Climbing Down

I spent a few days on retreat, preparing myself spiritually for our Anglican General Synod which is taking place in Vancouver July 10-16. No, I am not a delegate and I won’t be on the ground. But I am deeply engaged in the Anglican Church and will follow as much of the proceedings via live-stream as I can make time for.

This year’s Synod has some big ticket-items on the agenda:
* Making concrete decisions towards greater self-determination for Indigenous Anglicans within the Anglican Church of Canada;
* Second vote on the motion to redefine marriage so as to include same-sex couples:
* Electing a new Primate for our National Church.

As alluded to in some previous blog entries, while all three subjects are significant, the middle one is likely to generate the most difficult conversations. In the three years since the last Synod it has become clear that our church is not of one mind on whether a same-sex union can be considered akin to marriage. How do we engage one another on this salient question in the Spirit of Christ? There has been plenty of preparation from the National Office, including the summons to regard one another with profound respect and an open heart.

So, you may ask, what did I do on my retreat to prepare for General Synod? I spent time in prayer and reflection with an ancient spiritual manual: the Twelve Steps in Humility formulated in the sixth century by none other than St. Benedict of Norsia, considered the father of western monasticism (his Feast Day is July 11). The idea came from Sr. Joan Chittister who has spent the last four months posting a column on each of the twelve steps. I collected all twelve, printed them, and took them with me to my retreat sanctuary where I was alone with God. The first time Joan wrote on these steps was back in 2009; already then I was intrigued by them.

Rather than get caught in polarizing positions and controversial statements on either side, I committed to growing deeper into a receptive posture for come what may. The Twelve Steps are a climbing down the ladder of pride and arrogance, defiance and judgement, and ascend the ladder of humility and generosity of heart. Not an easy trek, but as Joan writes, the only trek that leads into true freedom and honesty still today. In her usual blunt yet eloquent style, Joan shows how each of these steps speaks unashamedly into our world today, from politics to ecology and right into my own life. Their challenging power is proof of their perennial wisdom. So I listened and prayed deeply with each step — wrestling and resisting, questioning and resonating — allowing each one to grow me a bit more.

Here are some nuggets from my own journal entries:
1. Pride, says St. Benedict, is the basic human flaw; humility is its corrective. Pride dons many masks: dismissing another’s humanity, taking privilege for granted, reveling in superiority and entitlement.
2. God is our driving force; therefore desiring to do God’s will is best for all. And God’s will is for us to come to full bloom, to manifest divine glory in our very being and let that shine out into the world.
3. Submit to the authority and wisdom of others through deep listening for the love of God. I have done my fair share (and continue to do so) of this deep listening to guides and mentors who are both supportive and challenging. I have tasted the importance of this commitment.
4. When difficult things arise, endure/hang in there and do not grow weary. There are situations where the best course of action is to leave for the sake of safety, protection and well-being. But my decades of living my priestly calling within the constraints of the RC Church without growing weary has brought forth much fruit in inner freedom and endurance, fruit I continue to reap today.

5. We do not conceal sinful thoughts or actions, but confess them humbly. Julian of Norwich said, ‘God does not punish sin, sin punishes sin.’ I could not agree more. It’s mighty hard to conceal wrong-doing, and I feel so much better when I fess up. There are times, however, when it is prudent not to share thoughts and feelings openly so as not to hurt another person. Is that akin to nursing secrets than can eat away at integrity of heart?
6. Be content with the lowest and most menial treatment. This is a tough one. On the one hand, if I’m not aspiring to be promoted, I can simply enjoy the moment and do well in what is right here and now. On the other hand, if I have never tasted appreciation, good fortune, and the joy of accomplishments, this step could create an unhealthy type of humility, one that erodes self-esteem even further.
7. Not only on our lips but also in our heart, we much admit to be inferior to all. I wonder if it’s easier to desire this when safely cradled in a circle of love where I have been valued and appreciated, encouraged and inspired. But what if a person has lived deprived of all that grows this basic security? Then admitting inferiority to all can be a death-blow to one’s own humanity.
8. We do only what is endorsed by the common rule of the community. Gosh, if there was ever a million-dollar question, it is this: what needs to be let go of and what needs to be carried forward into a future of hope? I belong to the Church for it has fostered my growth as a person. I value its teachings and guidance. This Step is the most challenging in the current conversation — I struggle mightily with both hard-nosed conservatives and impatient progressives. Joan’s reflection seems too simplistic, as if it’s crystal clear what needs to be discarded and decided. What do to when boundaries, essential to some, become barriers to others?

