Monday, July 14, 2008

Preaching at the Cathedral

Here is the text of my Evensong sermon preached yesterday at St Alban's Cathedral. It is a pleasure and an honor to be with you this evening, and I am thankful to your Dean for asking me to preach. He has been several times to parishes that I served in the States and has preached there on several occasions, but up until now, I have never had the chance to return the favor. A word about your Dean. He and I have been friends for over thirty years. I count him not only as a wise colleague and mentor, but also as practically a member of our family. He is my son’s god-father, and he was one of the very first people to welcome me to England when I came to study here in the 1970’s. He taught me two important things about the English (even though he is a Welshman), first is that despite the stereotypes we in America might have about you and tea drinking, most of you actually much prefer to drink coffee. And if you are an English academic, you would rather drink coffee than do anything else--especially study. When we were at St. Stephen’s house together in Oxford, we spent a lot of time drinking coffee—after breakfast someone would say, come to my room for coffee, and it was the same after lunch and after dinner, come to my room for coffee. In those days it was Nescafe—I suspect it has been replaced by Starbucks. But I learned a lot about the Bible and Christian in those coffee conversations in Jeffrey’s room, as I know you have from his leadership here. In case you haven’t realized it already, you have as your dean one of the greatest theologians and preachers in the Anglican Communion. And speaking of the Anglican Communion…that’s my main reason for being here in England, to join with my Colleagues from around the world at the Lambeth Conference which begins in Canterbury on Wednesday. There will be about 800 of us present—a bunch are boycotting, and a couple were made to stand in the corner—gathered to take mutual counsel together about the problems of the communion. Now I don’t know if Jeffrey did this on purpose, or whether or not it is the luck of the draw in the English lectionary, but the Gospel reading appointed for tonight couldn’t come at a better time—it includes the story of Jesus driving the money changers from the temple. Now I doubt much cash will be exchanged at Canterbury, except perhaps in the bookstore, and it is unlikely that the Archbishop will give us all a lashing with a whip of cords—as much as he might like to, still, this passage to me reminds us that any religious institution, whether than be the temple in Jerusalem, the Diocese or local parish, yes even the Anglican Communion is continue need of reformation, of purifying, of being called back by God to the purpose for which it was founded. The medieval scholars used to say, Ecclesia semper reformanda, the church is always being reformed. In Jesus’ day the Temple worship had become big business, with a complex and expensive bureaucracy of sacrifice, it needed a through housecleaning and reminder that its purpose was to be the house of God, not a currency exchange or a shopping mall. I would suggest that in the case of the Anglican Communion we have become equally derailed by at least a decade of power politics and bickering about structures which have little relevance to the needs of our parishioners, and have for at least a decade distracted the wider church from its Gospel mission. We too are need of a reformation, of a cleansing and purification. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the issues we have dealt with are not important. As practitioners of an incarnational faith, it is right and proper for us to enter into discussions about human sexuality. As members of a body which was founded by Jesus to be radically inclusive. It is essential that we be a place which is totally welcoming and affirming to all sorts and conditions of people, especially those who have been historically excluded from society and the life of the church, women, gay and lesbian folk, children, and those marginalized because of race or class. I am very proud of what the American Episcopal Church has done to include all people. To me, our prayerfully early inclusion of women as priests and bishops, our outspoken involvement in the fight against AIDs/HIV, and our ordination of monogamous gay lesbian people as priests and bishop. All of this is mandated by our baptismal vows. To put it bluntly, if we disqualify certain groups of people from ordination, then why baptize them? For me there can be no second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. Where the Church needs reformation is not in the area of belief, but the way we treat each other. Our problem is not purity of doctrine but lack of Christian charity. Our divisions not only distract us from our real mission, but thy make us a laughing stock to the rest of the world. It breaks my heart to see the time and money we have wasted fighting with one another. I have watched many of my conservative friend’s leave the church because they feel there is no place for them, while many gay and lesbian people have turned their backs because we have not moved fast enough. And now in the latest development, a group of very conservative Anglicans meeting in Jerusalem last week has defacto declared itself to be a church within a church. They have separated themselves, in spite of the rhetoric to the contrary, not because of theology, but because in their eyes certain of God’s children can never be loveable to God, even though one member of the conference claimed, “just because we think gay people should be in jail doesn’t mean we are homophobic.” So what we have left this summer is the Anglican Communion, meeting in Canterbury, and the Anti-gay-lican Communion meeting in Jerusalem. The real tragedy is that while we as bishops attack each other’s orthodoxy, a hurting world goes unheeded. It seems downright demonic to me that while Africa implodes in starvation, epidemic, corruption and genocide, so many of its bishops felt that the best use of their time and money was to travel to Jerusalem to help a small group of a handful of fat cat white churches in suburban Virginia separate from the American Church. The result of the preoccupation with doctrinal purity has resulted first of all in neglect of the desperate physical and needs of the rest of the world. When former Archbishop of Ireland Robin Eames spoke on this topic a while back, he used an image that I will never forget. A starving small child sits in the middle of the world stage, holding a begging bowl. She watches as well dressed clerics cross back and forth in front of her carrying the latest proclamation, covenant, or committee report. So busy are they, that they don’t even notice her stares of supplications. After a while, the child dies, but the clerics, we Christians, keep walking. And we are not only ignoring physical needs, we are failing to meet spiritual hunger as well. I come from a country where 90% of the populations say they believe in God, but only 30% goes to church. 11,000 people a week move to the Diocese of Arizona, most of them unchurched—but who wants to join a church where its leaders lie and steal from one another, and where the air is heavy with insults when the only name we should be calling one other is brother and sister. The former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, the church that lives for itself dies by itself, and we are very close to seeing that happen. Yes my brothers and sisters we are a temple very much in need of cleansing, and church very much in need of reformation, of confession, and renewal. And here is the good news-- that reformation is already underway — in fact one of your British journalists last week said that what is happening now in the Anglican Communion is the biggest reformation to affect it since the 16th century. Like any period of reformation, the times we face are extremely painful and confused, and yet the more we recommit to our mission and ministry, the more a new communion can emerge, one that is based on personal relationship rather than doctrinal documents. There is hope. I’ve seen that new spirit at work. I experienced it last spring when I meet informally with many African bishops in Spain. We didn’t get together to argue, but to get to know each other over prayer and bible study. What I experienced was a surprise to me. I thought I would hear criticism, what I heard was, “we don’t always agree with what you Americans may be doing, but you are part of our family of faith, we will never leave you. My other surprise was this: My brother bishops in the third world are not just recipients of my money and charity. From their experience of being faithful with little or no resources, with their daily struggle for physical and spiritual survival, they are my teachers. My wholeness, my salvation as an Anglican Christian is inextricably tied with them. Jesus’ actions in the temple of Jerusalem seem to imply that the reformation we are going through may be inevitable, not something to be avoided at all costs, but to be welcomed as a time when we can recommit to our faith and to our mission. We do that, not be winning the wars of rhetoric, but by focusing on Christ, in other words when Jesus needs to crack the whip, its best to be standing close to him. It’s not all that hard to do. Timothy Keller in his best selling book The Reason for God, Belief in an Age of Skeptics puts it like this: Here is the test: Which side in a church conflict is open and caring, and which side is narrow and oppressive? Which side has beliefs that lead it to treat persons in other communities with love and respect? Which side demonizes and attacks its opponents? Think of people you consider fanatical. They are overbearing, self-righteous and harsh, Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They may be fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, loving, forgiving and understanding—As Christ was. They forget that the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Next week the ongoing reformation of the church will continue, as it always has. You and I are part of it. Like it or not, Christ is continuing renewing his church, retooling us, his disciples for the new challenges the world faces. You and I are part of that reformation, that birthing of a new church and new communion. By your ministry in this place, and by the witness of your Dean, you have continued in that courage witness of your patron St Alban himself, who stood firm against the powers of the world. There will be many who are not up to this challenge, who will use their faith to buttress their own fears and prejudices, who will retreat behind walls of dogma and authority, rather than face the world with the promise of Christ that he is with us always, even to the end of the ages. And so let us hold fast to Jesus during this time of reformation. Let us recommit to the mission he has called us do, and let us never forget to treat our brothers and sisters in this great church with humility, compassion and respect. For Jesus overcame his enemies with love, and before cleansed the temple, he wept.


