Can these bones live?

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Few things elicit an eye-roll and an internal groan from me more readily than hearing a clergyperson use the word “prophetic.” It is a particularly obnoxious term when used in relation to one’s own ministry. It is usually meant to imply that someone or something is forward thinking or visionary, but part of the problem with this is that the only sure-fire tool to separate the visionary from the delusional is the perspective of time. I was just at a conference with New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson who quipped in his presentation: “You are a prophet after you are dead, while you are still alive you are just an asshole.” It’s a fine line in any event I’m sure.

 

My biggest problem with the word “prophetic” though is that by constantly using it to describe someone who can foresee the future, we set ourselves up to misread the central mission of the biblical prophets and thereby misunderstand our own prophetic mission.

 

Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel…the list goes on. We think of them as eccentric visionaries; as people that make dire predictions and cry for change, but at the heart of the message of each one of the prophets is a call to faithfulness. Living in times of great distraction and distress, when people seemed hell-bent on chasing after every new “god,” the prophets called out for people to abandon their idols and their false gods and to return to the Lord, the God of their ancestors and the God of their salvation with renewed devotion. The visions of the future were a means to an end; they were a tool used by the prophets to plead with a stubborn and headstrong people, but calling people to faithfulness was their true mission. Perhaps abiding faithfulness is more at the heart of what it means to be a prophet than eccentric visions. Maybe that is the core of our prophetic mission as well.

 

In the Latin mass there is a traditional prayer said by the priest or deacon immediately before the proclamation of the gospel. It is known as the Munda cor meum:

 

Cleanse my heart and my lips, O thou almighty God, who didst purge the lips of the prophet Isaiah with a live coal, and of thy sweet mercy vouchsafe so to purify me, that I may worthily announce Thy holy Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

This prayer has always been a very special moment in the liturgy for me. On a practical level it is the last moment to gather my thoughts before proceeding to proclaim the Gospel lesson and deliver the sermon. On a spiritual level this prayer is a reminder that the proclamation of the Gospel is a prophetic act, not in the sense that it should be filled with visions and eccentricities, but in that its core purpose is to call people to greater devotion. We are reminded as clergy, that when we set out from the altar to bring God’s word to the people, we do so in the footsteps of not just apostles and saints but of the prophets as well.

 

While I have appreciated the inclusion of the prophetic imagery for some time, I have not always appreciated how much the circumstances of the prophets actually mirror my own until more recently. The church at large as not yet reconciled itself to the fact that traditional Christianity (by that I mean the faith that is basically summarized by the Nicene Creed) is no longer a part of the dominant culture. When the church is still active in the public sphere it is relegated to roles that are largely ceremonious or it is used as a tool either to support nationalist sentiment (for the right wing) or socialist sentiment (for the left wing). The church is used for a means to an end, rarely as an end in itself. The dominant religion among those that are unchurched (and among many of those that are) is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, not traditional Christianity. The faithful that the church is left ministering to are likely to find themselves living in a type of exile: holding values and priorities that are often in conflict with the society at large.

 

What I find most meaningful about reflecting on the role of the prophets as I go to proclaim the Gospel, is that I am reminded that I do not need to be winning over the popular culture in order to be doing the work of God. At the end of the day, I don’t have to worry about trying to change the world, doubling my Average Sunday Attendance, being in good favor with the local political establishment, or trying to come up with “new and creative ways of being.” I have no interest in clever mission statements and movements, and no desire to try to reinvent the church every few years. It’s just not me. I have the Great Commission, 2000 years of faithful Christian witness and the biblical prophets that came before. That is enough. Walking in the footsteps of the prophets is a reminder that we aren’t called to be winners, we are called to be disciples, and there is a big difference. Isaiah knew that most of his words would fall upon deaf ears; he knew that only a faithful remnant would remain, but that was enough for him. It was enough for Jeremiah, who never felt worthy of God’s calling, and it was enough for Ezekiel, who ended up preaching to dry bones in the desert. The prophetic ministry of the priest or minister is not that we are called to be creative visionaries; it is that we are called to a life of faithfulness and to witness to the power of faithfulness to others.

