Some talking points about the Church of England’s proposed cinema ad promoting prayer and the debate it has prompted:

  • The 60-second series of vignettes of different people offering phrases of the Lord’s Prayer in succession is a commendable mission effort by the church to encourage prayer and bring spiritual practice into the public square.
  • The cinema industry is right to categorize the ad as religious and to exclude it from theaters on the grounds that allowing one church or religious group to present prayer and faith would make it difficult to exclude similar ads from any other group.
  • A possible response that the Church of England is the established church and may therefore have its ad presented as an exception simply exposes the deeply problematic and, in fact, anti-gospel nature of any kind of state-established religion.
  • Ironically, though, the church’s gambit, even if unsuccessful in its immediate objective, has been wildly successful in highlighting prayer, drawing attention to its new website Just Pray, and prompting important discussion.

Here are two links about the controversy, one from the Guardian, the other from the New York Times And here’s the story from the Anglican Communion News Service.

First, the ad itself: It’s good.  Various people in various settings, beginning with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, pray phrases of the Lord’s Prayer.  Altogether there are 17 vignettes with people of various ages and ethnicities in short snippets: a young man at a grave, emergency personnel in a street, a couple at a snack table, a farmer among his cows.  Some are in groups: a black gospel choir in rehearsal, a youth event, a wedding, and, notably, a group of young adults in St. Augustine’s Chapel under Lambeth Palace.

Then the intent: Clearly the Church of England is trying to have an impact beyond its stained glass windows.  It is seeking to fulfill its mission, that is, to respond faithfully to God’s call that it reach beyond itself and out into the world and, in this case, let people know that there is a life of prayer available to them that can illuminate their lives, strengthen them in tough times, and nurture their relationship with God.  As an attempt to convey that message, the ad is good mission work, as is the website Just Pray.

But the problem: The Church of England could resort to a common contemporary distinction and say that the ad is spiritual but not religious, that is, that it seeks to reawaken people to resources of spiritual practice and not promote Christianity in particular and certainly not Anglicanism.  The church has not said this, but such a characterization could be an undercurrent in its rationale.  After all, there is no evangelistic appeal, and the tone of the ad is meditative, not doctrinal.

Read More…

Posted by: Titus Presler | November 24, 2015

Tribute to a bookstore in an unlikely place – Islamabad

It’s startling and gratifying to see today’s New York Times story on Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad, an emporium I found to be a rich resource for work at Edwardes College in Peshawar and a welcome haven during my post-attack internal exile in Islamabad last year.

Until reading the article I did not know that it is one of the largest bookstores in the world, although being there reminded me of the Strand on lower Broadway in Manhattan, the Harvard Coop in the old days, and Blackwell’s in Oxford.  And 5 million books in warehouses!  In the Pakistan of today, where genuine inquiry is threatened and open-mindedness has definite limits, it is remarkable to walk into an establishment with floors and floors of books of all types, clearly catering both to inquiry and broadening minds.

I did know, of course, that Saeed Book Bank was originally located in Peshawar, for it was during my time there that the proprietors found Peshawar too dangerous and moved to Islamabad, a shift lamented by readers and academics in the city it left behind.  As the Times story puts it, “Later the rise of terrorism and fundamentalist Islam made Peshawar, capital of the wild frontier lands of Pakistan, a dangerous place for a bookseller – especially one who insisted on carrying magazines like Cosmopolitan and Heavy Metal, books by Karen Armstrong on Islam, and even the scientist Richard Dawkins’s atheist treatise, The God Delusion. (‘You just wouldn’t believe how that sells,’ Mr. Saeed said. ‘We buy a thousand copies from Random House every year, year after year.’)”

Saeed is a good source for academic books, and we had discussions with the bookstore about truckload-size prospective purchases in connection with the enhancement of the Edwardes College library that was planned as part of the overall upgrading necessary for degree-awarding status.  Unfortunately religious discrimination and intellectual closed-mindedness halted the university project, even at the advanced stage we had reached.

Piled just inside the entrance to Saeed Book Bank is a large array of recent publications about Pakistan, everything from academic ethnographies of the country’s diverse ethnic groups to the many trade books about upheavals in Pakistan since 9/11, all of them seeking to shed light on the murky social, religious geopolitical currents that have made Pakistan what it is today.  Thumbing through them and acquiring a number of them up was always a pleasure.