Theresa said...

Well said, Bravo.

eric said...

Thank you so much for standing up for us, when it seems no one else will.

We're all praying for you!

Bob MacDonald said...

I second the praying - without ceasing - I have posted the link to your sermon on my blog also.

HollyHopes said...

Kirk - I am very proud of you. You are speaking for so many whose voices go unheard....

With love,

Mark said...

Hear! Hear! So say we all of us. Bishop Smith always speaks from the heart . . . a healing and prayerful voice from the wilderness (desert of AZ). We are lucky to have a Bishop with such an understanding of what needs to be done. I am personally happy he leads the Diocese in which I reside. My personal hope is that many at Lambeth take the opportunity to read what he wrote. Thanks, Bishop!

Julie-Anne said...

I am not a homosexual. I am a young widow, disabled, who continues to struggle to find fellowship and a place in the Episcopal Church. I was under the impression that when our bishops jettison to the Lambeth Conference, it is to represent the ENTIRE church. So, why is it that all of the cares and comments I see coming from our bishops there revolve around GLBTs?

You lament the Communion's "fixation" on the sexuality issues but that's what occupies much of your sermon. You lament the poor not being addressed so WHY DON'T YOU?! My God, if this church spent even one-tenth of its political and financial capital on other "marginalized" people, as it has on homosexual issues, we actually COULD make a difference in this world. You and your colleagues choose not to do so. Nebulous references to the MDGs don't cut it, your Grace.

Wake up and realize that within this church there are people in much greater numbers who are far more marginalized than homosexuals. We don't have parades and "pride" events; people often avert their eyes from the sick and the poor. You turn away from us while patting yourselves on the back for being gay activists. And you join with Hollywood celebrities and PC governments in affirming gay people while kicking the rest of us to the curb and emphasizing that we and our concerns don't matter. Thanks.

