Friday, March 31, 2006

Studying Prayer

There was a news item this morning regarding research on the health benefits of intercessory prayer. The best discussion, I think, was this story in the International Herald Tribune. You can do a search and read many other reports on this study.

This is of interest to me, of course. It’s certainly of professional interest. It’s also of personal interest, in that a previous study, using different measures, but also involving cardiac patients, was done in the central hospital of my system, and I was peripherally involved. The abstract is still available on line here.

The study today seemed to show, at best, no significant results of the intercessory prayer, and perhaps harm for some patients. Our study seemed to show some small, but measurable benefit for patients. Since the studies didn’t use the same measures or comparable patient pools, they’re not directly comparable.

But both raise the question: what good is research into prayer and/or into religious practice? There have been these and other studies into whether intentional, third-party intercessory prayer made a measurable difference. Some were better than others, but all were controversial. There have been studies looking at correlation between religious practice and aspects of health, comparing, for example, blood pressure or depression among people regular in worship and those who did not attend worship. These have not raised as many questions as the prayer studies (some of which were weird by anybody’s standards), and they have shown many positive health outcomes that correlate with a committed religious life; but they have still had their critics.

The primary criticism, of course, is that there is no way to identify, much less measure, the direct, specific mechanism that caused any change. That’s especially true of the prayer studies, and complicated by the fact that there’s no way to screen for any third-party, intercessory prayer that’s not part of the study, nor for any prayers the patient himself or herself might say. The critics of the correlation studies want to make a similar criticism, as if a disciplined life style and a good support network were neitherreason enough for the good results, nor sufficiently spiritual or religious.

I have followed these studies for years. I have met and heard Harold Koenig, MD, of Duke, and the late David Larson of the National Institute for Healthcare Research (now the International Center for the Integration of Health and Spirituality). Their take on research into the health and spirituality wasn’t dependent either on proving the actions of God or on determining a specific mechanism by which prayer caused change. Rather, their point was that spirituality and religion were important aspects of the lives of most patients, and aspects that may affect their health practices and beliefs. As such, they felt that those in health care should take religion and spirituality of patients seriously, and should perhaps learn enough about each patient’s faith to encourage the patient in maintaining good practices, and utilizing appropriate support. They might even learn enough to make an appropriate referral, whether to the patient’s own minister or to a clinical chaplain.

While I am interested in research like that reported today, I take it with a pinch of salt. Having been involved in prayer research, and in more traditional research efforts in hospitals, I’m quite aware of the limitations and the problems. On the other hand, if we can continue to encourage professionals in health care to take seriously the faith lives of their patients, and to consider how they might support healthy faith practices, I think we’ll be ahead, and our patients will be better served.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Episcopal Church and Health Care: Today's Alert

In my most recent post I made reference to the Office of Government Relations of the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN). Today EPPN released a new Policy Alert, one topic of which was “Congressional Leadership Needed: Health Care Reform.” EPPN sends Policy Alerts at intervals, each of which addresses an issue, and provides an automated way through the EPPN to contact your members of Congress.

I would encourage you to take a look at the Policy Alert, and if you feel so moved to contact your Senators and Representative through the mechanism provided. If you’d like to receive these alerts on a regular basis you can also register with EPPN. I will admit I don’t respond to every Alert; but I always find them worth reading and worth praying over.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Episcopal Church on Health Care, part 2

In a previous post I spoke about actions of General Convention regarding health care, and especially about Resolution A079, passed in General Convention in 2000. The first consequence, described in the previous post, was the Formative Symposium on Health Care. The second consequence was the conference, Waging Reconciliation: an Episcopal Response to Healthcare Barriers in April, 2003.You can read articles about the conference here.

Let me say more about the conference from a participant’s point of view. The first thing to note is that this conference was planned through the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations. I’m not sure how many people in the Church know we even have an Office of Government Relations. I’m not sure how many of those who do know actually know what it does. In fact it is a lobbying office. Staff of the office work to make those in the federal government aware of stands taken by the Episcopal Church on various topics of interest. This may include resolutions of General Convention, and statements of the Executive Council, the House of Bishops, or the Presiding Bishop. In addition, they operate the Episcopal Public Policy Network. Through the Network interested Episcopalians are alerted to events taking place in Washington, how those events impact social and political issues, and how members of the Network may contact members of Congress and others in Government to express their opinions.

On the first day of the conference we heard from a number of interesting and important people, and had the opportunity to meet with Congressional staffers who are Episcopalians. However, as interesting as that was, the real action, I think, was on the second day. On that day we began with a review of how to be lobbyists: how to address an issue, how make the best use of the time of the member of Congress or of the staffer we met, and how to articulate the commitment of the Episcopal Church to elimination of barriers to health care. Then we went out individually and in teams, and hit the Hill. In appointments arranged by the Office of Government Relations we met with our members of Congress, or with members of their staffs, to present the concerns of the Church. Most of us actually met with staffers; a few were able to actually meet their Representative or Senator. Almost all felt we were well received.

