Thursday, April 28, 2005

Correcting a News Release

I was reading the news releases of the PCUSA this morning, and I noticed one about the Disciples of Christ Church. Apparently they have elected a woman to be general minister and president for the first time. That's great, but then the article made the astounding claim...
"No mainline denomination larger than the Christian Church has ever had a woman in the top position. In the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church, for example, the highest position a woman has ever held is diocesan bishop."

I realize that the article was not written by the PC(USA) Office of Communication, but shouldn't someone be checking these reports?

As of 2003, the total membership of the PC(USA) is 2,405,311 which is larger than the cited example of the Episcopal Church. In 1972, Lois Stair was elected first woman moderator of the General Assembly, UPCUSA. In 1978, Sarah Moseley was elected first woman moderator of the General Assembly, PCUS.

In the 75th anniversary of ordaining women as ruling elders and the 50th anniversary of ordaining women as ministers of Word and Sacrament, the PC(USA) shouldn't allow such misconceptions to stand.

Update: Sidestepping the Resurrection

In a recent post, I criticized Cynthia Rigby’s recent article in the Presbyterian Outlook. Apparently, I’m not the only one who was puzzled by her reluctance to give straight answers on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. She has responded to criticism in the latest edition of the Outlook.
Specifically, I bear witness to our confessional claims that "Jesus Christ rose again from the dead" and that one day we, too – as members of the communion of saints – will be bodily resurrected. This is what I believe. More importantly: this is what we believe, as Christians. The article clearly does not bring these beliefs into question, but seeks to explore how they make a difference in our lives of discipleship.
Although I still affirm that Dr. Rigby’s choice of words muddled her intent, I am glad to stand corrected. Moreover, I stand by my original comment that her observations about the implications of the resurrection are "intelligent and cogent."

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Bill Moyer's Inner Voice

I was directed to a transcript of Bill Moyers show on PBS, Wide Angle. Here Moyers speaks with author James Carroll about the Roman Catholic Church and the new pope. Much of the conversation was a rehash of the negative criticisms that I’ve mentioned before. However, part of the dialogue demanded comment.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think the new pope would make of the CNN/USA Today Gallup poll a few days ago in which three quarters of American Catholics say they're more likely to follow their own conscience on, quote, "difficult moral questions," rather than the teachings of Pope Benedict?

JAMES CARROLL: Well, Pope Benedict probably would say that poll suggests one of the things that's wrong with American Catholicism. But I would say the opposite. American Catholicism has been a source for the Catholic Church as a whole of the discovery of the primacy of conscience. Every human being owes ultimate allegiance to his or her conscience. We also owe responsibly. We owe to the broader community the process of testing our conscience against what the broader community says. But finally, there can be no doubt that we have to do as our inner voice tells us. Now that -- that's a tradition that's powerfully out of the Protestant, American culture.

BILL MOYERS: Yes. The priesthood of the believer is what I was taught growing up.

JAMES CARROLL: Yes, it's true.

BILL MOYERS: That each of us has our own conscience that we honor, no matter what authority says.

Whether Carroll is right about the contributions of American Catholics, I won’t venture a guess. However, both Carroll and Moyers have a bizarre understanding of the Protestant teaching, "the priesthood of all believers." This doctrine has nothing to do with following inner voices or rejecting authority to follow our own consciences.

Drawing on the imagery from 1 Peter 2:4-10, the protestant reformers taught that the Church itself acted as a priesthood "that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." Protestant reformers understood that the priesthood of all believers was rooted in the high priesthood of Jesus Christ. Our reconciliation to God is dependent wholly upon Him. Jesus Christ alone is the mediator between God and humanity. As a result, there is no caste system in the church. Salvation is not dependent on popes and priests. Martin Luther writes,
"That all Christians are truly of the Spiritual Estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone. As St. Paul says, we are all one body, though each member does its own work, to serve the others. This is because we have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel and faith, these alone make Spiritual and Christian people."