 

I just returned from spending three days at a conference with the Society of Catholic Priests. Now, whenever I mention this society to people that are unfamiliar with it, I usually have to explain that, no, this has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. We are catholic priests in the Anglican Communion. We are male and female; we are gay and straight; we are married and single. We come together as priests that treasure the faith that has been handed to us by our ancestors and who wish to share that same faith with the world. We are people who highly value tradition, but who also recognize that tradition can develop and change over time. We believe in sin and redemption, and death and resurrection, not just as vague concepts, but as realities in our own lives and central truths in the life of Jesus Christ. We come together regularly to encourage one another and strengthen our witness to the faith. In short we are priests that feel called to witness to a way of faithfulness that has been handed down to us across the generations: lives filled with scripture, prayer, sacrament and mutual support. It isn’t always an easy path to walk. The right wing of the church struggles with our acceptance of women’s ordination and gay marriage; the left wing of the church struggles with our adherence to traditional ideas of sin, redemption and resurrection. If we were looking for the road to easy approval, either within the church or outside it, we have probably chosen the wrong one. With declining attendance numbers, constant corporate-like rebranding and retooling, diocesan liturgies that seem to be chasing after the spirit of the age more than the spirit of God and with the church’s often sick preoccupation with looking “cool” to the dominant culture, those of us that feel called to faithfulness and tradition can very much feel like we are in a valley of dry bones at times.

 

I give thanks for the times that I get to spend with my brothers and sisters in the Society of Catholic Priests. I give thanks because whenever we come together I am reminded that it is ok just to be faithful. It is ok to just worship the God of our ancestors without feeling the need to be creative or unique. It is ok to not worry about being in the majority either in the church or in society at large. We don’t have to win every battle in order to do the work of God…we just have to be faithful. We don’t need to try and think of ways to sell the next generation on our faith, we just need to live it as best we can. In the end only God knows the future. When Ezekiel was asked if the dry bones could live again he replied: “O Lord God, you know.” God knows indeed. It isn’t necessarily the prophets task to know what God is restoring life to; it is the prophets task to faithfully preach the word. The Resurrection is God’s job, not ours.

 

The Munda cor meum prayer is immediately followed by another prayer of the celebrant:

 

The Lord be in my heart and on my lips, that worthily and rightly I may proclaim his Gospel.

 

It is such a simple and quick moment in the liturgy, and the congregation may have no idea that it is even happening, but for me at least it is a regular reminder that as a priest I am called, like the prophets, to faithfully carry God’s word into a world filled with dry bones. My job is to faithfully proclaim; God is the one who ultimately gives life.

 

Mortal, can these bones live?

O Lord God, you know.

The real reason we burn incense: It isn’t merely symbolic.

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Why do we sing when we worship God?

 

Surely it is easier to just say the words rather than trying to move our voices to some melody, and yet singing has almost always been an important way in which God’s people have demonstrated their love for him. In scripture we find the “Song of Moses,” the “Song of Miriam,” the “Song of Hannah,” the “Song of Solomon,” and of course the Psalms themselves, all poetry that we believe was originally sung to God, just like our hymns or praise songs are sung today. Why do we sing? We sing because we believe that it gives glory and honor and praise to God in ways that surpass the spoken word. One could probably make the argument that music was invented for worship, and there aren’t many religious traditions that don’t include it in some form. But of course, music and song are not the only ancient ways in which we worship God; there is another way that is equally, if not more, ancient: incense.

 

Whenever I hear a priest explain the use of incense in Catholic worship I invariably hear one of the following arguments or statements:

 

Incense symbolizes our prayers rising to heaven

Incense is fragrant and engages our sense of smell in worship

Incense was used in the ancient times to mask bad odors

 

While all of these arguments have some truth to them (and I must admit I have used them myself at times), they all fall short of identifying the primary, and most important, reason that incense is used in worship: We offer incense to glorify God.

