Sunday, 31 January 2010

Queen Breaks Protocol Over Pope's Anglican Plan



Anglican-watchers will find this story, broken by Damien Thompson in the UK's Daily Telegraph, extremely interesting. As Thompson reports it, it seems that the Queen is not only dimayed by the Church of England's drift in the direction of approving homosexual unions and consecrating women bishops (she has said as much in a letter of support to Anglican conservatives), but also perhaps lacks some confidence in the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (sometimes called the Arch-ditherer of Canterbury). Why else would Her Majesty break with protocol andsubvert the prerogatives of the Archbishop's office by using the Lord Chamberlain as her intermediary with the Roman Catholic primate in England in the matter of the Pope's plan to permit en masse Anglican conversions?

Not that the Queen is likely to be interested in the Pope's plan personally. Rather, her concern stems from her coronation oath to protect and maintain the (Reformed) Church of England.

Click on the post title to read Thompson's report.

The Queen will meet with Benedict XVI in September, no prizes for guessing what will be at the head of the discussion agenda.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Church is for wimps...

Church is for wimps...right? I mean, what self-respecting man wants to sing love songs to Jesus, in a key that is too high to be comfortable, with a bunch of middle-aged women, in a gathering led by a bloke who seems to be wearing a dress?
Seriously, the traditional church has an image problem with men. Actually, I suggest it runs much deeper than image and is really a culture problem. The church, over the past couple of hundred years, has been slowly but inexorably feminised, and it is a vicious cycle that has to be broken. Not that there is no place for the feminine in church, mind you...far from it, but when the church culture becomes almost exclusively feminised, we have a problem. The church is then breathing with only one lung, so to speak, and that is not healthy.

In the early days of this blog I had a post on this, which I title 'The Feminisation of the Church'. Not that I invented the concept, but it is a major concern of mine, not least because as a pastor I have had contact with numerous families who would worship if only the father would take the initiative, as he should. But precisely at that point we run up against the culture problem.

Thankfully, many in the church, and surprisingly (or not?) it is mostly women, are increasingly aware of this issue, and are seeking to address it. As an example click on the post title to read The Times' religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill's reportage of the problem in the UK and some attempts to address it.

One of the suggestions mentioned in the article is occasionally decorating the church with swords and other masculine symbols rather than flowers. That may not be as daft as it sounds at first. Speaking personally, as a boy, one of the things about Anglican cathedrals which made a deep impression on me was the display of regimental flags and the stained-glass windows portraying Christian men like St George the knight/warrior. That these masculine symbols took their place alongside the Lady Chapels and windows of Florence Nightingale et al made these places not just more open to the unapologetically masculine, but more obviously and roundedly human as well. They sent the message that, "Yes, there is a place for man as well as woman on God's earth, and in God's Heaven, and we don't have to emasculate ourselves to take up that place."
Along similar lines of thought, one of the greatest benefits of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ was that it presented to the culture a Jesus who was definitely not a wimp. The Gospels certainly suggest that Jim Caviezel's Jesus, who seems quite comfortable in a male body, is more authentic than Robert Powell's Jesus in Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 Jesus of Nazareth, which seemed to equate being spiritual with being effete, presenting a Jesus who seemed most unlikely to be able to wield a whip in the Temple courts, not to mention survive a whipping himself.

Actually, one of the unique strengths of the Lutheran Church, at least in Australia, is the number of men who worship. That fact would make an interesting subject for a dissertation, or at least an exploratory essay. But the fact that this is somewhat unique, at least among "mainstream" churches, only means that we are the exception that proves the rule, and anecdotal evidence suggests it may not remain thus for long.

Comments welcome; more on this subject in the future.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Lutheran Ecclesiology: Point or Continuum?