9. We control our tongue and remain silent, not speaking unless necessary. I can relate to this step about remaining silent and its importance. In many ways I have become more silent in proportion to the realization how little I really do know and understand, especially about another’s life story. There is an increasing desire to make ever greater space for another and honour the other’s reality.
10. Do not be given to ready laughter, for “only fools raise their voices in laughter.” (Sirach 21:23). Excessive laughter is a sign of a weak and undisciplined character. Really now? Here I must disagree with good old St. Ben. Did he never experience the joy of a good belly-laugh? But in one way, he has a point that deserves merit. While today we consider it healthy and necessary to be able to laugh at ourselves, we should never mock another or deride another with sarcasm and laughter. Only when I can face my own shortcomings and limitations will I stop the sneering and snickering.
11. Speak gently and with laughter (not again), seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising voices. The wise are known by their few words, measured tones and gentle words. On the eve of GS2019, this step cannot be stressed enough. May the Holy Spirit work overtime and flood hearts and conversations, may mercy flow abundantly towards all …
12. Always manifest humility in our bearing no less than in our hearts, so that it is evident in all we do and say. Well, if I can absorb even a tidbit of each of the above steps, then step #12 is a given and humility becomes not second nature, but first nature. Lord, hear my prayer.

God of our ancestors, God of our future,
who was and is and is to come,
you have named us in baptism,
and called us into friendship with you and one another.
In this General Synod, give all participants grace to listen well,
to speak with respect, to deliberate with wisdom,
and to honour this gathering of your beloved Church;
through Jesus Christ, before whose name we bow
in adoration and praise, now and for ever. Amen.

Love – an Orientation

This past week the 38 Primates of the Anglican Communion met in Canterbury to engage in some controversial conversations. As a result of these painful deliberations some disciplinary “consequences” were meted out to The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the USA over its practice of sanctioning same-sex marriage without adequate consultation with the worldwide Anglican family.  This decision, along with a warning to other Anglican provinces considering a similar move (which includes the Anglican Church of Canada), is making blood boil on all sides.

When we feel chastised over something that is deeply woven into our personal and collective identities and lived reality, emotional fallout can easily blind us to Christ’s command of discipleship of love, mercy and compassion. In the midst of emotional storms it takes enormous willpower to resist our hurting heart’s desire to slide down the slopes of anger and frustration, to vilify enemies and to succumb to despair. Equally, if the stormy winds blow in our favour, making for our own smooth sailing, it takes enormous willpower to resist wallowing in smug self-righteousness and judgment, inadvertently dismissing the need for respect and dignity amidst conflict, thus blatantly betraying the need for compassion and solidarity with hurting sisters and brothers.

In the western world, we live in a socio-political cultural climate that now considers same-sex relationships as normal. Those who struggle to accept this are often considered homophobic and judgmental, deficient and grossly outdated. Such labeling can easily result in a reverse discrimination of sorts, as if relieved that the shoe’s on the other foot now. Is it still possible to engage in compassionate and respectful conversation on same-sex attraction and relationships without sliding into emotional mud-slinging or risking glib but unhelpful labels and judgments no matter what perspective is voiced?

The Anglican instinct of inclusiveness and embracing diversity is being tested severely at this time. Every denominational strength comes with its accompanying weakness. Yet it is that particular Anglican expression of discipleship that constitutes one of the Anglican gifts to the Christian family. As recently as a couple of months ago, Father Raneiro Cantalemessa, the Vatican’s papal preacher, pointed this out in his homily at the Church of England’s General Synod: The Anglican Church has a special role … . It has often defined itself as a “via media” (a Middle Way) between Roman Catholicism and Reformed Christianity. From being a “via media” in a static sense, it must now become more and more a via media in a dynamic sense, exercising an active function as a bridge between the Churches.