 

Incense is quite simply burned as an offering to God. The rising smoke of the incense fills the air with something beautiful in the same way that our voices fill the air when we sing. They are both ways in which God’s faithful people have sought to honor and worship their creator from the earliest biblical times. We don’t talk about singing as if it were symbolic of worship; it is worship. Music in church is not there to entertain the congregation; it is there to glorify God. We need to start thinking of incense in the same way.

 

From the Book of Exodus, wherein Aaron is instructed to build an altar of incense in front of the ark of the covenant (Exodus 30: 1-9), to the Book of Revelation, where an angel stands before the throne of God, offering God “a great quantity of incense” along with the prayers of all the saints (Revelation 8:3), incense is routinely offered in the worship of God. In Psalm 141, the psalmist writes:

 

I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me;

Give ear to my voice when I call to you.

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,

and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.

 

The psalmist is assuming that the burning incense and the evening sacrifice are acceptable to God, and he is praying that his prayers, however feeble our faulty they may be, may be as acceptable. Nowhere does the psalmist imply that the incense is merely symbolic of true worship; he actually implores God that his prayers may be as truly worshipful as offering incense.

 

In fact, the one time in which scripture comes down very hard on the burning of incense is when it is treated as just a symbol. The prophet Isaiah famously describes offerings as “futile” and incense as an “abomination” when he is excoriating Israel for divorcing the external forms of worship from true conversion of the heart (Isaiah 1:13). Worship is not meant to be an empty symbol or ritual, but an outpouring of the internal love we have for God, an outpouring which should also manifest itself in a desire to do good and resist evil. The problem here is not the incense or the offerings; the problem is when our rituals become disconnected from our devotion.

 

I know plenty of churches that value music in worship, but not incense. I cannot think of any churches that value incense, but not music. I do not think it is any accident that the churches that use incense most liberally are also the churches most inclined to sing large portions of the service. Perhaps we appreciate (even if only subconsciously) that both the smoke and the song are solemn offerings to God. They are lifted into the air, not primarily for our entertainment, but as an offering for the worship and glorification of the Almighty.

 

Sure, all sorts of symbols abound in our worship, and music and incense can (hopefully) be pleasing to the ear or the nose, but please, let’s stop telling people that that is why we are using them. Our primary purpose should always be the praise and adoration of God. Everything else is just gravy.

In defense of lace albs: 5 things about traditional vestments and the priests who wear them

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If you were to enter almost any Catholic Church (either Roman Catholic of Anglo-Catholic) before the 1960s you would almost certainly have seen the clergy vested in a white linen garment known as an alb. Very often these albs were decorated with an extensive amount of lace. The lace in an alb served two important functions: first on a very practical level, the lace makes the garment lighter and more breathable (and saying mass in several layers of robes in churches before the invention of air-conditioning this was a welcome introduction indeed); second, and far more importantly, lace was symbolic of the amount of effort and care being put into the worship of God.

 

Before machines could make lace quickly and cheaply, it represented something of a luxury. Lace was expensive and very hard to make. Its intricate patterns were woven by hand and represented countless hours of toil and care. When lace first became available and fashionable, its use was not considered a sign of femininity, but of nobility, so it was quite natural that in seeking to worship the King of Kings, the church would very often employ lace in its linens and vestments to symbolize the supreme transcendence of God.

 

Of course, lace was not the only sign of nobility used in the worship of God. Chalices were to be ornate and made of the finest metal. Vestments and robes needed to be beautiful and splendid. Churches had altars that were intricately carved and windows that colorfully illustrated the stories of our faith. The worship of God was not something incidental: time, effort and treasure were devoted to make going to church the most awe-inspiring experience that most people ever had.

