Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ashes Addendum

AP Photo / Matt Rourke
Much ink has been spilled in the last week over the pros and cons of "Ashes-to-Go," an event in which churches venture out into their communities to administer ashes to the public, so I won't duplicate those comments here.  Instead, I'd like to share just a few snapshots of people I met during the day to illustrate why I think this effort is worth undertaking.  More than any clever theological or missiological rationale I may have articulated, friends and colleagues have been captivated by the stories of my encounters with specific people, which they have encouraged me to share here on the Web.

I have always said that theology begins at the front door, because it is how we greet people that sets their expectations for how they are going to be treated once they have come inside the church building.  It says, "this is how we treat each other in this Christian community."  However, being out in the world without the protection of standing in the narthex of one's home turf alters the balance of power considerably.  People feel much braver to ask questions and challenge you if you're simply standing on the sidewalk as they scuttle by on their way to work, to lunch, or to run errands.  People surprise you, sometimes pleasantly and sometimes not so pleasantly, but it is always instructive.

Here are some of the highlights:
AP Photo / Matt Rourke
  • An African American woman abruptly pulled up to the curb in her huge SUV, slammed on the brakes, and jumped out to ask me if I would come to administer ashes to her very elderly mother, who was quite feeble.  So, I climbed into the driver's seat of the SUV, introduced myself, shook the mother's hand, and imposed ashes on her forehead.  Visibly grateful, the elderly woman said, "Bless you, you have answered all my prayers today!"
  • Even though we were clearly identified as an Episcopal Church, most people didn't hesitate at all and came right up to receive.  However, like many Roman Catholics that day, one middle-aged woman asked if she was allowed to receive ashes from me.  I explained that I knew that she was not allowed to receive communion, but since the imposition of ashes was an act of piety signifying repentance, rather than a sacrament, I said that I didn't see any reason why she shouldn't receive if she wanted to.  She was clearly conflicted, but after studying the people's faces as they received ashes, she finally got in line, smiled, and said, "well, I guess I'm in too!" 
  • During the morning rush hour, I asked a young woman if she wanted ashes, and she told me she was Muslim, at which point I noticed she was wearing a hijab on her head.  About an hour later, when I was talking to a man from a neighboring parish who had stopped by St. Clement's to pray, she approached us smiling and handed each of us a Qur'an.  I thanked her for her kind gift.  It was an incredible moment of mutual respect and generosity.
  • I can recall only one hurtful moment--a hit-and-run event--when a passerby, assuming we were Roman Catholics, quipped without stopping, "So, you took a break from molesting kids in the sacristy?" to which I responded without skipping a beat, "we're Anglicans; we don't do that."  My tone wasn't snarky or bitter; I was just setting the record straight.
  • A homeless man came up to me grinning, and after I had given him ashes, he said, "Bless you, my brother! Praise Jesus!" which was a tremendous joy.
  • Several people who did not speak English, including an elderly man from eastern Europe and an elderly Italian woman came up to me, and even though I could not utter anything in their languages, they knew exactly what this ritual was all about and reacted as if they understood the words I was saying.  It just goes to show you that sometimes the Holy Spirit takes over to fill in the gaps.
  • As we were making our way back to the church at the end, a man shouted to me from the cab of a very large delivery truck that was stopped at the stop light.  He couldn't get out of his truck, but he wondered if I'd give him ashes.  It was a bit tricky, but I clambered up the side of the vast truck in my ecclesiastical finery and administered ashes through the driver's side window.  Then, the light changed to green, and he moved on. 
  • And finally, among my favorite moments were those when Jewish ladies passed by us at various points and said, "I'm Jewish, but I think what you're doing is wonderful!"
These vignettes remind us that we often have to live our way into the mystery of the Christian faith.  It is very easy to intellectualize it and lose sight of its affective and experiential dimensions, which can teach us much about what it means to follow Jesus.  It is in the encounter with other people that we are invited into a deeper experience of the transformative power of the Gospel message of good news for the poor, the wounded, the captive, and the dejected of this world, who are sometimes we ourselves.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why Newman?