Pr William Weedon has an excellent post on the church as an eschatological reality in time and space, a continuum rather than a point, you might say, over at his blog (click on my post title to read it).
Pr Weedon's post serves as a better response than I could make to something I've been mulling over for a while, namely erstwhile Lutheran brother David Schuetz's claim that Lutheran ecclesiology is an "event ecclesiology", which is to say, if I understand him rightly, that for Lutherans the church only comes into existence as church when it is gathered around Word and sacrament in the Divine Service. That is a very eccentric, and I might add, mistaken, view. It fails to take into account the very first phrase of Augsburg VII, and misinterprets the rest of the article. It is a view which owes much, I suspect, to mid-20th century German Lutheran thinking on the subject, which was negatively shaped by existentialism's preoccupation with "the moment" and was generally averse to ontology.

Anyway, enough from me, read Pr Weedon's post, which puts it in concrete terms.

(Since this is the second post in a couple of days to take issue with David Schuetz's theology, I should say that there is nothing personal here. David has always been a Christian gentleman in my dealings with him. It's just that his thought is providing something of a foil for my own at the moment. And as he has from time to time gotten some mileage out of my blog for his own purposes I think I'm entitled to attempt to even things up!)

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

It's Official: Australia the Most Sinful Nation on Earth

It's official: Australia is the most sinful nation on earth. It seems fitting on this Australia Day to acknowledge the fact. The verdict comes from the BBC, and we know 'Aunty' always tells the truth...ahem (clearing throat). Apparently, they came to this conclusion by scientifically mapping the seven deadly sins to nations and then awarding points for sins in each area. The result? Australia comes up trumps!

On a serious note, as every sower of the Word here knows, this is hard ground to plough, and ever since its founding Australia has had a reputation for being irreligious, if not outrightly Godless. Unlike the US, we've never had our Great Awakenings, and unlike the UK, we've never had a Wesley or a Whitefield or a John Knox, not to mention a Luther, to turn the hearts and minds of the masses to God in repentance and faith. By and large, the Christian faith has only been taken seriously here by pockets of Scottish Presbyterians, German Lutherans, English Baptists, Irish Catholics and Sydney Anglicans. The last mentioned group continues to thrive, bucking all trends, but the preceding groups have all come up hard against modernity, which is less than friendly to strong confessional allegiances; they are not quite ready to be written off, but their future looks decidedly grim.

But perhaps our time is yet to come? Where sin abounds...

HT to Archbishop Cranmer for this interesting tidbit. Click on the post title to view his report.

Here's the league table:

Sunday, 24 January 2010

"Lex orandi, lex credendi", or should that be "Lex credendi, lex orandi"?


Lex orandi, lex credendi, the rule of praying establishes the rule of faith, or should that be Lex credendi, lex orandi, the rule of faith determines the rule of praying? That is the question.

No doubt both are true in different ways. There is no doubt that what/how one prays will soon come to determine what one believes, even if only by simple psychological laws. No doubt for that very reason the Church has regarded the liturgy as a vehicle for confessing and teaching the truths of the catholic faith once delivered to the saints, and has thus always been mindful that the liturgy be in accord with pure doctrine. That has not, however, prevented liturgical innovations from fostering false doctrines in the church; that's ecclesiastical life, I guess - as St Paul warned, factions and their errors are permitted to arise in the church so that the truth may stand out all the more clearly. The matter under discussion is not that of identifying liturgical abberrations, but whether the liturgy is subject to the Word of God, as Lutherans, Anglicans and the Reformed teach, or, is it the case that the liturgy, as Tradition, is itself the rule of faith, as some Orthodox and Roman Catholics contend?

This question has been the subject of some discussion over at David Schuetz's blog, Sentire Cum Ecclesia (see link in right hand column), under the post headed, Australian Lutherans Praying the Rosary, where David posted on Lutherans using an Anglican form of the Rosary, and suggested that they should just use the Roman form. I reponded that Lutherans could not pray the Rosary in good faith, in its Roman Catholic form anyway, because it was based on false doctrine and therefore constituted a false form of worship. In this case, I wrote, lex credendi, lex orandi. Even apart from this issue, this was the way the Church had always approached such issues, I said. I expected no disagreement on this principle, even if a resolution of the doctrinal issue of prayers to Mary was beyond us.