 

How far we have come. This past week I have twice encountered prejudice within the church against priests who still find great value in maintaining and wearing traditional vestments. It has happened plenty of times before, but enough is enough. So here are a few things I want everyone to know about traditional vestments and the priests who wear them:

 

  1. Femininity has nothing to do with it. Wearing traditional vestments has nothing to do with having a lace fetish and wanting to wear frilly things (not that there is anything wrong with that). Indeed, I sometimes wonder about the implied misogyny that seems to exist in so many put-downs about traditional vestments looking feminine. So what if they do? We need to recognize that our ideas about what is masculine and/or feminine have changed over time (just look at portraits of kings and queens through the ages if you don’t believe me). The church’s vestments evolved long before trousers became a thing, so maybe we should stop trying to assign them a gender. And while we are on this subject, it is worthwhile to state: not every priest that wears and values traditional vestments is opposed to the ordination of women! I, for one, love a good lace alb, and fully support women wearing them too.
  2. The vestments are not there to make me look special. The robes are not worn to glorify the priest, they are worn to glorify Christ. As a priest, I am a sinner in need of redemption just like everyone else. During the mass, I act in the person of Christ, to say his words of institution over the bread and wine and distribute his body and blood to his faithful people. It is a moment that is supremely not about me at all, but about Christ and what he has done. The time, effort and expense put into beautiful vestments is not done to make me look special, but rather to remind all of us how special Christ is and how glorious this meal is that he has invited us to.
  3. We are not trying to turn back time. I love patristic theology, early mass settings, medieval architecture, baroque vestments and altar furnishings, and even the occasional modern praise song (gasp!). My standard when evaluating church things is not “is it new?” or “is it old?” but “is it good?” What I have found, time and time again, is that things that have managed to stand the test of time have usually done so because they have lasting value from one generation to the next. I have no desire to go back to the days before civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights or air-conditioning, but I do believe that the people that lived before and through those times still probably have a lot to teach me. Just because we find timeless wisdom and value in things that are traditional does not mean that we fail to see the importance of the progress that has been made along the way as well. For the record, most priests that I know that have strong preferences for traditional worship are actually quite young, and much of the laity that are attracted to this type of worship are fairly young as well. This isn’t about catering to the blue-haired ladies in our congregations as much as it is looking to what is resonating with children and youth.
  4. This is not about some secret desire to be Roman Catholic. On many occasions people have visited my church and commented “This is just like Roman Catholic” to which I would like to reply “When is the last time you visited a Roman Catholic Church?” Traditional vestments were a hallmark of both Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches up until the 1960s, when after the reforms of Vatican II, the Roman church began moving toward more modern vestments (and by modern I mean reflecting style, material and color trends of the 1960s and 70s). Today very few Roman Catholic parishes worship in traditional vestments or follow the older Tridentine form of the mass. The fact is that Episcopal priests that wear cassock-albs, modern-styled vestments and worship at West-facing altars have far more in common with their Roman Catholic colleagues than those of us that have a preference for fiddle-back chasubles, and that is fine, it really is. I have no problem with priests and churches that can feel connected to Christ through newer rites and modern aesthetics. As long as it is faithful to the gospel and works for the community, great. Go with it. What I do have a problem with is the notion that those of us who connect with traditional worship in all its forms and finery on some level do not belong in the mainstream church and are just waiting for an excuse to leave. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a mainstream Anglican in the Episcopal Church and that is right where I intend to stay, but if we say that our church has room for a variety of styles in worship, then we should live that out by not trying to force traditional worshipers off to the margins, or even worse, out of the picture altogether.
  5. Ultimately the lace may not matter, but style does. Style and substance go hand in hand. We need to get that. People pay more attention to what we do than what we say. If we put more effort into setting a nice table for a dinner party than we do preparing ourselves for worshiping at Christ’s altar, what does that say about our priorities? Say what you will about traditional worship, it is seldom sloppy or irreverent. It takes Christ seriously.This is not some show that we are putting on week after week, it is the worship of God, and it is that very same worship that has led many a faithful Anglo-Catholic to serve Christ in the streets and in the hearts and bodies of those in need, as well as at his high altar. Maybe a Solemn High Mass isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I get that, but please stop suggesting that we are going through all of this effort for any other reason than to glorify God.