John Henry Newman in 1844.
The Episcopal Church commemorates John Henry Newman on February 21st, and it might strike some as odd that Anglicanism should honor a man who abandoned communion with the see of Canterbury to join the Roman Catholic Church.  The question of Newman's place and heritage within Anglicanism is perhaps all the more timely and controversial, given the recent establishment of the Anglican Ordinariate, which allows entire Anglican congregations to enter into communion with the Holy See while preserving some markers of Anglican worship and spirituality.  However, the deeper questions posed by Newman's inclusion in the Episcopal Church's sanctoral Kalendar, as well as the Ordinariate, are: how are we to understand our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ once they have swum the Tiber? And how should we remember them in the long view of history?

There are no doubt many reasonable answers to these questions, but my own response seeks to embrace the whole course of a person's process of spiritual and theological discernment, rather than to limit my focus to his or her ultimate destination. With Newman, I attempt to view the man's life globally, rather than as a figure at only one point in time.  Indeed, I do not have to agree with Newman's decision to go to Rome in order to value his writings and work as a Church of England priest within the Oxford Movement.  I can agree with his subtle theological arguments, without assenting to the conclusions that he draws from them, most particularly, that Rome is the only true Church.  When I read Newman, I come to a very different set of conclusions, perhaps much as Keble or Pusey did.  Some Catholic Anglicans have arrived at convictions that have called them to Rome, while others have arrived at ones that keep them in Canterbury.  (And let us not forget the scores of Roman Catholics who have swum the Thames for similar reasons of conscience and become Anglicans!)

What I respect above all, however, is the common struggle we have experienced, wherever each of us has landed.  I have been moved by the accounts of Newman's theological wrangling and nagging conscience, for they are reminiscent of my own struggles to formulate solid theological propositions and construct an Anglo-Catholic identity within the Episcopal Church.  Newman and I doubtless wrestled with some of the same theological problems, and so I find much solidarity and companionship in reading about his journey, which had great integrity.  As one of my theology professors in seminary insightfully noted, "every theological proposition solves one problem and opens up another."  I think we can thus thank Newman for showing us that going to Rome does not necessarily get round the difficult theological questions; it may only delay answering them and sometimes can even expose new problems.  Indeed, for many in the Church of England, such as Keble, Pusey, Selwyn, Gore, and countless others in later generations, giving up on the hard questions related to the Catholic nature of Anglicanism was not an option; they stuck it out, wrestled with it some more, and got us a bit closer to the truth.  Newman explored one solution, and his Oxford colleagues explored others.

Despite his decision to quit Anglicanism, I am indebted to Newman, as well as to his Oxford companions, for the inspiration he has provided during my own formation as a priest.  Newman's place in the Kalendar may be justified by the fact that even now younger generations of Anglo-Catholics just like me are still drawing great strength from him, not because of what he ultimately became--a Roman Catholic--but because of what he contributed to and achieved for the Church of England, and in the fullness of time, Anglicanism.  Anglo-Catholicism might be much poorer today had not Newman been a key leader in those first formative years of the Oxford Movement.  I am therefore grateful that he is remembered by the Church, when other Anglo-Catholic luminaries, such as Frank Weston, have not been honored with a day in the Kalendar.

It can be difficult in this day to be an Anglo-Catholic, for the word means many different things to many different people, and each of us is bidden to figure out how we are going to understand and live out this identity.  Society and the Church can also be unkind in their treatment of people who use this label, sometimes based largely on stereotypes or misinformation.  Much of what Newman wrote as a catholic-minded priest in the Church of England, for example, provided deep nourishment and comfort for me as a seminarian whenever I encountered anti-Catholic prejudice and invective in both of the seminaries in which I trained.  As someone who left one faith in sad protest as an adolescent, wandered aimlessly for a couple of decades, and then found a new faith, I am inclined to be generous in my estimation of Newman.  I am sympathetic to his struggle.  So, in answer to my original question about how we might understand or remember Newman, I would say that we might respect his decision to walk apart, and yet still be grateful for the time we spent walking together.