Now, what did this accomplish? I know we haven’t yet accomplished universal health care. The President, raised as an Episcopalian and still attending an Episcopal Church (I imagine because it’s the church most convenient to the White House and the Secret Service), doesn’t seem responsive to the positions of the Church. However, I have maintained a relationship with two staff members for one of my senators. Now, the senator is more conservative than I am (but, then, most people are), as are the staffers; but the staffers do respond to my emails with more than a boiler plate response.

Some will know that most medical residency programs, and most clinical education programs for other healthcare professionals, are paid for in part by Medicare reimbursement. Two summers ago, when the Center for Medicare Services (CMS) was considering cutting reimbursement for education for ancillary services in health care, including CPE, I contacted one staffer, and through her was able to contact a staffer of my other senator. Both sent letters to CMS supporting reimbursement for CPE and other ancillary education programs. The decision was made not to eliminate the reimbursements, although some, including CPE, were clarified and somewhat narrowed. I can’t say that the letters from the senators were the critical pieces in the CMS decision; but I’m sure they didn’t hurt. And I continue to contact the senator’s office when I have an opinion to share.

Now, events like Waging Reconciliation and the Formative Symposium get reported in Episcopal Life and elsewhere; but I’m not sure how many people notice. At the same time, they are, as I said, concrete results of a resolution in General Convention. Once again, they are evidence that indeed the Episcopal Church does stand for something, and does try to make that stance visible in the world.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


Rejoice with me, my siblings. Today, the Feast of the Annunciation, is the 25th anniversary of my ordination as a Deacon. I still remember Bishop William Sanders (still living, God bless him) laying hands on me. I grew up in East Tennessee, and I remember what would happen in the church that night if I was slain in the Spirit. Good Southern Baptist cousins were there, proud of me even if they didn't understand why we did things the way we did. I remember still feeling anxious and uncertain as I made the table for the Bishop. I still remember it was a wonderful night.

Thanks, Lord, for all these years working with the question, "Lord, what do you want me to do now?"

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Episcopal Church on Health Care

This is a General Convention year, and I am a General Convention junkie. One of my professional goals is to attend every General Convention, as much as possible at someone else’s expense. I think I’ve made I think I’ve attended six or seven times since 1976 (sometimes with support, sometimes without). As an Alternate Deputy from my diocese I will certainly be in Columbus in June.

Through those years one of my convictions has been that people in the pews don’t know what General Convention says. Resolutions are passed by General Convention on a wide variety of topics. As General Convention is the highest authority of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, those resolutions are the most authoritative statements of the Episcopal Church regarding our beliefs and practices.

And yet people will often be heard to ask, “What does the Church teach?”; or to say, “The Episcopal Church doesn’t stand for anything.” While the General Convention does not commonly get explicit about doctrine per se, the latter statement is simply not true. It may be true that Episcopalians do not know what the Church stands for, largely because clergy in the parish don’t make an effort to communicate the actions of General Convention, and the new media – including too often church and religious services – focus on the high-visibility, hot-button issues. It is not true that the Church in General Convention doesn’t speak.

So, if I’m reflecting on an Episcopal culture for health care, one area of exploration is to reflect on actions of General Convention that speak to health care. In this post I want to raise an action and its consequences.

In 2000 the General Convention passed resolution A079. As an “A” resolution, it was introduced by a committee, specifically the Committee on National and International Concerns. The resolution was discussed in open hearings of the Committee, and a substitute resolution was submitted and passed. You can read the final text here . The resolution directs “Office of the Bishop for the Armed Services, Healthcare and Prison Ministries to convene representatives of the Episcopal healthcare groups… and individuals… to articulate and communicate to public policy makers and the public, the positions of the Episcopal Church with regard to healthcare policy. This will include: advocacy for a healthcare system in which all may be guaranteed decent and appropriate primary healthcare during their lives and as they approach death; keeping abreast of the rapidly changing healthcare market and developments in biomedical research as they affect health-related public policies; collecting, collating, and developing resources and teaching materials related to access to healthcare for the use of dioceses, congregations, and individuals;…”

This resolution had two direct results. The first was the Formative Symposium on Health Care, held July 6 through 8, 2001, at the College of Preachers. The Formative Symposium, at its conclusion, issued a statement, which I include in full:

Formative Symposium: A New Vision

We are a group of thirty-five (35) people dedicated to healing ministries who were called together by Bishop Packard at the College of Preachers in Washington, DC, for the purpose of attempting to discover a new vision of health and health care for the Episcopal Church in response to the resolution A079a, adopted at the General Convention, 2000.