 

 

The next time you see a priest wearing a lace alb consider this: he or she has probably done so as a conscious choice, but it may not be for the reason you think. He might not be trying to make a statement about his stance on some political issue in the church. He might not be trying to dress like a historical figure from ages past. He might not be trying to draw attention to himself by wearing something grand our outlandish. He might, just might, have seen something very beautiful and thought “surely this is worthy of God.”

Maintaining the Connection: the Heart of Catholicity

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“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;

Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”

“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly

Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In the wonderful Christmas hymn “Good King Wenceslas,” a benevolent king and his young servant set out into a bitter winter’s night to bring some Christmas warmth and food to a poor homeless man. When the servant tells his master that the wind is too strong and he can go no further, he is instructed by the king to follow him closely, in his own footsteps even, and in so doing he will find the strength to go on. As the hymn continues:

“In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;

Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.”

Walking in the footsteps of a saint, the young page discovered miraculous warmth which gave him the strength and courage that he needed to perform the task at hand. When I try to think of what it means for me to be an Anglo-Catholic my mind is drawn to the image of the young page following Good King Wenceslas through the snow. In a world that is quite often dismal and bleak, I have frequently found myself, like that page, wondering if I have the wisdom or the fortitude to make it, and equally like that page, I have usually found my direction and my strength by following in the footsteps of saints who have gone before. To be an Anglo-Catholic, for me at least, is to be a Christian who is ever mindful of following closely in the footsteps of those who have already passed this way; it is to find strength, courage, wisdom, and direction by struggling to remain connected to other Christians across time and place. It is this desire to remain connected to other members of the body of Christ that is at the heart of what it means to be a Catholic Christian.

I was born in 1979, which puts me right at the end of Generation X. I can remember a world before cell phones, but computers have always been a part of my life. My generation has been witness to, and in many cases the testing ground of, the ever-increasing individualization of Western society. I remember very well Burger King’s marketing slogan “Have it your way,” which became a catchphrase of my childhood that in many ways perfectly symbolized the zeitgeist of my generation. Be an individual; Do your own thing; Don’t follow the crowd. With the introduction of cable television and fast food, I grew up in a society that has sought relentlessly to separate people from each other under the battle cry of catering to the individual.

It is interesting to me that during this period of rampant fragmentation of society, the most powerful tool for connecting individuals in the history of the world would be developed. Perhaps the tremendous power and meteoric rise of the Internet in our lives can be partly attributed to its power to connect individuals in a world that had become increasingly isolating. The Internet is a mixed-bag of course; it has the power to isolate as well as connect, but at its best it functions as an amazing tool that can connect people instantly across distance and even time.

The power of the Internet and the power of the Catholic tradition both stem from their ability to help us connect with each other. As much as it may be gratifying at times to have all of my individual desires catered to, I have lived in this isolating world long enough to know that always “having it my way” is not the boon that it poses to be. I need to be connected to others. I need their insight and wisdom. I need their challenges to my way of thinking. I need their love and support. Having other people in my life is far more important to me than “having it my way,” and when I find something that can help me make those connections it is a truly valuable thing.

Being a catholic means living my life of faith in connection with others. It means that I am a part of something so much bigger than myself. As an Anglican, it means seeing our church, though distinct, as a part of a larger whole and seeking to maintain that connection. But the connection that catholicity brings is not just about crossing political or ecclesiastical boundaries: it is about connecting across time as well. To be a catholic means to be connected to Christians throughout history. Things like scriptures, creeds and rituals are not meant for one generation only; they are the medium through which a connection is made from one generation to another. When I think about the things that are often of great importance to Anglo-Catholics, most of them, if not all of them, are in some way about making or maintaining connections.