Jeremy Bonner said...

"Which side in a church conflict is open and caring, and which side is narrow and oppressive? Which side has beliefs that lead it to treat persons in other communities with love and respect? Which side demonizes and attacks its opponents?"

The truth is Bishop Smith that we all - you included - fall into this trap. You seem just as determined to prove a simple case of thesis and antithesis as some of those who went to GAFCON.

In answer to your first question, you are choosing to ignore the fact that hardline Evangelical parishes do a considerable amount of "nuts and bolts" outreach both at home and in the Global South. I know a fair number of Evangelicals who "care" for people and treat them with "love and respect."

But how would you propose showing pastoral "love and respect" for an adulterous member of your flock? I trust that you would require him or her to repent and be faithful. And there's the rub; the issue immediately becomes theological, whether you like it or not.

Of course you can dismiss taking a similar attitude to homosexuality as "power politics and bickering about structures which have little relevance to the needs of our parishioners," but isn't a phrase like "Anti-gay-lican Communion meeting in Jerusalem" an example of using demonizing language?

Martin said...

I don't quite get the comments on here berating Bishop Smith for focusing on GLBT issues and ignoring the poor, when that's exactly what he's calling us to do - preach and live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I hardly think that telling us to stop fighting about adiaphora is asking us to kick aside the needs of the poor.

It's also not unreasonable to say that the focus from much of the so called "conservative" wing of the Anglican communion has revolved around gays. In my mind, it seems primarily like a one-issue agenda. I don't see the communion splitting over other controversial issues that we've seen lately that seem to be much more Traditionally heterodox.

While GLBT people might be a tool in a much larger fight that isn't, at its very deepest levels, about them, GLBTs are still being mistreated - the subject of an obsessively unhealthy focus that's hurting everybody.

I think increasing numbers of people - and perhaps quite a few of the younger generations, if my observations are correct - don't even understand why people are fighting so much over this.

Their response? Having nothing to do with the church. And maybe having nothing to do with Jesus in any organized way.

That's the real tragedy.

Jeremy Bonner said...


I realize this is not supposed to be a discussion thread per se, but you ask why the criticism of +Kirk.

First, for those on the "other side" the issue at the heart of the debate is not adiaphora. Progressives may think us wrong in our approach, but it is misleading to dismiss it simply as an attempt theologically to rationalize a secular prejudice. It is true that other forms of sexual sin have, at times, been passed over, particularly divorce and remarriage (although GAFCON did take steps to address that issue), but no one has - as yet - ever claimed that divorce is a good thing or something to celebrate.

+Kirk asserts: "To put it bluntly, if we disqualify certain groups of people from ordination, then why baptize them? For me there can be no second class citizens in the Kingdom of God."

There is no inherent right to ordination - it is something discerned within the community of faith. Even if you feel that you have received a call, if you are asserting it solely in your own strength, there is probably something premature - at best - about it. Much better to have somewhat reluctant - albeit committed - candidates. "Not my will, but thine be done." And certain prejudices and behaviors (racism for example) if not repented may bar us from leadership.

+Kirk adds: "Our problem is not purity of doctrine but lack of Christian charity . . . It breaks my heart to see the time and money we have wasted fighting with one another . . . It seems downright demonic to me that while Africa implodes in starvation, epidemic, corruption and genocide, so many of its bishops felt that the best use of their time and money was to travel to Jerusalem to help a small group of a handful of fat cat white churches in suburban Virginia separate from the American Church."

Frankly, his words demonstrate that this is all he sees of the CANA churches. No mention of the protocol with the Diocese of Virginia that his Presiding Bishop insisted be abrogated. No mention of the mission work that those churches had done over the years in their local community and abroad. Simply because those congregations included a number of rich white conservatives, with whose political views he disagrees, everything else can be ignored. If you were to poll everyone in thr CANA churches as to their secular politics, I suspect you would find a fair amount of diversity, far more than in many liberal parishes.

It is perfectly plausible for +Kirk to say that he believes that North American Anglicanism is called to its present course at this place and time, but it is equally incumbent on him to acknowledge that in so doing TEC is making a significant theological departure that is not received either by the Church Catholic or by a majority of the Anglican world (one of the major differences from the issue of "receiving" women's ordination). Charity and common sense demand that someone in his position work to provide whatever degree of accommodation that dissenters feel is necessary, without the constant cries of the need to respect provincial autonomy (it might work to liberal advantage in the long run in terms of providing support - and oversight - to those of like mind in the Global South). When are liberals going to start acting liberally?

So, a great theological innovation for the sake of the Kingdom. Fine. Not accepted by the Communion for reception - at least at this time - so if you are called to pursue it regardless, then make substantive provision for those who are opposed (substantive meaning what they consider essential, not what you consider necessary). Otherwise, you'll get the result you claim you wish to avoid, although the collateral damage will be far higher.