We commit ourselves to continuing action in the following five areas:

1) Theology/Vision
a) Articulate a vision of health and health care reflecting both our Episcopal roots and our vision of God's call
b) Listen to Episcopalians in all walks of life to cultivate a theology of health
c) Foster listening and dialogue with all God's people to enrich a theology of health
d) Prepare additional theological materials about health, reflecting our tradition and involving academics, policy analysts, executives, health professionals and clergy
e) Create and identify public spaces for discourse on issues of theology and health

2) Structure
a) Establish an office of health policy, education and bioethics which will
(1) coordinate networking and resources,
(2) disseminate existing materials,
(3) support the creation of new materials for education and advocacy,
(4) research and assist with other health activities,
(5) consult and advise within the church,
(6) work in collaboration with the Bishop and
b) Establish and coordinate an advisory council

3) Education
a) Identify and raise up already existing health programs
b) Develop adult curricula and materials on health which utilize a variety of media, including the internet
c) Affirm supervised clinical education for clergy formation
d) Encourage bishops to support clergy education on health issues
e) Encourage bishops to ensure the ongoing education of clergy through a minimum number of CEU's per year
f) Request Bishop Packard to assist in the provision of education on health issues for new Bishops
g) Develop health education materials using an interdisciplinary approach for seminarians and healthcare professionals

4) Networking
a) Network and partner with all groups willing to share in promoting the best possible health and health care for all persons
b) Request the Bishop for Armed Services, Healthcare and Prison Ministries to write letters cultivating partnership and/or participation to the following:
(1) National organizations representing health professions and consumers
(2) Diocesan bishops encouraging them to invite local health care professionals and providers to network
c) Inform local clergy and health ministers about resources
d) Encourage congregations to network and partner on a local level

5) Advocacy
a) Bring health issues to the attention of congress by using the many resources of the Church including Resolutions of the General Convention and Executive Council through the Office of Government Relations
b) Direct corporate advocacy toward state and local governments
c) Commend dioceses and congregations to take on the role of advocacy at federal, state and local governments
d) Call Episcopalians to participate personally in the health advocacy ministries of our Church
e) Promote health issues within the structures of the Episcopal Church

Hereunto we affix our signatures on the 5th Sunday of Pentecost, July 8, 2001.

I was honored to be a participant in the Symposium and a signatory of the New Vision statement.

I know this a long piece to post, but I think it’s worth reading for those of us who want to know how the Church has spoken to health care. There have been other results of resolution A079 in 2000, and I will address them in another post. However, I think the vision we articulated in the Symposium remains relevant today, and reflects well what can result from actions of General Convention.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Toward an Episcopal Culture for Health Care: Incarnation

Anglican theologians have written about an emphasis on the Incarnation in Anglican thought. Michael Ramsey spoke to it in this interesting article from 1945 when he was Bishop of Durham. This is not to suggest that other Christian bodies don't value Incarnation, or that we don't value Crucifixion or Resurrection or Sanctification. It's simply a matter of emphasis.

We speak of it in two senses, really. We speak first and foremost of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, God’s unique presence among us when the Word became Flesh. We speak of it by extension when we reflect Paul’s theology that we are the Body of Christ, Christ’s ongoing presence in the world. By virtue of the Spirit of Christ that dwells in us from our baptism, and that is renewed in us in the Eucharist, we bear Christ’s presence and are called to Christ’s ministry. It is a part of our understanding of sacrament, and specifically of the Church as sacrament: the outward and visible sign of God’s grace active in the world.

It seems to me that Incarnation is a place to start in reflecting on an Episcopal culture for health care. If this is a theme of the Anglican tradition, how can we reflect the Incarnation in modern medical care?

Perhaps we can begin with our own sense of our call. We are called to carry on a healing ministry that was an important sign of who Christ was. Healing after healing in the Gospels demonstrated both who Christ was, and God’s will for wholeness in creation. Certainly, if the Church is sacramental, reflecting in worship and in the world the grace of God in Christ, healing and health care must be significant areas of the Church’s ministry.

And we can become more personal in that. We can see those who provide care as persons reflecting the compassion of Christ, making it concrete, incarnate. Now, not all those who provide that care would use that language. However, as the faith community behind the institutions we can surely hold that perspective.

At the same time we can look for Christ in those who receive the care. We are called to serve “the least of these,” recognizing that when we serve them we indeed serve Christ. Many will share with us the Spirit of Christ received in Baptism. However, we can still see in those who do not the image and likeness of God. We can look for Christ in them; and they can call forth Christ in us.