As the article notes, various shades of religious skepticism were easy to find on Saeed’s shelves, as were hundreds of books, many of them devout, on Islam, and some general surveys of world religions.  Absent, however, were books specifically on Christian theology, church history or, indeed, Christian topics in general.  There would doubtless be a market for such, but even Saeed could not go that far in the current climate of fear and intimidation around religion in Pakistan.

Peshawar’s loss in Saeed’s move was Islamabad’s gain.  Pakistan’s capital city, a planned metropolis laid out in ways that still work well after 60 years, is a congenial and stimulating environment – not as cosmopolitan as Delhi or New York, but certainly cosmopolitan compared to Peshawar.

May Saeed Book Bank – and the minds it feeds – continue to prosper!

Posted by: Titus Presler | November 11, 2015

Core values of mission networks: Reflections from Hunter Farrell

Mainline Christian denominations in North America share a number of developments in their world mission efforts:

  • Support has declined for centralized mission work, but mission efforts have proliferated from the grassroots of congregations and mid-level judicatories such as presbyteries, conferences, synods and dioceses.
  • Centralized staff are fewer, but networks of people concerned with particular kinds of work (for instance, education, medicine, micro-enterprise, ecology) or specific parts of the world (for instance, Haiti, Sudan, Jerusalem, Dominican Republic) have proliferated at the grassroots.
  • Longterm missionaries are far fewer today than in the past, but thousands of short-term mission teams go out from USAmerican churches every year, especially in the summer.

These developments are part of the democratization of world mission that I explored in Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference, a democratization that includes the localization and deprofessionalization of mission activity.

Hunter Farrell, World Mission Director for the Presbyterian Church (USA), has just published online an excellent column, “Effective mission networks share seven core values” – here’s the link.  He has in mind the 40 freestanding mission networks through which Presbyterians are channeling their concern for certain kinds of work or parts of the world.  Yet his observations apply equally to such networks in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), United Methodist Church (UMC), and Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA).

Especially notable are Farrell’s caution against bureaucratizing a network into a committee, the importance of privileging global partners in the conversation, and the role of bridge figures who have long and deep mission experience in whatever context is in view.

Todd Johnson, a leading demographer of Christianity and world religions at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, will address the theme of “Christians on the Move: Migration, Mission and Community-Building” in the 10th annual Henry H. and Marion A. Presler Lecture on World Mission at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, this Thursday, Nov. 12.

The theme is relevant to longstanding migration patterns from Central and South America to the United States, increasing migration among virtually all parts of the world, and the current migration crisis that features 60 million displaced people worldwide and waves of migrants from the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa seeking to settle in Europe.  The theme is also relevant to “God’s Mission with a World in Motion,” the theme of the May 2016 mission conference in Puerto Rico of the Global Episcopal Mission Network, which Presiding Bishop Michael Curry will keynote.

The title of Johnson’s talk is “Our Global Opportunity: Embracing Common Identity with Christians and Humanity to Change the World.”  Johnson directs the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell.  With the late David Barrett he edited the 2001 2nd edition of the magisterial World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford) and also co-edited the equally important Atlas of Global Christianity, published by Edinburgh in 2010 to coincide with the centennial of the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh.

In 2014 the Center for World Christianity celebrated its 50th anniversary, tracing its background to the beginning of David Barrett’s demographic work as a missionary of the Church Mission Society in Kenya and the later moving of that work to Richmond, Virginia.

The Presler Lectureship on World Mission was established in 2006 by a bequest from Henry and Marion Presler, lifelong United Methodist missionaries in India, where their work focused on theological education and research into Indian religions at Leonard Theological College in Jabalpur.  They went to India in 1937 and retired in 1972 to their home in Fargo, North Dakota.  Henry died in 1998, Marion in 2005.

For some years Louisville Seminary has scheduled the annual Presler World Mission Lecture in tandem with the Edwards Peacemaking Lecture, which honors the late George Edwards, who taught New Testament at Louisville for 27 years, and his wife Jean.  The seminary now promotes the two together as the Edwards-Presler Lectures on Peace, Justice and Mission.  This year’s Edwards Lecture, also on Nov. 12, is to be delivered by Angela Cowser of Garrett Evangelical Seminary on the topic “Whither Public Justice or Private Charity? Power or Empowerment?  The Implications of Your Answers.”

The Presler World Mission Lecture will occur at 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 12 in Caldwell Chapel.  The Edwards Peacemaking Lecture will occur at 7 p.m. in Schlegel Hall, Room 122.

It is gratifying to see how the Presler Lecture continues to honor my parents, and this year, as in some others, I will be present, along with two of my four siblings.