Queen-Mary-Poster

A couple weeks ago I had the great opportunity to spend a night on the Queen Mary, the classic Cunard ship that is now permanently docked in Long Beach, California. The Queen Mary was built in the 1930s, and although she has been updated as a modern hotel, she still retains many of the design elements of a bygone era. To wander around the Queen Mary is to live for a while in a world outside of time; it is to experience a connection to people and events from which we have been separated by the passage of time and life itself. During the Second World War, the Queen Mary was used as a troop transport ship, and it is possible that my own grandfather walked those decks just as I did. To some people the Queen Mary might be an obsolete relic from the past; to me it was a means to make a living connection with at least one person I knew very well, and some I never knew. In many ways my experience walking around this classic ship was very much the way I feel during a moving worship service: living outside of time and connected to people and places I never knew.

I can admit that in many ways I fit the traditional Anglo-Catholic stereotype. On the shelf in my office are well-worn copies of both Ritual Notes and the Anglican Missal. I use them often, not as inviolable rules that can never be broken, but as wisdom from Christians who have walked this way before; sometimes we may disagree, but we always connect. That relationship, for me, is crucial to what it means to be a modern Anglo-Catholic: living in communion with people across generations and across time; It means making and maintaining the connection.

Contrary to what some people think about Anglo-Catholics though, I have no desire to impose full Tridentine Mass ceremonial on the entire church. It resonates with me, but I understand how it might not always resonate with others. Catholic Evangelism is not about selling everyone on the idea of using birettas and maniples; it is about inviting others, both those already within the church and (even more importantly) those outside it, to make the connection to something larger. Our mission is to offer people a place and a community that exists outside of time; a congregation where saints and sinners that walked with Christ rub elbows with Christians from every generation since. Perhaps the reason why Apostolic Succession persists as a doctrine of fundamental importance to Anglo-Catholics is that in the simple ritual of one generation of bishops laying hands upon another we have represented what lays at the heart of our spirituality: making the connections with each other that ultimately lead us to making a connection with Christ.

Our world can still be cold and dark. Life and time are ever trying to pull us apart. May we, as Catholic Christians, tread boldly in the footsteps of the saints that have passed before us, and find new life in maintaining the connection.

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There’s a reason for the things that I have on…

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A friend of mine once said: “we are really good in the church at creating professional clergy, but we aren’t very good at creating ministers of the gospel.” Hearing her words made me think of my own time in seminary and the different ways in which I was and was not prepared to be spreading the gospel. During my last year in seminary, the then dean, Joseph Britten, sat the senor class down one day and passed out a piece of paper. One of the topics for discussion that day was clerical dress. The dean began by saying that we could talk about the historical and cultural reasons for clergy to wear black, but that we would never have a better excuse than the words on this piece of paper. Printed on the paper were the lyrics to the Johnny Cash song “Man in Black”:

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,

Why you never see bright colors on my back,

And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.

Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,

Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,

I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,

But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,

Or listened to the words that Jesus said,

About the road to happiness through love and charity,

Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,

In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,

But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,

Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,

For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,

I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,

Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,

Believen’ that the Lord was on their side,

I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,

Believen’ that we all were on their side.

Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,

And things need changin’ everywhere you go,

But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,

You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,

And tell the world that everything’s OK,

But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,

‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.

If I learned nothing else in seminary, that day I began to grasp what it means to be a minister of the gospel and not just another specialized professional in a suit.

Those years in seminary were the days when I longed for the day when I could officially wear a clerical collar. It was a symbol of what I was working towards; it was a symbol of my burgeoning identity; and, yes, it was also a symbol of authority. I can remember the excitement of actually getting to wear a collar for the first time as an ordained person and the amount of pride that I took in dressing for the role of deacon and priest, but that was a long time ago.