This is a brief and incomplete reflection; but it seems the obvious place to start. As Incarnation is central to the Anglican tradition, to our theology of Church and Sacrament, it will be central to any understanding of an Episcopal culture for health care. If we are to call this culture for care ours, it must surely reflect in a concrete way the compassionate and healing presence of Christ.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Wrestling with the Double Effect

I have written before on issues of ethics in health care. It’s been a while, but you can look back at my posts, “Thinking Ahead,” “Episcopal Thoughts on Suffering and Dying,” and “Spotting the Bad Ones Early,” all posted in January . I’m returning to the topic, and to an issue that I reflect on in a variety of situations.

There are many things we do in health care, risks we take, really, that we do following the principle of Double Effect. This was articulated by Thomas Aquinas, and says, in essence, that if you act toward a good end using good means, unintended side effects are regrettable but morally acceptable. It can get a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the point. There’s a good review of the topic on the web site of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Now, this principle has its easy applications and its hard ones. Easy? We know that surgery injures the body and causes pain. However, to cure disease we pursue surgical interventions, using the least risky and invasive methods (good end and good means, and proportionality does matter), and so the injury and pain caused by the incision are regrettable but acceptable. We know that medications have risks. If a person participates in a drug study and has a reaction, it is regrettable but acceptable, because new knowledge that would lead to healing is the intent, and not the reaction.

And if you read the review cited above you’ll see that this is true even if the second effect if foreseeable. That is, as with my example of medication research, we can see the possibility of the second effect; but because it isn’t an end in itself, simply being able to predict the possibility of the reaction doesn’t make the research unethical, at least by itself.

But, of course, we’re more conscious in health care of the double effect when it’s really hard. I’m most conscious of it in issues of pain control at the end of life. We will give medication to alleviate pain, not intending to end the patient’s life, but knowing that the medication might hasten that end. I’m not alone in that awareness. I have been too often with nurses who wrestled with that issue, and said when the patient had died, “Well, I’ve killed another one.” They don’t believe that they’ve committed murder. They aren’t happy that the patient has died, and would have been delighted if it hadn’t happened, if the pain could be controlled, and then the injury or disease could be controlled, and the patient had lived. They are simply aware of the moral difficulty of knowing that providing the medicine that will make the patient’s suffering less will also make the patient’s life shorter.

I don’t want to deny or dispense with the principle of double effect. There are many things in health care that we couldn’t do without that consideration. Certainly, I believe in palliative care. I want to see suffering relieved for the dying as best we can, and I appreciate that doctors and nurses pursue that end carefully and compassionately. At the same time, I want to see us approach these situations with fear and trembling and humility. It is one thing, I think, to consider a double effect that is foreseeable; and another to consider one that is inevitable. That’s the sense of those sad and uncomfortable nurses, following the doctor’s order to “titrate medication for pain control,” who speak of “killing another one.” They give each small, incremental dose to relieve suffering, to ease air hunger and physical rigor and rapid heart rate. Each dose is small indeed. But they also know how those doses add up. They know that patients in pain can tolerate and metabolize doses of pain medication that would floor figuratively and literally those of us who are healthy. But they also know that even in great pain there is a limit, a tipping point when breathing is suppressed and metabolism slows. And, barring God’s direct intervention, they know this patient will die of an almost inextricable combination of disease and medication – dying much more comfortably, and also sooner.

Again, I don’t want to suggest we shouldn’t do this, that we shouldn’t practice palliative care. Suffering may be redemptive; but I can only imagine that if it is freely chosen. I cannot make the decision for another to suffer if it is in my power to ease the suffering. I simply believe we need always to hold on to this tension, this moral anxiety: that the double effect may be acceptable, but it is still profoundly regrettable. Unintended consequences may be foreseeable and even inevitable, and we may still find that we can live with them. But we must never become complacent about them.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

On Sheep in Nigeria

Today on NPR’s “Morning Edition” there was a report on religion in Nigeria. You can hear it here. It makes for interesting listening.

The scholar interviewed spoke of a “Christian renaissance” in Nigeria, and of the number of Christian denominations that are spreading, not only in Nigeria, but abroad, including to the United States. And she wasn’t speaking about the Church of Nigeria in America. The specific Christian group cited was the Redeemed Christian Church of God, which has built a major new church in Texas. When I did a search, I also found this story about Nigerian churches in America, and the pastoral problems of their pastors.

The NPR story got me to thinking. In the past few years – at least before the 2003 General Convention - the most energetic conversations about changes in the Episcopal Church haven’t been about our work reaching out to the unchurched. They have been about the loss of Episcopalians and other mainline Christians to the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, and especially to mega-churches. Sure, we talked about 2020, and about immigrant communities. But until we were wrestling about moral issues, we were concerned that our people were drifting away for the emotional excitement and simplistic answers of those churches.