Louisville Seminary elaborates this year’s theme as follows: “The theme for the 2015 Edwards-Presler lectures is Christians on the Move: Migration, Mission and Community Building and will seek to help attendees comprehend the impact on North American churches as Christian immigrants constitute an ever larger percentage of our churches and communities. This will be a great opportunity to reflect on how Christians and churches should respond to the changing demographics. How do we build new, radically inclusive, multicultural communities of faith – ones that display diversity not only in worship and liturgy, but also in administration, finances and spiritual and social outreach?”


Posted by: Titus Presler | October 11, 2015

“Love Is Our Mission” – An effective papal motto

Pope Francis’s visit to the USA in late September has come and gone amid great crowds and remarkable media adulation.  The now common wondering will continue for some time: “It was great, but what difference will it make?  Will it change anything in society?  On Capitol Hill?  In the Roman Catholic Church?”

En route home, Francis himself sought to moderate people’s expectations with a reflection on how anyone’s ability to make an impact on the world is transitory and that he is trying only to do what he can in the window of time available to him.

Missiologically interesting is the motto chosen by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for the papal visit to the USA: “Love Is Our Mission.”  This appeared (and continues to appear) on the website for the visit alongside an appealing sketch of Francis lifting his hand in blessing over an urban landscape with the explanatory wording: “Pope Francis 2015 / United States of America.”*

“Love Is Our Mission.”  Not: “Our Mission Is Love.”  Beginning with the word “mission” might have put the emphasis on the wrong syl-la’-ble, as it were, making the concept of mission prior to the reality of love, rather than the other way around.  In effect, the USCCB is saying on the pope’s behalf, “The first reality is the love that God has for the whole human community.  Whoever we are and whatever we do, God’s longing is for the love of God to be revealed to and known by the whole human family.” Read More…

Recently I was invited by The Daily Beast, the popular online news organ, to write about threats to religious freedom in Pakistan in relation to the church-state struggle over Edwardes College and the attack that I experienced last year in Peshawar.

The article was published yesterday, August 30, under the title “Why has Pakistan become so intolerant?” and appears here.  I am grateful to editor-in-chief John Avlon for the invitation and to weekend editor Will O’Connor for pursuing the project.

Increasing the numbers of Episcopal missionaries is the intent of a resolution before the 2015 General Convention in Salt Lake City. Passage of the resolution is urgent in view of the startlingly low current number of Episcopal missionaries, whether Young Adult Service Corps members (YASCers) or Episcopal Volunteers in Mission (EVIMs).

The updated June 2015 roster of missionaries on the Episcopal Church website lists just 47 individuals, including 4 married couples. 12 of the 47 are YASCers, leaving 35 adults not in the young adult category.

These are remarkably low numbers for a church that claims to be committed to global involvement expressed in the incarnational presence that is a touchstone of Anglican identity in mission.

Moreover, the current numbers constitute a significant decline – 22% – from the 60 missionaries that were listed in 2012. That number included 8 YASCers. In commentary at that time I noted:

The Episcopal Church’s investment in international missionaries is small.  The current figure of 60 missionaries is down from over 100 just six years ago, and that represented an increase from low numbers in the 80s and 90s that were similar to today’s.  The current missionary number means that Episcopalians have just one missionary for about every 35,500 members.

The Episcopal situation stands out even among the historic mainline denominations, all of which have far fewer missionaries than they did in, say, the 1950s.  Yet in 2011 the Presbyterian Church (USA) had the same membership total as the Episcopal Church  – about 2.2 million, maybe even fewer – but they fielded 3.5 times as many missionaries: 217 serving in over 50 countries.  That works out to one missionary for about every 10,150 members – still not good, but a lot better than 1:35,500.

In Resolution A112 “Encourage Support for YASC and EVIM,” the Standing Commission on World Mission proposes:

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church encourage dioceses, seminaries, and parishes to recruit and support both Young Adult Service Corps members (YASCers) and Episcopal Volunteers in Mission members (EVIMs); and be it further

Resolved, that the General Convention continue its commitment to increasing numbers of YASCers by 10 per year for the triennium 2016-2018, (30 in 2016, 40 in 2017, and 50 in 2018, for a total of 120 for the triennium); and increasing the number of EVIMs by 10 percent each year, for the triennium 2016-2018; and be it further

Resolved, that the General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget, and Finance increase the budget for the Young Adult Service Corps from $1,100,000 to $1,800,000, and a 10% increase for the Episcopal Volunteers in Mission, for the 2016-2018 triennium in order to implement this resolution.