Imagine my surprise then when two interlocutors, including the blog owner, objected that a) the phrase could not be reversed in this way, and b) on the dogmatic level the liturgy did in fact determine dogma and doctrine. To do otherwise, it was implied, was to fail to take account of developments in the Liturgical Theology Movement and was to subject the worship of the church to the tyranny of dry doctrine.

Suspecting that there were deeper issues here that would resist resolution, I was happy to let the matter rest where it ended, until last night when I came across Pope Pius XII's Encyclical, Mediator Dei, while researching another topic entirely. And there, in a papal encyclical of all places, I could hardly believe my eyes to find the Pope of the day addressing the very matter that had been under discussion and saying what I had been saying. Since a Pope obviously carries more weight in the circle of my interlocutors than I do, I merely paste Pius XII's words here:


"On this subject We judge it Our duty to rectify an attitude with which you are doubtless familiar, Venerable Brethren. We refer to the error and fallacious reasoning of those who have claimed that the sacred liturgy is a kind of proving ground for the truths to be held of faith, meaning by this that the Church is obliged to declare such a doctrine sound when it is found to have produced fruits of piety and sanctity through the sacred rites of the liturgy, and to reject it otherwise. Hence the epigram, "Lex orandi, lex credendi" - the law for prayer is the law for faith.

47. But this is not what the Church teaches and enjoins. The worship she offers to God, all good and great, is a continuous profession of Catholic faith and a continuous exercise of hope and charity, as Augustine puts it tersely. "God is to be worshipped," he says, "by faith, hope and charity."[44] In the sacred liturgy we profess the Catholic faith explicitly and openly, not only by the celebration of the mysteries, and by offering the holy sacrifice and administering the sacraments, but also by saying or singing the credo or Symbol of the faith - it is indeed the sign and badge, as it were, of the Christian - along with other texts, and likewise by the reading of holy scripture, written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. The entire liturgy, therefore, has the Catholic faith for its content, inasmuch as it bears public witness to the faith of the Church.

48. For this reason, whenever there was question of defining a truth revealed by God, the Sovereign Pontiff and the Councils in their recourse to the "theological sources," as they are called, have not seldom drawn many an argument from this sacred science of the liturgy. For an example in point, Our predecessor of immortal memory, Pius IX, so argued when he proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Similarly during the discussion of a doubtful or controversial truth, the Church and the Holy Fathers have not failed to look to the age-old and age-honored sacred rites for enlightenment. Hence the well-known and venerable maxim, "Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi" - let the rule for prayer determine the rule of belief.[45] The sacred liturgy, consequently, does not decide or determine independently and of itself what is of Catholic faith. More properly, since the liturgy is also a profession of eternal truths, and subject, as such, to the supreme teaching authority of the Church, it can supply proofs and testimony, quite clearly, of no little value, towards the determination of a particular point of Christian doctrine. But if one desires to differentiate and describe the relationship between faith and the sacred liturgy in absolute and general terms, it is perfectly correct to say, "Lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi" - let the rule of belief determine the rule of prayer.


It's as if the words fell from Heaven itself into my lap!

Now, my interlocutors may object, "But the Pope supports praying the Rosary to Mary." Indeed he does (or did, in the case of Pius XII), but for present purposes that is beside the point, which is, as the Pope rightly teaches, that the liturgy does not decide what is to be believed independently of the teaching office of the church, to which the liturgy is in fact subject.

Of course, for a Lutheran, the teaching office of the church has no power or authority to require belief in what cannot be proven from holy scripture, so on that point we would digress from the Pope's position, but apart from that difference and what flows from it, I commend to my friends what the Pope has written (And it's not too often you'll see me write that!).

Friday, 22 January 2010

Another Take on Haiti

(From Religious News Service)
Did God abandon Haiti?

No, say its people of faith -- and there are many here in a place without much beyond faith. The earthquake was a sign of God's presence.

So, it should be no surprise that on a narrow street choked by debris, outside a church with a shattered ceiling open to the morning sky, what was left of the congregation of Haiti's Second Baptist Church stood in a courtyard and waved their hands in the air and shouted, "Victoire! Victoire!"

Victory.


