor and uncompassionate leadership, and some significant corruption, was catching up with them. I would hope that this would result in better, more socially responsible, more compassionate leadership from both parties, and a rejection of policies of division of society and abandonment of the weakest among us. And so I would come out with the ancient toast as a sign of my hope.

Tom Delay has realized that the corruption that surrounded him will not wash over him, but will wash him away, especially if it is determined that he participated. Those who took him as a model of leadership, of governing by monopolizing power and manipulating policies and structures to suit their own ends, are seeing the consequences. The results are not yet what I would hope; but this is a significant step forward. I hope to see more. Confusion to the French!

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Episcopal Church and Health Care: Embryonic Stem Cells

There is a fight going on these days over embryonic stem cells, how they might be used, and how they might be obtained. The debate has been going on for some time as to whether this is or is not cloning a human being. Indeed, the term “cloning” often is used by those who oppose it, while those who believe that there is potential benefit in research on embryonic stem cells speak of somatic cell gene transfer, or somatic cell nuclear transfer.

And the fight has found a new arena: who will fund the research. Under the current administration in Washington there are a limited number of established cultures of stem cells that can be used for federally funded research. In reaction the state of California passed legislation that as a state it could and would fund research. Closer to home, there are those in my own state legislature in Missouri that wanted last year to pass a bill banning any research involving embryonic stem cells, reflecting a belief that those embryos destroyed in the process were fully human. In response the governor of Illinois made public that he would be delighted to see researchers, and their research dollars, leave Missouri for greener pastures in his state.

I have taken on the project of holding up actions of General Convention regarding issues in and related to health care. As you might expect, this is also a topic on which General Convention has spoken. In 2003 two resolutions were passed by General Convention. The first, Resolution 2003-A014, was titled, “Support Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” The text is:

Resolved, That the 74th General Convention of The Episcopal Church, believing that a wider availability of embryonic stem cells for medical research holds the potential for discovery of effective treatment of a wide variety of diseases and other medical conditions;

A. Support the choice of those who wish to donate their early embryos, remaining after in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures have ended; and
B. Urge that the United States Congress pass legislation that would authorize federal funding for derivation of and medical research on human embryonic stem cells that were generated for IVF and remain after fertilization procedures have been concluded, provided that:

1. these early embryos are no longer required for procreation by those donating them and would simply be discarded;
2. those donating early embryos have given their prior informed consent to their use in stem cell research;
3. the embryos were not deliberately created for research purposes;
4. the embryos were not obtained by sale or purchase; and be it further

Resolved, That the 74th General Convention of The Episcopal Church urge the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish an interdisciplinary oversight body for all research in both the public and private sectors that involves stem cells from human embryos, parthenotes, sperm cells, or egg cells, and have this body in place within six months of passing such legislation; and be it further
Resolved, That the 74th General Convention of The Episcopal Church direct the Secretary of General Convention to communicate this resolution to appropriate members and committees of the United States Congress and direct the Office of Government Relations to identify and advocate the legislation called for by this resolution.

A second resolution, 2003-A012, was titled, “Adopt Guidelines for Genetic Testing and Reproductive Technology.” While the point of the resolution was to address genetic testing of children and of prospective parents, it included the provisions that,

    • Treatment for genetic diseases and the use of somatic gene transfer therapies
      may be used if they are proven safe and effective; [and]
    • It is not morally
      acceptable to use reproductive cloning, and it is therefore morally
      irresponsible for physicians, scientists, and prospective parents to engage in

Thus, the Episcopal Church in General Convention is on record as supporting research on embryonic stem cells, provided the they are obtained appropriately; supporting use of therapies resulting from that research; and condemning cloning for purposes of reproduction.

This controversy isn’t going away any time soon. The arguments over legislation and funding will continue, reflecting the continuing arguments over when potential human life becomes actual human life, with full moral and civil rights. These resolutions don’t address that prior question. Nor would I expect these to be final: there may well be resolutions related to this issue in this General Convention in Columbus. However, they are the most authoritative statements to date of the position of the Episcopal Church; and if we know of them they can offer us guidance for our own decisions, and a public voice for the Church in the continuing debate.