Read More…

Support for the Christians of Pakistan has become prominent on the agenda of the 2015 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, currently meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Under the general theme of expressing solidarity with the Church of Pakistan, Resolution D035, “Support Christians in Pakistan,” calls on members of the Episcopal Church to learn about the Church of Pakistan (CoP) and the oppression of religious minorities in that country, initiate partnerships with CoP, and undertake “visits to provide active engagement and support for the persecuted Church.”

The resolution calls on the Government of Pakistan to ensure the protection of religious minorities and to fulfill its international obligations, with specific attention to the abduction and forced conversions of women to Islam.

In extended testimony before the Legislative Committee on World Mission on Friday, June 26, Bishop Samuel Azariah, moderator and primate of the Church of Pakistan, cited details of the pressure experienced by Christians in Pakistan. He noted the fear in which Christians live, including “our friend from the Episcopal Church,” referring to Titus Presler, principal-in-exile of Edwardes College in Peshawar.

“What is the way forward?” asked Bp. Azariah. He suggested strengthening inter-church partnerships, initiating visits from people of ECUSA, and advocating for Christians in Pakistan, especially from the Episcopal Church’s Office of Governmental Relations in Washington. He noted CoP’s current interfaith initiatives with Muslims are “very necessary for our survival,” even though ‘the majority of our people think, ‘Why should we talk with people who are oppressing us?’’’  (Click here for Episcopal News Service story and video of Bp. Azariah’s remarks.)

Following the testimony of Bp. Azariah and his wife Khushnu, a priest of the Diocese of Los Angeles, I testified in favor of the resolution and cited the witness of a Christian who was martyred in the suicide bombings at All Saint’s Church in Peshawar in September 2013. I noted that British Anglican mission societies initiated Anglican presence in both Africa and Asia and that Episcopalians tend to be much less engaged with Asian churches than with African churches. Bp. Azariah commented that relations between CoP and ECUSA are currently loose and that he would like to see them strengthened.  “We need to get more serious about our church relationship,” he said.

D035 was submitted by the Very Rev. Melissa McCarthy of California, who noted that her interest in the state of Pakistan’s Christians began after the massacre of 16 Christians in Bahawalpur in October 2001.  The resolution will be acted on by convention in the coming days.

The Church of Pakistan was established 1970 from the ecumenical union of Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians – hence the addition of “(United)” sometimes after its name.  Like the other united churches of south Asia (South India, North India, Bangladesh, it is a full member of the Anglican Communion.

In a related observance, on Sunday, June 28, the House of Deputies observed a short period of standing in silence to commemorate Christians who have been murdered in religious violence in the Middle East.  The recognition was suggested by Kate Moorehead, dean of St. John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville in the Diocese of Florida.  She mentioned incidents of persecution of Christians in Egypt. Read More…

During the question period at the panel discussion luncheon hosted by Virginia Seminary’s Center for Anglican Communion Studies (CACS) today during the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, the panelists were asked to complete the sentence, ‘The mission of God is . . .’

‘The mission of God is the cross, which brings life and hope and resurrection,’ replied Bp. Samuel Azariah, moderator of the Church of Pakistan, in a reply that reflected that church’s experience of suffering in persecution.

‘Find God in the face of the neighbor,’ said Bp. Paul Kim, primate of the Anglican Church of Korea.

‘We empty ourselves and are filled by the love and grace of God,’ said Bp. Francisco Da Silva, primate of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil, adding later, ‘To be reconciled we must first be emptied of ourselves.’

‘God leads, we follow in his wake,’ said Bp. Graham Kings, newly designated Mission Theologian in the Anglican Communion, whose address, ‘The Mission of God and the Future of the Anglican Communion,” opened the panel. The question that prompted these responses was asked by David Copley, mission personnel officer of the Episcopal Church.

An interesting sidebar to the discussion arose in connection with Kim’s statement that he is disheartened when any of the Anglican Five Marks of Mission are emphasized to the exclusion of others and his view that all five should be emphasized equally. When I asked the panelists to reflect on that, they had a consensus that all are equally important but that contextual circumstances might prompt a church to stress one more than others at any particular time.

Picking up on his keynote theme, ‘holistic mission mirrors the co-inherence of the Holy Trinity,’ Kings emphasized that the Five Marks co-inhere with one another.

The event, which was co-funded by the Compass Rose Society, was ably emceed by CACS Director Robert Heaney. It is good to see the center living into its calling to be a catalyst for mutual engagement and reflection on the life of the Anglican Communion. At the moment there is no comparable center or institution in the Episcopal Church, and the role CACS is playing is vitally important.