Read the whole report at the 'Pew Forum on Religion...' website by clicking on the post title.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Good News for Preachers


In an article that would seem to go against the wisdom of the church life pundits, The Times reports that 96% of churchgoers look forward to the sermon, and most would be happy with a 20 minute sermon if there was no "waffle" (Catholics excepted; they prefer the sermon to be over in under 10 minutes, thank you).

So, don't be too prone to agonising over moving from the "analogue" to the "digital" age, preachers, the most serious of church goers - and let's face it, if you go to church today you are pretty serious about your faith - still look forward to being encouraged and challenged by the sermon. Since sermon preparation is still the most time consuming of the pastor's duties (and rightly so), this is good news.

Click on the post title to read the article.

"Pass the Port..." Australian Lutherans and Wine

Being in the course of unpacking and setting up a new residence this last week in temperatures that are 3-4 degrees celsius hotter than average for this time of year (it is the antipodean summer, American friends), and being on holiday, I have re-discovered the perfect aperitif to enjoy in the early summer evenings: white port on ice. Normally, when I am "on duty" I abstain from alcoholic beverages as one never knows when an emergency call may come, but being technically in between parishes for a few weeks I can enjoy the odd glass of wine at meal times without a qualm - and Australia is a wine drinkers paradise where quality wine can be had for a very reasonable price. Which brings me to my real subject, Lutherans and wine.

The average Australian Lutheran is the only type of Pietist I know who enjoys a drink, and since last week's Gospel was our Lord's first miracle of turning water into wine, and not just vin ordinaire but really good stuff that drank like it had been laid down in the cellar for a decade or so, this seems like an appropriate time to reflect on this phenomenon.

"Scratch the skin of an Australian Lutheran and you'll find a Baptist underneath" is a humourous aphorism that I have heard from time to time (no offence intended to my regular commentator, Matthias, who happens to be attending a Baptist congregation at the moment!). But if Australian Lutherans are sometimes confused about the difference between Lutheranism and Evangelical Pietism, one subject where that confusion doesn't apply is their understanding that wine is a gift from God to be enjoyed with thanksgiving and a clear conscience - provided drunkeness is avoided, that is!

This is something that not only our Australian evengelical friends have difficulty understanding, but even our fellow Lutherans in the US whose churches were founded by Scandinavian Pietists, who were as strict about abstinence as any Methodist (ironically, John Wesley actually urged his working-class converts to enjoy an ale rather than the demon Gin, and Australia's only surviving family-owned brewery, Cooper's, was founded by a Methodist lay-preacher, but that's another story).

(Pic: Barossa Valley, South Australia, in early spring, with grape vines recently pruned.)

One story I heard at seminary concerned the visiting mid-western American theologian who taught a Bible study to a local Lutheran Ladies Fellowship and was thanked with the gift of a bottle of Barossa Port (i.e. wine fortified with brandy spirit from the Barossa Valley, one and a half hours drive north of Adelaide). He found this so extraordinary that he did not open the bottle but took it back to the States along with the card because "the folks back home just won't believe this"...and the story goes that they didn't!

American Lutheran friends might be surprised to learn that Lutheran pastors and their parishioners were at the forefront of establishing vineyards in Australia, particularly in South Australia, where Lutherans settled in greatest numbers, and where the Mediterranean climate was particularly suited to the grape. Of course, communion wine was a necessity they were seeking to supply, but these viticultural pioneers also laid the foundations for the South Australian wine industry (Anglicans such as the Penfolds were also involved in this endeavour), which is world renowned not only for quality wines at all price-points of the market, but also for innovation, and which is still dominated by Lutheran families (indeed, the Schrapel family of Bethany Wines make a luscious white port from primarily the frontignac grape). (Pic: The Schrapel family's Bethany Vineyard in the Barossa Valley in high summer. Note the Mediterranean-type vegetation and terrain, along with the grape vines nestled in the bowl-like shelter of the rising hills behind - perfect terroir for wine grapes.)

To be continued...