Which brought me to wonder whether the same were true in Nigeria. What I have heard and read about other Christian churches in Nigeria suggests that there are many significant Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. I wonder whether there is as much anxiety about losses to those churches as there is about living with Muslims.

That’s not necessarily a difference that makes a difference. After all, I would expect that these other churches in Nigeria would be just as clear as Muslims in their condemnation of homosexual behavior. They would have similar moral expectations, as do the conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in the United States.

On the other hand I had to wonder: is all this part of the concern about how others in Nigeria will see the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, and so the Church of Nigeria - Anglican? They complain about the pressure from Muslims. Are they secretly just as concerned about sheep-stealing among Christians. Something to think about, anyway.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Toward an Episcopal Culture for Health Care

When I first thought about having a blog, and thought about what I might write, I found myself thinking about a continuing concern of mine: what would it mean to describe an Episcopal culture for health care? Now, from my blog heading and my profile you can recognize that I have a vested interest in the question. But, I’ve been playing with it for some time, and I still find the question intriguing, and even compelling.

I function within an Episcopal health care system – one of the few systems of hospitals remaining nationally that not only was founded by Episcopalians, but that still has some official relationship with a entity of the Episcopal Church. Moreover, as the number of hospitals connected with the Episcopal Church has fallen over the years, the number of long term care and retirement centers has grown. And even among health care institutions founded by the Church but no longer connected, many maintain some sense of Episcopal heritage or identity. Certainly, the Episcopal Church continues to be involved in health care.

For several years we also had within the System a Seventh-day Adventist hospital. Now, the Seventh-day Adventists have a strong tradition of health care, and a clear concept of the characteristics of an Adventist culture of health care. That clear concept in one institution at the time confronted me and others with what it means that an institution was related to the Episcopal Church.

I mean, look at the Adventists. Health issues, and particularly issues of diet, have long been a part of their ethos. In Adventist hospitals there is a stated expectation that the CEO has the same sort of responsibility for spiritual care that he has for physical and emotional care. Chaplaincy, led by (although not limited to) Adventist chaplains, is an important service of the institution. All meetings begin with prayer or a devotion, and responsibility for that is rotated among leaders. The vegetarian diet that has been so central for so many Adventists is supported in the kitchen, available both for patients and in the public cafeteria. To maintain this culture there is an explicit effort to maintain a high representation of Adventists among the hospital’s leadership.

By the same token, think of our Catholic colleagues. As has been said to me many times, “You always know when you’re in a Catholic hospital: it’s the crucifixes everywhere.” Those visible reflections of the Roman tradition may be taken down in an individual room at a patient’s request, but in general they’re visible throughout the facility and in every patient room. Again, chaplaincy, led by (but not limited to) Roman clergy and religious, is central to the services of the hospital. Many if not most have a position titled “Vice-president (or the equivalent) for Mission,” and that person’s responsibilities include determining how the institution will reflect Roman Catholic practice and teaching, not only in chaplaincy but throughout the institution. We know to expect Roman Catholic hospitals to reflect the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church regarding patient care at the end of life, and in maternity and reproductive care. And, of course, Roman Catholic hospitals also have a long tradition of Roman clergy and religious providing leadership in their hospitals.

So, what would it mean to have an Episcopal culture for health care? What would its characteristics be? I would certainly want to point to chaplaincy, but having a chaplain, and even an Episcopal chaplain, seems a pretty thin reed. Surely, an Episcopal culture for health care would include worship in the Episcopal tradition; for it is our worship that defines and forms us as a Church. It would, I think, reflect the faith as understood in the Book of Common Prayer, and especially the Baptismal Covenant. It would, I think, reflect our emphasis on the Incarnation, and on the continuing presence of Christ in his Body.

I think it would reflect all those things; but what would that look like? How would understand those values, and make them incarnate in practice? I think those are important questions, questions that ought to be important to us, inasmuch as we are indeed involved as a Church in providing health care. And so, some of my ongoing reflections here will be exploration of those issues. After all, if I am an Episcopal chaplain at bedside, working in an Episcopal setting, I need to think about what that means; and about how I and Episcopal colleagues live out in our work “the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them.”

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Which Words?

Jesus said, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38)

Yes, Lord; but, which words? I’m not interested in debating the qualities of various translations; and, bless me, but my Greek is not as good as it once was, and so translations are, by and large, where I work. I’m not interested in issues of historicity. I believe that you came, that you spoke, and that the words got recorded, in not perfectly, at least well enough. I’m not thinking about whether Paul also got “your words,” and got them down accurately. And I’m not particularly interested in playing off one Gospel against another.