[Just as a refresher, the Five Marks of Mission are:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth]

‘Missionary expedition’ is an image Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori used prominently in her June 24 remarks to the bishops and deputies assembled in Salt Lake City for the 2015 General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

As Tracy Sukraw wrote in her Episcopal News Service story:

Jefferts Schori described The Episcopal Church’s trek as ‘a missionary expedition,’ using a space exploration analogy that played off the TREC acronym for the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church, whose restructuring proposals are a high-profile topic coming before General Convention.

“There is abundant adventure ahead on this heavenward trek, and it asks our courage to engage unknown beings, new challenges and unexpected opportunities,” Jefferts Schori said.  “We’re bound for the galaxy called Galilee and the edges of the known world, because that’s where Jesus sent us and that’s where he promises to meet us.”

‘Missionary expedition’ is a term that critics of historic Christian mission – let’s call them missio-skeptics – would ordinarily frown on as connoting horseback and ox-drawn-wagon ventures undertaken by 19th-century missionaries they imagine to have been bigoted Europeans and USAmericans going out to evangelize and ‘civilize’ what the adventurers thought were ‘benighted’ people in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Yes, some expeditioners held views of indigenous peoples we would not affirm today, but the negative stereotype is just that, a stereotype that does not fit the overall historical reality. I think of mission figures from the past 150 years in two settings where I have ministered: George Broderick and horseback pastor Canon Cristelow at Bonda in what is now Zimbabwe, Thomas Hughes and Worthington Jukes in Peshawar, and Theodore Pennell at Bannu in Waziristan in what is now Pakistan. At that time just getting to their stations required these missionaries to undertake expeditions or, in the terminology of Africa missionaries, ‘go on trek.’ They ministered sacrificially and sensitively. Not perfectly, of course, but who among us ministers perfectly, or, especially, will be deemed to have done so with the perspective of 50 or 100 years from now?

The fact that Jefferts Schori used the image without apology may indicate that the negative stereotyping of missionaries is finally ebbing. But what does her use of ‘missionary expedition’ convey? What does it say to a church that tends to be comfortable with the word ‘mission’ when it includes everything the church already does but less comfortable with the word ‘missionary’ when applied to a particular person ministering on a cultural, linguistic, religious and national frontier? It’s not easy to discern Jefferts Schori’s intent: Is she trying to rehabilitate the notion of a missionary expedition? Or was she simply struck by the image as a useful metaphor? Read More…

It was an honor and a privilege to be asked to deliver the opening keynote address at the 2015 annual conference of the Global Episcopal Mission Network (GEMN) that was held May 6-8 at All Saints’ Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

Picking up on the apostle Paul’s statement to the Corinthian Christians, “We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things,” I focus on minority Christians’ experience of persecution, especially in the Muslim world. Pakistan and my experience there contextualize the biblical and theological reflections. The second half of the talk focuses on the relationship between difference and danger in mission at this historical moment in relations between the West and the Muslim world, and offers some suggestions.

GEMN has kindly put an expanded version of the talk on their website in PDF format. It also appears in the convenient Flipgorilla format.

The other keynoters were Suffragan Bishop Gayle Harris of Massachusetts, who spoke about the evolution of her view of mission during collaboration with the Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East, and Bishop Santosh Marray of Alabama, who reflected theologically and experientially on the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission.

Special thanks to Ted Gaiser, GEMN’s outgoing president; Jim Boston, the incoming president; Judy Quick, GEMN’s vice president; and Karen Hotte, the executive director, for the invitation and arrangements.

Posted by: Titus Presler | June 12, 2015

General Convention: Sacramental politics among God-bearers

In the run-up to this year’s General Convention in Salt Lake City, here’s a reflection of mine that Episcopal Life published some years ago for another General Convention:

General Convention is sacramental.

Politics expresses discipleship.

These assertions are counter-cultural in the Episcopal Church today. As heirs of the 1960s, we are skeptical of institutions. We embrace the work of small, local groups in the church, but we suspect that national structures are mere bureaucracies and that large meetings are simply their spinning wheels. With the individualism inherent in American religion, we treasure our personal and local spirituality, but we marginalize community life on the larger scale.

Yet when I plunge into General Convention, my experience is that I am entering a sacrament of the Church, an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace. And the politics that engage me at General Convention I experience as an expression of Christian discipleship, that is, individuals and communities seeking to follow Jesus. These experiences give me energy, hope and joy amid the pessimism that often pervades discussion of churchwide issues and the upcoming General Convention. Moreover, I believe these experiences are grounded in an incarnational theology that is central to us as Anglicans.