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Well Said, Peter Cosgrove


While on the subject of Australia, I want to extend my commendations (for what they're worth) to retired General Peter Cosgrove for his remarks apropos racism in Australia, past and present, in his recent Australia Day address (I should note that General Cosgrove is a distant relative, but that has nothing to do with what is presently under discussion).

Cosgrove, an eminent Australian who might well be a fitting candidate for President if Australia did become a Republic in the near future, has had the courage to do what no politician or police commissioner yet has, and that is to place the current disgraceful spate of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney in the context of an undercurrent of racism that extends through our history and into our present. Australians, Cosgrove said, had shown by their collective actions at home and abroad in recent years that we are a compassionate and open people, but we have yet to squarely face up to racist elements in our past, most notably in the official treatment of indigenous people (official apology notwithstanding), and also acknowledge and overcome pockets of racism that still exist. He points to the Cronulla Riots in 2005 and the already mentioned examples of criminal violence directed against Indian students as examples of the latter.

Until recently I have been of the opinion that racism per se had an existence only on the very margins of Australian society, namely the extreme right, as it has in most Western countries, and I preferred to label the negative attitude of a minority of otherwise decent white Australians to those of a different skin colour as bigotry or xenophobia. Racism is a doctrine of racial superiority that I am confident most thinking Australians reject as "ratbaggery". Ethnic bigotry, of course, is more widespread and is based on fear of what is "other" or different. It is something visceral and non-reflective. Fortunately, ethnic bigotry can be rather easily broken down by exposing people to each other socially, so that they experience the common humanity of us all (unfortunately, ethnic bigotry based on historical grievances is another matter, but Australians have always made it clear that immigrants are expected to leave such grievances behind in their country of origin and begin with a fresh start here).

Racism though, being a pseudo-intellectual thought system, is a harder nut to crack, and I am afraid that it is raising its ugly head in Australia in a much less benign form than has hitherto existed in our society, even under the "White Australia" policy. The role of agent provocateurs from extreme right-wing organisations in events in Cronulla is now known, and in light of that fact it would seem likely that such "ratbags" may be involved in inciting or carrying out violence against Indians. Let us hope that the police and intelligence services are awake to this possibility, before it is too late. While Australia remains prosperous, organised racism is always likely to remain on the fringes of society, but if economic conditions took a turn for the worse, it could well be a different matter, and get very ugly.

In the meantime, one hopes for a word from the churches, who have to date said nothing on the matter when they are usually eager to pontificate on social questions, a word which will point to the Bible's testimony to the unity of humankind as a foundation from which to overcome racism intellectually, especially since many racial extremists make much of Australia's Christian heritage. That is, if the churches still believe what the Bible teaches on this important point(?). The appeal to the Biblical notion of hospitality to strangers and sojouners in the land, while relevant enough, might just not "cut it" with these hard heads, the address needs to be at the foundational level. It will be interesting to see what tack the mainstream churches, which are riddled with liberalism, will take if this issue continues to be in the headlines; it may reveal much about the state of their theology.

There is, in my view, a very definite link between the dominance of liberal theology in Germany in the first half of the 20th century and the impotence of the churches in the face of Nazism's demonic persecution of the Jewish people. It would be a case of history repeating itself if the churches in Australia no longer had confidence in the Bible from which to address the Word of God to society on this issue. Ideas have consequences in the real world, occasionally unintended ones, liberal theology included.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

A Pragmatic Argument For Limited, Constitutional Monarchy


To tell the truth, I am not greatly exercised by the Monarchist vs. Republican debate that comes to life periodically in Australia when a member of the Royal Family visits or is mired in scandal. On the one hand, I am not over-enamoured of the Windsors (must be my Scottish blood!), although I will admit to a certain sentimental attachment to the Queen, after all I've sung 'God Save the Queen' often enough at school assemblies to feel a twinge of disloyalty at the thought of voting her off her Australian throne. On the other hand, I admire the American republican ethos at its best, although a monarchy that sits above party politics is definitely preferable, I would say, to having the Head of State bound by party allegiance.