But still, which words? We spend so much time and energy on just this question. Sometimes you call for rigid personal discipline and piety. Sometimes you proclaim forgiveness, and call us to forgive without limit. Sometimes you say things that confirm the Jewish tradition as you received it, and sometimes you stand that tradition on its head. Sometimes you expound high theology, and sometimes you proclaim folk wisdom, and sometimes you make no sense at all. Sometimes you show great grief and compassion, and sometimes you lash out in anger. Sometimes you cry out in frustration, and sometimes you just have to get away to be silent.

So, Lord, which words? Must I pick and choose? Barring direct revelation of the Spirit or the coming of the Kingdom, it seems I must. And if I must, mustn’t everyone else? Is there anyone who does not face this limit?

There are of course those who say they don’t, who try to hold them all in an unruly package, an uneasy tension. There are those who say that, led by the Spirit, they can approach this question knowing your perspective, your choices.

But I’m not one of them. I know my limitations. And so I must set my standards and make my choices. And I must do so with utmost humility, because I know my limitations, and I still wait for the Kingdom and its clarity. Whether or not I think others exercise such humility, that is what I must do.

And if I must make choices, Lord, it is only because I struggle to understand, to hear you clearly. It is not because I am ashamed of you, Lord. I can only pray you will not be ashamed of me.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Can we Talk?

Two announcements came out today. The first was the announcement that Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and President of the House of Deputies George Werner have formed a “special committee to handle General Convention resolutions concerning the Episcopal Church's relationship with the Anglican Communion.” The second is that the Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has sent “a pastoral letter to the 38 Primates of the Anglican Communion and Moderators of the United Churches, setting out some thinking on the Lambeth Conference in 2008….” These are both about the future of the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church's place in it.

I was struck by these statements in the Archbishop’s letter: “Despite the levels of bitter controversy over sexuality in the Communion, I do not hear much enthusiasm for revisiting in 2008 the last Lambeth Conference’s resolution on this matter. In my judgement, we cannot properly or usefully re-open the discussion as if Resolution 1.10 of Lambeth 1998 did not continue to represent the general mind of the Communion.” My first reaction is simply that I believe him. First, I don’t imagine he’s heard much enthusiasm to reconsider that resolution. Second, I certainly imagine that there would be as much support for that resolution now as there was then, at least in the opinion that homosexuality is not compatible with scripture. There might be some discussion, some rephrasing; perhaps, but I doubt it. In ten years I haven’t had much sense of change; more of hardening of positions.

My second thought is that the second statement may not be true. If we are to actually engage in a listening process, it would seem to me to be worthwhile to consider what has happened since 1998. There needs to be a report, a summary, even a thorough review.

What would that show? It would certainly show that, for good or ill, the Episcopal Church stepped out, taking initiative in confirming in General Convention the election of Bishop Robinson in New Hampshire. It would show that after years of support, even growing support, in diocesan convention the Diocese of New Westminster in the Anglican Church of Canada voted to develop a rite for the blessing of non-married couples, including same-sex couples. It would show that the Church of England has had to develop a response to a civil law allowing civil partnerships non-married couples, including same sex couples. Certainly, these at least challenge the ”general mind of the Communion.”

It would also show that there has been as much or more violation or ignoring of the same resolution in its second half. That was the part that called for listening to the stories and the concerns of GLBT people in all the provinces of the Communion. If two provinces have knowingly violated the first clause (and England is struggling), how many have violated the second provision? Such a review would also show, surely, the number of bishops who have chosen to see Resolution 1.10 as grounds to violate other resolutions, including the commitment to respect provincial and diocesan boundaries. Now, at this point none of this is news. All of these various events have been well reported. But a thorough review, bringing all these things together, would demonstrate how little respect many provinces seem to have for the Communion, and how little commitment to pursue Communion except on their own terms.

And perhaps that is the most important reason to reassess Resolution 1.10. Perhaps there has been movement on that resolution, but not in the first provision. I wonder if we were to reconsider it if we wouldn’t discover that many bishops were prepared simply to reject the listening process. It might not be movement in the way I would like; but surely it would demonstrate a change in the “general mind of the Communion,” and produce a more honest statement.

I don’t know that I actually want any of this to happen. I have high hope that the General Convention will make a sincere effort to affirm our commitment to the Anglican Communion and to relationships in communion in general and also affirm full membership in the Church for GLBT Christians – sufficiently full membership as not to be barred from any ministry in the Church. I have high hope that the Archbishop of Canterbury will invite all the bishops of the Episcopal Church, with perhaps one regrettable exception, to the 2008 Lambeth Conference (“Whoops, there goes another rubber tree plant.”). At the same time, there is something to be said for being honest, even bluntly honest, about the context. We can hope the Archbishop can be persuaded there is in fact reason to at least reflect on the events following from Resolution 1.10.

Addendum 3-12-06: There is a very interesting and helpful reflection on the same reports at Mark Harris's blog, Praeludium. You can read it here .