In the eleven years since I was ordained, the clerical collar has lost the mystique that it once had. As a good Anglo-Catholic I still wear it the majority of the time when doing anything official (and yes, I only wear black), but I must admit feeling a great sense of relief at the end of the day when I take it off. I even find myself looking for reasons or excuses NOT to wear the collar sometimes. Quite a change from when I first put it on.

What many people do not understand is that wearing a clerical collar and dressing as a priest, very often changes the way people look at you and the way they treat you. Introverts (like me) can find all that extra attention exhausting, but even some of the most outgoing people I know can get tired of being seen as Father of Mother so and so ALL the time. I have found myself in recent years to be reluctant at times to wear my collar when going in to Manhattan (I live on Long Island). I find myself wanting to take it off or change my shirt, so that I can travel around like everyone else without the extra baggage that the clerical collar brings with it. Recently I was heading into Manhattan from my office and I paused for a moment thinking that I might take off my collar before I left, but for some reason (a still, small voice) I decided to leave it on.

When I walked up to the train platform I was stopped by a man who looked like he was waiting for a train in the opposite direction. Now my gut reaction whenever anyone stops me on the street or in public is to expect one of two things: 1) to be asked for money, or 2) to be asked a theological question that deserves a complex answer by someone that expects a simple answer usually agreeing with their own viewpoint (seriously, this happens). Call me cynical.

The man started by apologizing for taking up my time. He said that he was Jewish and not from my faith but respected what I did and recognized me as a person of prayer. He told me a story of how he had just been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer, was afraid of losing his vision and dying, and really wanted someone to stop and pray for him. That was it. He didn’t want money. He didn’t want to monopolize my time. He just wanted reassurance of God’s love from someone he recognized as a minister.

It took less than a minute of my time to give this gentleman everything that he wanted. After we said a brief prayer together there on the train platform he walked on. It was just a brief moment of grace punctuating a rather ordinary day, but I walked away from the encounter feeling quite different than I had just a few minutes before. He may have been the one who asked for prayer, but I may have been the one who was healed.

This whole encounter which changed my day, and undoubtedly changed his too would not have happened if I had taken that collar off as I had originally intended. I was wearing a symbol of my office and it was that symbol that helped to create the space where that encounter could happen. I realized that I had begun looking at the collar as a professional clergyperson; as a symbol of work that can at times be exhausting. What the collar became for me in that moment was a tool to be used in the ministry of the gospel, and that made all the difference in the world.

The signs and symbols we use in the church have great power, even to people who are completely outside our faith. Even people who never cross the threshold of the church can recognize a priest on the street. They may not understand me as an individual, but they know what I represent and that still means something.

We do damage to the ministry of the gospel by dismissing the tools that God has given us to spread it. By saying that “style doesn’t matter” or that something is “merely symbolic” we casually dismiss the powerful tools that we have to tell the world about Jesus Christ and the love he has for it. When we are more focused on the tools than we are on the mission, then we revert back to being professional clergypersons, but when we are using the tools to further our mission, then we become effective ministers of the gospel.

As an Anglo-Catholic I love the symbols of my faith. I love the bells and smells. I love the gothic architecture and the beauty of the language used in the King James Bible. I love all of those things and I use them, not because I am clinging to something I grew up with (I didn’t). I use them because I am convinced that they are still effective tools for taking the gospel into a world that still needs to hear it.

Hanging on the wall in the rectory bathroom are the framed lyrics to Johnny Cash’s song. I reread it often, because I find that I need to be reminded of the just how important the symbol I am wearing on my back or around my neck might be. It isn’t a fashion choice to be worn by a professional priest; it is a tool to be used by a minister of the gospel. I thank God for reminding me from time to time that there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

What we have; What we lost; What we need

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If the church were more like Oxford University:

Subfusc is a Latin term used to refer to a specific type of academic dress worn by students at Oxford University. It is a black gown of varying lengths and shapes worn over formal attire by students during examinations, some lectures, dinners and numerous other occasions. If Oxford were like many other universities, subfusc, would be a period costume and nothing more: something one might expect to see depicted in movies like Brideshead Revisited or the Shadowlands, but not an item of contemporary apparel. Thankfully, Oxford is not like any other university.