So, I remain a constitutional monarchist as far as Australia's polity is concerned. For me, it comes down to pragmatics rather than dogma - a limited, constitutional monarchy is demonstrably the most stable form of government in the modern world, and I see no compelling reason to change our present system, even though it means we must live with the apparent anomaly of having a foreigner as monarch of Australia - I'm sure that makes no sense to our American cousins!

On the occassion of Prince William's visit to these shores, a former parliamentarian, Ross Cameron, has put the case for a limited, constitutional monarchy in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. He writes that, " Absolute monarchy is inherited dictatorship and abhorrent. But a limited monarchy is democracy with an umpire at the apex whose sole executive role is to resolve political stalemates. Some modern minds feel it is old-fashioned or anti-democratic but despite its quirks, it works. The most politically stable and free nations are limited monarchies - Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, among others. Japan has enjoyed its best 63 years since installing a limited monarchy. In the Middle East, Jordan and Morocco stand out among their historically strife-torn neighbours."

Cameron also writes that Prince William's charisma may see a boost in the hitherto waning popularity of the Royal Family in Australia. That remains to be seen, although it would be a welcome development, but the pragmatic argument is hard to go past, not to mention the historical and cultural continuity that maintaining the present Australian constitution provides.

Click on the post title to read his article in full.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Reflections on Haiti

The Haitian earthquake is already being termed the worst natural disaster in history as the death toll from this catastrophe is expected to rise to over 200 000, which means it would indeed rival the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean in so far as the loss of human life is concerned. What is even more disturbing is that the poor state of Haitian infrastructure and the parlous state of its government has added incalculably to the litany of human misery which the news reports are conveying to us, including the prediction I heard today that 50% of those pulled from the rubble and being treated at the Port Au Prince Hospital will die for lack of basic health care or surgery. Meanwhile, the spectre of a total collapse of Haitian society into lawlessness looms.

Any attempt to provide a theodicy in the immediate aftermath of this disaster along the lines of “God will bring good out of this” seems superfluous. Suffice to say, though, that a disaster of these proportions does bring good (and alas, evil) out of human beings that in ordinary circumstances only extraordinary people display. One is brought to tears by the suffering and resilience of the victims, the bravery of the rescuers and the compassion shown by many in solidarity with this poor people at this time of crisis, and almost simultaneously one feels the swell of righteous indignation rising against those Christians who have made insensitive and ill-informed commentary on the reasons why this has happened to the Haitian people (see here: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/patriarch-blames-crime-and-drugs-for-haitian-quake/397763.html and here: http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2010/01/13/crimesider/entry6092717.shtml). Let them be reminded of the words of our Lord, "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

The best response a Christian can make to this disaster, after reaching out to the victims in any way possible, is to repent and seek refuge in Christ along with committing those suffering to his grace and mercy. None of us is righteous apart from Christ, no-one is entitled to point the finger at another nation’s supposed collective sin as the cause of this disaster. “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
Lord, have mercy!


(Note: For an interesting historical sidelight on the relation between the liberation of Haiti from colonial rule and the survival of the American Republic, see Gene Veith's post here: http://www.geneveith.com/what-america-owes-to-haiti/_4439, or click on the hyperlink in the right-hand column under 'Blogs..'. I was going to post on this myself, but Dr Veith's post renders this unnecessary.)

Old Testament Likely Older Than Higher Critics Thought

Just yesterday in a sermon (yes, I'm on holidays, but a friend asked me to preach in his congregation while he was preaching elsewhere, not enough pastors to go around!) I mentioned how many archaeological discoveries of the 2oth century have served to confirm Biblical accounts of events. Now this morning the following report came across the wires (well wirelessly, actually!) to the old manse: Scientists have discovered the earliest known Hebrew writing, an inscription on a piece of pottery dating from the 10th century B.C., the period of King David's reign.



Until now, higher critics speculated that Hebrew did not exist in written form prior to the 6th century BC but was an oral tongue only. Now that this early form of Hebrew (Is it written in Canaanite script? I'm not sure, but see the report, where they say it is Hebrew) has turned up on a potsherd, echoing several Biblical texts, that theory will be subject to revision. Another higher critical dogma bites the dust? Looks likely.