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Communion?

All right, just so you know: didn’t watch most of the Academy Awards, and didn’t much care (all right, I did flip in and out some, so I caught the major awards, and was largely spared the nominated songs); watched bull riding instead.

If you’ve read much at all of my postings, you’ll be aware I have strong opinions about the difficulties and differences in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. I have been working much of the day on a further reflection on those, stimulated by a BBC 4 television interview with Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. You can see the interview on streaming video here. You can read a transcript, with one reporter’s comments, here. It’s a wide-ranging interview, interesting for Archbishop Williams’ comments on a number of topics. But, on the topic of Anglican relations and the current discussions I noted this exchange:

DAVID FROST: ...if in fact this issue led to a situation where a new formula was created that, let us say, was more of a federation, more of where each country, in addition to the freedoms they have now, would have a doctrinal freedom as well and Nigeria could have a different doctrine, perhaps, definitely, than American or whatever ... Now would a federation, or an umbrella, be practical?

ROWAN WILLIAMS: I think we have to wait and see on that. There are other world churches, the Lutheran Reform Churches, which get on with a federal pattern. There’s always been, I think, a higher expectation in the Anglican Communion, that we, we have more, more at stake than that. And of course what that means is that if there is rupture, it’s going to be a more visible rupture, it’s not just going to settle down quietly into being a federation. And, I suppose my anxiety about it is that if the Communion is broken we may be left with even less than a federation.

Now, I’m pondering what it might mean to not be “a communion,” to be “less than a federation.” Notwithstanding all our conversations, all the work in the Windsor Report and elsewhere, I’m still considering what it means to be “a communion.” The Romans talk about being “a church” (they talk about being The Church, but that’s tangential to the point here): a single institution with a clear structure of authority. The Orthodox are spoken of as having a “family of churches,” with clear commonality and a lot of differences that they only discuss among themselves. Lutheran Churches and Reformed Churches have federations, in which the national autonomy is clear.

But it’s still not clear what it means to be “a communion.” We’re talking at length about being “in communion.” The Windsor Report describes what it has meant to be “in communion,” with common principles, summarized in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, and Instruments of Unity to provide opportunities for interaction and relationship. But for many of us the best description of what it means to be in communion is Bishop Tutu’s famous statement that, “We meet.”

To speak of “a communion” sounds like we’re talking about a single institution, or at least a clear structure. And I don’t think any of us wants a single institution. Americans at least value our autonomy too highly, and distrust centralized authority. I don’t think our Global South colleagues really want a single institution, either, because I don’t think they really want to be any more responsive to us than we to them. The discussion of an Anglican Covenant may speak to a clearer structure, but that will bring about its own set of controversies.

So, I don’t know that I’m clear on what it means to be a communion. I am clear, though, or clearer than I was, that I have a stake I this. You see, until yesterday I was the Second Alternate Clergy Deputy from my diocese. Then yesterday, due to the resignation of a colleague, I became the First Alternate Clergy Deputy. If you’ve ever been around the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, you might know that the likelihood of a Second Alternate Deputy actually serving in the House is small. Most dioceses don’t pay their way because they don’t expect to need them. On the other hand, the First Alternate Deputy is the relief Deputy, rotating in and out to allow Deputies to take a day off, tour the exhibit floor, etc. The First Alternate Deputy will certainly serve and take part in the legislative process.

That doesn’t mean I suddenly have to follow all this differently. I’ve got a lot of other stuff to take in, but I’ve been keeping up with this controversy all along. It does mean I have some responsibility, however small, in responding with the rest of the Episcopal Church to the Windsor Report, the meetings of the Primates, and all the rhetoric that’s been going back and forth. I’m not sure now what it means to be “a communion,” because while I have opinions I’m conscious of my limitations. I am sure that I’m going to be directly involved; and that’s a new and exciting and humbling thought.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Collapse of Western Civilization

In my lifetime I have heard many opinions stating the cause of "the fall of Western Civilization." The most common references are to the 1960's and to sex or drugs or rock and roll, or some combination thereof. But others have cited the Nixon scandal, or the Kennedy assassination, or Supreme Court decisions on racial integration or official prayers in public schools.

As will not surprise anyone, I have my own opinion. I point to Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and to this particular quotation:

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation." (From Statecraft by Margaret Thatcher. Although this quotation is from her book, I believe she also used it in public addresses.)

Now, I don't blame Lady Thatcher alone. While I haven't been able to find the specific citation, I seem to recall President Reagan calling the observation "one of the smartest things [he'd] ever heard." And of course there have been all those others, those in leadership positions (in this society that reportedly doesn’t exist) who have followed this standard in political planning and economy.