In the case of same-sex attraction and same-sex marriage discussions, the difference, for example, between Roman Catholic and Anglican conversations is that, while these discussions are taking place in both traditions, they occur of necessity below the radar in RC circles while they occur in the open in Anglican circles. However messy and chaotic, painful and challenging, I’d like to think there is something healthy about the open nature of such discussions.

There’s a popular quote that says, when the student is ready the teacher appears. I am in a season of spiritual learning that makes me open and deeply receptive to this Anglican inclusive and “middle” way. And so my new Anglican spirit prays fervently: can we in the Anglican expression of Christian discipleship, do better than parting ways, tolerating underground and unhealthy ecclesial discussions, or debasing ourselves by mutual mudslinging? Can we keep walking and talking together in love or will we succumb to society’s favourite sport of dismissing and labeling those who disagree with us, shutting them out of our lives? Can we foster together a spirit of mutual learning and correcting as part of our common call to holiness?

Just as none of us are innocent of sin, so none of us are outside of God’s mercy: I think we are people who, on the one hand, want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think — and I say it with humility — that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy. ~ Pope Francis, March 17, 2013

Loving as Christ loves us is demanding and painful and sometimes distasteful. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, used to echo St. Teresa of Avila when she’d tell Jesus: “No wonder you have so few friends!” Yet Jesus loves each of us, sinful creatures who, by God’s crazy design, nevertheless walk around with God’s dream imprinted on our souls. Loving in Jesus’ name involves deep listening — why else do we have two ears and only one mouth? Divine loving requires living humbly and open-mindedly, patiently and graciously with everyone, but especially with those whose lives are most different from our own, never forgetting that “there for the grace of God go I.”

Back in August I wrote with great affection about my dear friend Jordan who became the new Moderator for the United Church of Canada (Holding Tension). I expressed my desire to be a bridge of reconciliation and healing, striving to grow my capacity to love. I am copying here some of those August words as we, in the Anglican Church of Canada, continue a most difficult conversation at General Synod this coming summer.

As a new Anglican, still green, I desire to take part however difficult that might be. I appreciate the weariness by many on both sides of the question and who feel that they have been discussing this “ad naseum.” Yet in a tradition that discerns over and moves in centuries, the conversation has barely begun. And it deserves the very best we can be for and with one another for the sake of the entire Christian family and for the sake of our beautiful yet broken world:

Love is an orientation, the foundational orientation: God is love, and those who live in love, live in God (1 John 4:16). Such is truth — a relationship of love: “Truth is a relationship. As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.” ~ Pope Francis

Whether we are right or wrong on the question of same-sex marriage, can we entrust this to our loving Creator and to the future? Each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life. Falling and rising, we can only do our best with what we have been given. And as far as being right or wrong: “Naming anything as prophetic is dangerous and fraught with the potential for hubris. The Spirit of God and time determine whether our acts are prophetic or corporate ego run awry.” (~ Sr. Janet Mock, LCWR 2015 Assembly)

Thanksgiving Collect for Primates 2016
January 17, 2016

Gracious God:
Your people found wisdom in the wilderness
and faced challenge in the promised land.
We give thanks for the many signs of your presence
with the leaders of your church
as they sought to discern your spirit
amid tension and conflict, humility and grace.
Sustain them as they return to their people;
renew them in mission and ministry;
comfort and encourage any who find themselves
hurt, disappointed or dismayed;
and restore the unity of your Spirit
in the bonds of our peace.
Through Christ our Lord.
Amen

Update February 8: Numerous commentaries can be found on the Primates’ Meeting by now, each revealing their ideological bent in how they perceived what happened. Among these I’ve selected one for my readers: Perspectives on the Primates Meeting

Prairie Encounters

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