Click on the post title to read the full report from 'Live Science'.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Pastoral Leadership


Click on the post title to read the first of a promised and promising series on what makes a pastor. This reflection is written by an Orthodox priest, Fr Basil Biberdorf, but contains eminently sound counsel and, mutatis mutandis, applies equally well to the Lutheran scene and indeed most other mainstream Christian confessions.

The basic point Fr Basil makes here is that prospective clergy should not be self-selected, but identified and encouraged towards the pastoral vocation by the local congregation. Seminaries, he argues, tend to operate too independently of the church bodies they serve in recruiting students. This is especially so, it seems to me, when they become fee-charging institutions which are no longer supported or financially underwritten by the church. I'm not just thinking of our own LCA seminary either, as they have attempted to address this issue over the years and tend to recruit through local pastors, but more in light of my experience a couple of years ago with a prominent American Lutheran seminary to which a parishioner went for study.

That's not to say that one should be automatically suspicious of someone who feels they have been called to ministry, but only to suggest that that feeling needs to be tested, and the local congregation is the first place where that should happen, not the seminary.

Broadening this reflection a bit, from looking around Fr Basil's blog and a bit further afield, I can discern some specific background to his reflection and his purpose for blogging on this topic, namely that his own denomination and the Orthodox in America generally have recently been plagued by financial and moral scandals that have their origins in poor pastoral and archpastoral leadership, and in some cases the scandals have clearly been caused by pathological personalities who have sought the power and authority that comes with the pastoral office for what are...well, let's not beat about the bush here, demonic purposes (for background on the recent financial scandals in American Orthodoxy see www.ocanews.org and and for a disturbing litany of sexual and psychological abuse by Orthodox clergy in the US see www.pokrov.org).

These problems can occur in any denomination or confession, but Orthodoxy, as far as I can see, has a very weak doctrine of original sin, a very high doctrine of priestly power and authority, and a very low doctrine of congregational authority, and out of that nexus problems are bound to arise. It seems obvious to me that a church that addresses its archpastors as 'My Lord...' and vests them in the clothing and regalia of the Byzantine emperors is just asking for trouble [tongue only partly in cheek]. As Montaigne once remarked, there are two things that more often than not in human experience seem to go together: supercelestial thoughts and subterranean conduct. I don't think Montaigne was being impious when he wrote these words, just frankly acknowledging that priestly piety can sometimes cloak raw, unredeemed ego and a desire to lord it over the Lord's people.


(No, the pic is not the view of one of my congregations from the pulpit, although some of those faces almost look familiar, it is St Mary's C of E in Westmoors, UK.)

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Back in the Bible Belt

Well, having spent a Biblical 'three years' serving God's Lutheran people in the beautiful village of Tarrington in the state of Victoria, family circumstances mean I am now back in the 'Bible Belt' of Australia; Toowoomba, south-east Queensland, to be more precise, which could fairly be labelled the capital of the Bible Belt, which stretches from the southern suburbs of Brisbane out along the Warrego Hwy to Toowoomba and beyond. For American readers, this would be somewhat parallel to going from New England to the South.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you, this is very much home territory for me; I feel comfortable here, and it is something of a consolation in difficult times to know that there are a significant number of fellow believers active in one's community. Most of Australia, especially its great cities, is secularised and ultra-moderne (i.e. post-modern), but Queenslanders have never been keen to march to the tunes played 'down south', a term which has both geographical and cultural references, i.e. somewhat akin to 'up north' in American terms, remembering that everything is reversed in this strange, antipodean world.

And Queensland has always been a little bit more strange and different than the other Australian states - more socially conservative, less urbanised, less well-educated, more de-centralised, more religious, more prone to outbreaks of fundamentalist sectarianism, revivalism and even schismatic movements in 'mainstream' church bodies - if there is an ultra-conservative, anti-modernist branch of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, or Lutheranism, you will be sure to find it significantly represented in, if not led from, Queensland. Which all makes for a very stimulating environment in which to live and reflect on faith and theology and their intersection with post-modernity.