If spiritual authority does not rest in popes, where does it rest? Carroll and Moyers believe it lies with the individual conscience. I choose. I decide. In this, they recall a famous phrase from the Westminster Confession, "God alone is Lord of the conscience." However, again they miss the mark. Reformed Christians have understood that sin is pervasive. Even our best is tainted by sin’s stain. As a result, our conscience needs help. Here is the complete quote from the Westminster Confession:
"God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship."
According to Westminster, Scripture provides the necessary check on our inner voices. Luther, himself under the rallying cry of solo scriptura, would certainly agree. Still, Luther even suggests that the Christian community itself has some claim to authority. While addressing the meaning of ordained ministry within the priesthood of believers, he writes,
"Because we are all priests of equal standing, no one must push himself forward and take it upon himself, without our consent and election, to do that for which we all have equal authority. For no one dare take upon himself what is common to all without the authority and consent of the community."
Submitting to Scripture and to the voice of the Church under Scripture may be a messy process, but it is certainly superior to what occurred under the judges in Israel: "Every man did was right in his own sight" (Judges 21:25).

Ironically, Bill Moyers elsewhere has complained that conservative Christians are too individualistic, yet he embraces a view of authority which sees nothing higher than the individual. Moyers should know better.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Maureen Dowd & the Pope

From the standpoint of a Protestant clergyman, there was much to be celebrated in Pope John Paul’s reign. As a result, I am generally hopeful for the new pontificate. Benedict XVI was a close confidant of John Paul II, and I expect many of the same policies. I am amazed, however, at the venom directed at this Pope.

In a recent article, Maureen Dowd compares Pope Benedict XVI with Vice President Dick Cheney awarding both with prominent positions in the pantheon of villainy.

The two, from rural, conservative parts of their countries, want to turn back the clock and exorcise New Age silliness. Mr. Cheney wants to dismantle the New Deal and go back to 1937. Pope Benedict XVI wants to dismantle Vatican II and go back to 1397. As a scholar, his specialty was "patristics," the study of the key thinkers in the first eight centuries of the church.
Granted, both Pope Benedict and John Paul have been critical of excesses done in the name of Vatican II. Still, both were at Vatican II, and both have publicly embraced the council. In fact, Pope Benedict, in his former role, excommunicated an outspoken critic unwilling to heed the reforms of Vatican II. Moreover, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which Benedict headed is a far cry from the Inquisition. In fact, to suggest otherwise is to dishonor the memory of those who faced the Inquisition.

Finally, I almost groaned at Dowd’s mention of "patristics." Actually, I wished more church leaders had knowledge of the first eight centuries of church. The protestant reformers certainly knew the Church Fathers as well as they knew the Scriptures. Athanasius or Augustine can certainly teach us more about the church than the New York Times.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Hardball, Roman Catholics & Birth Control

Joseph Ratzinger is now Pope Benedict XVI. I pray that the God be with him and guide his pontificate. I have watched the pomp and circumstance surrounding the conclave with curiosity. I have watched the attendant media circus with dismay. Much of the commentary has been vapid. I know more about the Roman Catholic Church than many of the "expert" opinions that have been crowding the airways.

One of my favorite examples occurred on Hardball on MSNBC.

Chris Matthews pleads with Fr. Andrew Greeley, "Why is it wrong to have birth control? I don‘t quite understand that. Explain that to me, Father."

Greeley responds, "I would have a hard time defending it, Chris."

Now, if Chris Matthews was really concerned about the rationale behind the Roman Catholic teaching on birth control, why didn’t he book someone other than Andrew Greeley. There are plenty of folks who know what they are talking about. Instead the issue is dropped as if there is no reason.