Last week as I was having breakfast in a hotel in Oxford’s city centre, I could see outside the window phalanx of students, impeccably dressed and donning their subfusc, heading into an austere stone building to take their examinations. This was not some historical reenactment of life at Oxford in the 1920s; this is life at Oxford now and if the students have anything to say about it, it will still be life in Oxford for many years to come.

Last week the Oxford Student Union held a referendum. The question it posed: Should students still be required to wear subfusc on the usual occasions? One of the university’s vice presidents proposed that this was an archaic tradition that the students would be glad to get rid of. The result: more than 75% of the student body voted in favor of keeping the unusually shaped black gowns as required apparel for Oxford students. The students who actually live their lives in and out of these garments expressed a strong desire to maintain this centuries old tradition. This does not mean, however, that Oxford students are simply intransigent and unwilling to adapt to the modern world. In 2012 rules regarding the type of subfusc that each gender was permitted to wear were lifted, but the general rule that students must be dressed in some type of the uniform were maintained, proving that it is possible to adapt a tradition to modern needs without throwing it off entirely.

Oxford University takes modern youth, from a variety of backgrounds and races, and invites them into a different life. It is a life steeped in centuries of tradition, where students know that they are a part of something much larger and more significant than just the concerns of the present age. But because its life is comprised primarily of the young, Oxford is always confronted with new ideas and new thoughts. So what you end up with is a city and a University that is at once extremely old, while at the same time being eternally young. It has both the reverence of ancient tradition and the vitality of new life, and that is, in my opinion, exactly what the church should look like.

The ability to adapt tradition without dispensing with it, has proven to be Oxford’s strength and the Church’s weakness, and this is crucial because it is that very ability that will lie at the heart of any successful prayer book revision.

The next prayer book revision needs to take a close look at three critical questions regarding the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: What we have; what we lost; and what we need.

What we have

While I admit that I am not the biggest fan of the 1979 prayer book, there is much there that works and works well. Some of the prayers are clumsy and dated, but some work very well. Overall, the 1979 prayer book, when it is actually followed, can produce beautiful and wonderful liturgies in worship styles that range from high Anglo-Catholic to low protestant and everything in between. It is imperfect, but for many of us in the church now it is the tradition that has formed us, and that is not to be taken lightly or easily dispensed with.

What we lost

All revisions and reformations have a tendency to go too far. Things get pushed aside or left behind in one generation that the next generation finds itself in need of. Any revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer needs to look backwards as well as forwards. We need to look back at previous revisions and identify places where something of value was lost. How can a new prayer book connect modern Christians to ancient rituals and beliefs? How can we help today’s worshiper feel that oneness of spirit with Christians in every other generation? If we can accept that merely casting off old traditions is not an acceptable solution to moving forward, can we look back and identify some traditions that previous revisions dispensed with in too much haste?

What we need

Much has changed in the last 30+ years. Technology is vastly different. The battlegrounds within the church and within the world have all changed. A new prayer book must take into account the world it is being sent into. It must be able to invite individuals from every background, race, gender and sexuality into the life of the church. This will mean adding and altering some services and it is here principally that the ability to alter traditions without dispensing with them altogether will become key.

There are many reasons why I would propose that now is not the time to be contemplating prayer book revision in the Episcopal Church, but my primary reason that I pray we hold off, is that we simply have not done the work of finding out from our youth and young clergy what the answers are to those three questions: what we have; what we lost; and what we need. Like the students at Oxford wearing subfusc, it is the young in the church that are going to have to actually live with and in any new revised prayer book, so any discussion of revision must begin with them.

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