No such thing as society? Surely this was a philosophical innovation. For all that we think of the American icon of the “rugged individualist,” our history shows quite a balance between individualism and a responsibility for the “neighbor” that goes far beyond geography. We may take as stereotypical the practice of barn-raising, still practiced among Amish and other Anabaptist traditions. The facts that we have public schools, public roads and highways, and social safety net programs (as opposed to only private schools, toll roads, and poor houses) speak to a recognition in our society that there are some things that are better accomplished by the community as a whole, and from which we all benefit, if not all in the same measure.

I find the arguments from “entitlement” to be a straw man, raised up for the express purpose of being knocked down. While there are exceptions (regularly highlighted these days in the media), it has always been the assumption that we were responsible as individuals for initiative and effort. Both liberals and conservatives, and certainly the broad social middle, understood that while those who tried didn’t necessarily get where they wanted, those who didn’t try got nowhere. And we wanted a society that supported that individual effort with educational and economic infrastructure that optimized the results of that effort. We believed that there was a “social contract,” a living relationship between the individual and the commonwealth of all the individuals. How could we speak of “the public good,” without an understanding that some actions and some needs affected all members of the public?

And how could we speak as if there were no society and still call ourselves Christian? If we believe that all the baptized are members of one Body, surely my neighbor is not geographically, economically, culturally, or politically limited. If we are judged based on how we care for “the least of these who are mine,” surely we are not limited to those we know personally or those within a defined geographic radius. And if the Good Shepherd has “other sheep that are not of this fold,” how can we in conscience – how can we without risking God’s wrath - set limits of place or age, of race or sex or culture, even of “deserving” or “undeserving?”

But there are still those who want to deny the reality of “society.” In my own circles the arguments for “health savings accounts” reflect that bias. At the extreme are Libertarians, whose political economy sounds to me like, ”I’ve made mine; you’ve got to make your own; weakest to the wall and devil take the hindmost.”

We certainly need to support those institutions and those leaders, both political and religious, who understand the reality of society. We need to reclaim the title of Christian for those who are as concerned about “the least of these” as they are about public displays of Scripture. We need – but then, I know I’m preaching to the choir. We need as individuals to affirm our conviction that society is real, and that we want to see society led toward justice and compassion.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Family Matters

I'm an information junkie - the kind of person who, when lookinq at USA Today, checks the "States" news page to read about every state I've ever lived in, and every adjacent state, and .... So, it won't surprise anyone that my background noise of choice is news.

Today two news stories caught my attention. The first you can read about here. I first saw it on The Today Show. In summary, it tells of eleven women, all of whom bore children from the same anonymous sperm donor. They have sought each other out so that the children might their half-siblings. One woman even donated a sperm sample to another so that the second woman's second child might have the same father as her first.

The second story you can read about here. I first heard about it on NPR's Day to Day. It tells of a meeting in Salt Lake City on the subject of polygamy. The meeting included practicing polygamists, those who had left polygamist groups, and legal, political, and social service professionals. One voice advocated decriminalizing polyqamy. Another suggested it "isn't necessarily harmful."

This must be an awful news day for those committed to a specific and narrow of “traditional marriage” or “traditional family.” In the civic discussions (I started to write “civil,” but they rarely are) of equal relationship rights for LGBT citizens, we are told that it would be a “slippery slope:” “If we allow them these rights, are there any relationships that will not qualify for these rights?”

What are we to do in these cases? Polygamy has scriptural tradition, if not scriptural warrant (sing to the tune of “Give Me That Old Time Religion:” “It was good for Abe and Jacob, and it’s good enough for me!”). And how shall we classify the relationships of these eleven women and their children? Genetically these children are half-siblings; and their mothers are apparently interested enough in relationships to bring them together. How different is it from polygamy for one woman to give a sperm sample to another?

And so today is also an interesting news day for those of us who want to see a broad understanding of how a family may be structured. If we are not to cede the ground in these arguments to those who want a narrow view of a “traditional” family, we need to engage in these discussions of how we will understand families. I am not persuaded by the “slippery slope” argument. That does not mean that there are no standards. It means that there are no simplistic standards. It means that we must be engaged in the hard intellectual and moral work of determining what values and characteristics identify healthy families, in earnest and in public. And it has to have as much to do with values as it does with structures. After all, there seems more effort at “family” among those eleven women than in the descriptions of some polygamist groups that, for all their Biblical models and religious fervor, exploit young women and social programs for the apparent benefit of a few men.

And our sociological and technological changes can make this difficult. Changes come at us fast and furious, and even those few of us who notice can hardly find time to reflect. We may have been thinking about polygamy for generations. We may just be beginning to see the variations in our understanding of “family” that may rise from reproductive technology.

So, what shall we do with these items, and all the other issues of “family” that will be in the news today? I don’t know for sure; but I know that we must at least pay attention.