Don’t get me wrong. I disagree with the Roman Catholic church on key doctrinal issues, but at least I respect it. The Roman Catholic Church has taken the past two millenniums of Church history seriously. Thinkers as diverse as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, and John Paul the Great are all celebrated within the church. Moreover, Protestants could learn much from Catholic social teachings on war and peace, poverty, labor, and life.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A Moral Voice?

Rev. Albert Keller in the Presbyterian Outlook has written a piece about the issues surrounding the death of Terri Shaivo. He urges the church to offer a "moral voice" on death. However, one sentence shouted out at me (emphasis added).
Stewardship: not to use a disproportionate share of common resources to hang on when it is time to lay life down; not to complicate the grief of loved ones with unfinished business; not to leave important medical and legal decisions un-addressed.
I do not hear a "moral voice." In fact, the voice I hear horrifies me. When is it time to "lay life down?" The answer to that question is key. Should patients with Alzheimer disease "lay life down?" Should the mentally handicapped? Should people with Parkinson disease? Sadly the argument about limited resources has been used to justify the extermination of the undesirable. Granted, I have taken these words out of context, and I hope that this is outside of the author’s intent.

Terri Shaivo, according to some, has been dead for fifteen years. They suggest that pulling the feeding tube was the right moral action because the woman was dead already. If Terri Shaivo was truly dead, I would agree. In that case, the cause of death would not be starvation or dehydration. However, the author of the article has not taken this position. In fact, he compares euthanasia with Jesus dying on the cross or Martin Luther King Jr heading to Memphis. Rev. Keller understands each of these as active decisions–"laying done one’s life."

The Church has traditionally made a distinction between suicide and martyrdom. The distinction is not always easily discerned, but it still remains. For example, we generally do not consider the fireman who rushes into a burning building to save others as suicidal. Death in these circumstances is not the objective. Rev. Keller does not even appear to be aware of such distinctions.

Perhaps, Rev. Keller is warning that life itself can become an idol. Perhaps, he’s right. However, I find that "quality of life" is an easier idol. We work, spend, and sacrifice for the sake of a particular quality of life. When that quality becomes elusive, many are willing to sacrifice life itself.

Newsletter: Treasure in Clay Jars

I have read that in the final moments of the life of Pope John Paul II, he motioned for the window where he often blessed the crowds. In his weakened and frail condition, he reached outward to complete the blessing, and spoke his final word, "Amen." In the last few years, the world watched as this pastor, theologian, and political leader struggled with his mortality.

The recent news coverage reminded me of another man, Rev. James Baldwin. James was a Presbyterian minister whom I knew in Ohio. In younger days, James served as driver for a chaplain during World War II. He watched as the chaplain would perform countless funerals for innumerable boys who gave the ultimate sacrifice. After James came home, he himself entered seminary and the ministry. James was a kind, compassionate man. He was a man of deep faith and conviction. When he spoke the Word of God, he spoke with authority, not merely because of his booming baritone voice, but because he submitted himself to that Word.

Before coming to Texas, I served as a student minister for two congregations. Without ordination, I could not serve communion to the people. We would often contact retired ministers to help us with the Lord’s Supper. That is how I met James Baldwin. He was in his last years of life. He was frail, weakened by age and illness. Sometimes he became confused. Still, looking into his eyes, one could easily see Rev. Baldwin as the great man he was.

When he administered Holy Communion, I would stand next to him to steady his step. As James raised the bread above his head and broke it, he would tell us about the broken body of Jesus Christ. In a sense, the pastor was broken as well–broken by his own mortality. Where others might be embarrassed by the sight of this weak elderly man, I was greatly moved. Despite his infirmities, God used James Baldwin.

The Scriptures teach us that we are merely clay jars (2 Cor 4:7). We are common and fragile, yet God uses us to hold his treasures. We necessarily approach life with humility, recognizing that our greatness is really God’s glory. Moreover, we learn that no one is worthless. Even the weakest, the dying, and the afflicted among us is worthy as God’s instrument. We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, our God ordained that the path of victory would be through a cross.