But Queensland is changing too, not least due to the influx of folk from interstate seeking a new start in life and a lower cost of living than that which prevails in their home states, which have been run disastrously over recent decades. Not to mention the constant stream of superannuated retirees seeking out the sunshine and relaxed lifestyle the Queensland climate offers. This population growth has meant that Queensland has become a 'boom state', in stark contrast to the sleepy, slow, backwater state that I have fond memories of growing up in, whose capital city didn't even have a sewerage system until 1967.

Whether it is connected to these changes or not, since my return I have noticed that there is a strong move against 'religious education' (i.e. teaching the Christian faith) in state schools, apparently on the grounds that such schools are meant to be 'secular', which is interpreted to mean having no place for religious instruction.
This public campaign is being conducted by a bunch of 'new atheists' who have organised themselves as a lobby group, and they apparently mean business.

Here is their manifesto in video format:

It's a weak argument, but if anyone requests I will be happy to provide a rebuttal.

Meantime, here's an example of their propaganda:


And another:


Now, it is one of the paradoxes of Australian life that while we are a much more secularised nation than the US, the Christian faith receives more public, official acknowledgement here than in the US, where a strict separation of church and state prevails. Here, although most Australians do not attend church regularly, Christian prayers are still said at the opening of parliamentary sessions, the judiciary still annually attend special church services (Anglican, of course) where they are prayed for, and until relatively recently, instruction in the Christian faith was still offerred to school children attending publicly funded schools in all states. Agnostics, atheists and secularists have long derided these practices as a survival of an Establishment that in fact never really existed.


From the beginning of Australia's settlement, there has been a struggle over the soul of the nation (and remember, Australia was founded as a colony at the height of the Enlightenment, 1788, not to mention that Queensland was gazetted as a separate colony under Queen Victoria's government in the very year that Darwin's 'Origin of Species' was published, 1859). The hope for an Anglican Establishment along British lines here was scuttled early in the piece - although it has been a long time dying in Anglican hearts - but that the nation would be Christian, and largely Protestant, in character and not just confession was the de facto position of colonial authorities and is a notion that is still dearly held by many Anglo-Australians. But decline in the practice of the Christian faith, not to mention high levels of Roman Catholic immigration in the past and currently high levels of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh immigration, have placed that ideal under threat. Queensland may its 'last bastion', and is thus where the battle rages most violently, at the moment over the issue of teaching the Christian faith in state schools.


What do I make of all this? I have no doubt that the church would survive the event of the expulsion of its religious education teachers from state schools, and even the banishment to the private sphere of all expressions of the Christian faith, if it came to that. But I am not sure that the nation would survive. Thinking for the moment in purely this-worldy terms, I am yet to be convinced that a people who are interested in nothing else but hedonism and material prosperity can aspire to be a noble, just and truly liberal society. If the Christian faith is no longer to have a favoured position as a shaper of the Australian ethos, then, at the very least, an American-style republican ethos which inculcates virtue and civic-mindedness in the minds and hearts of the young would be necessary (and let it be an ethos that also remains open to the positive benefits of religion to society). Failing that, the state must assume ever greater power to coerce its citizens to do the right thing, as determined by the majority view, i.e. socialism, whose dead hand will inevitably throw the funeral pall over all that is genuinely alive and vibrant under God's Heaven. Nay, better to die on one's feet than live half alive on one's knees!

So, I fear that the 'fringe benefits', so to speak, that our Christiant heritage has bequeathed to this nation - a reasonable amount of liberty, prosperity, the rule of law, democracy, and so on, cannot continue to be enjoyed without the confession of faith that has historically produced them being held by a majority of the people. A government, then, that fails to afford a measure of protection to the Christian faith as the majority religion of the Australian people and a significant force which has historically shaped the life and culture of this people in a positive way, neglects the health of the body politic.
Which, I suppose, is exactly what one who grew up in the Bible Belt would be expected to say.
It's good to be home!

PS
Queensland is correctly pronounced 'Kweens-lund', but is usually more colloqiually expressed as 'Kweens-laaand' (eh!).