The Church is the Body of Christ, we say in our catechism, but we tend to reserve that affirmation for our parishes and, maybe, our dioceses. When discussion touches the Episcopal Church as a whole, many people question its usefulness, its faithfulness, its authenticity. “It’s too political,” is a frequent complaint. People assume that politics is something unsavory and unfaithful, and therefore unworthy of the Church of Jesus Christ.

What we need is a theology of the institutional Church. In our deep-seated ambivalence, we say that we value tradition, but we dismiss the structures by which such a tradition is mediated into our future. We wax eloquent about the Body of Christ in Corinth or Philippi, but mutter darkly about its legislative work in Phoenix or Philadelphia. Of course, much criticism is prompted by dismay at particular decisions, but that is precisely where we need a bedrock understanding of the Church that offers us confidence beyond the ebb and flow of particular issues that concern us. Read More…

  • “Inching toward witness” is what liturgical Episcopalians may be doing as a result of interaction with evangelicals, says presiding bishop candidate Tom Breidenthal of Southern Ohio. “What will it look like when evangelical liturgy and liturgical witness come together?”
  • “Chief Evangelism Officer” is the sense in which the presiding bishop should be a CEO, says candidate Michael Curry of North Carolina. He calls on Episcopalians to “live out the meaning of the Great Commission to ‘make disciples of all nations’” and “share in the Jesus movement of our time.”
  • Owning their “baptismal call to be evangelists of the good news of God in Christ as they participate in God’s mission in the world” is what candidate Ian Douglas of Connecticut would urge on all Episcopalians. He stresses the “larger question of how we understand the mission of God in the world today.”
  • “Episcopalians have the capacity to be effective evangelists,” says candidate Dabney Smith of Southwest Florida. “We simply have to know our own stories honestly, to reveal joyfully how we’ve been called, changed, and claimed by Christ.”

Not only are these statements manifestly missional but they are strikingly evangelistic in their import. High on the agenda of all four candidates, it would seem, is the importance of Episcopalians sharing with others the story of their personal faith in the triune God, with particular emphasis on Christ Jesus.

It’s fair to say that such an evangelistic emphasis has not been characteristic of presiding bishops of the Episcopal Church, nor has it been a distinguishing feature of Episcopalians relative to members of other denominations, nor is it high on the agenda of this year’s General Convention, at which the House of Bishops will elect one of these candidates to the ministry of presiding bishop.

The vignettes above appear in the interview summaries published in the June 14 edition of The Living Church in an article entitled “Who will lead Episcopalians? The election of the 27th presiding bishop reflects a church in flux” by Tom Sramek, Jr., co-rector of Good Samaritan in San José, California.

It could be that this emphasis emerged because Sramek specifically focused on the evangelistic and missional challenges of the church in the 21st century. However, several candidates made their evangelistic points specifically in contrast to the institutional reorganization that is high on this year’s convention agenda. Breidenthal is uncomfortable with the chief executive officer role envisioned for the presiding bishop by the Re-envisioning the Episcopal Church report. Curry says the church’s task is not organizational development but community organizing. Douglas is wary of technical fixes for what ails the institutional church.   So it seems more likely that the prominence of witness was the candidates’ own doing. Read More…

Posted by: Titus Presler | April 3, 2015

Freestanding darkness: Experiencing Good Friday

From Jane Butterfield’s Good Friday homily today in Trinity Church, Shelburne, Vermont:

There is something in the human soul that needs to feel the absence of God.

We need to feel the depth of the emptiness that God fills.

God took the risk of absence, the risk of powerlessness.

God entered the darkness, that we might know our own darkness.

We are used to the notion of God in Christ sharing our journey, sharing the suffering of the human family. Striking in Jane’s reflection is the recognition that Good Friday deepens our awareness of the suffering of the human family. It pushes out the boundaries of the wasteland. As Frederick Faber wrote in his hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”:

There is no place where earth sorrows

are more felt than up in heaven.

Our prayers often have the subtext, “God, don’t you realize how painful this is?” In fact, God knows the pain more deeply than we do because, unlike us, God doesn’t push the pain away. In the cross God helps us realize just how much we need saving. The fact that God experienced degradation helps us see just how deeply we’ve degraded the human situation.

Two bits of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion are especially vivid in this regard. At the opening of Part 2 the soprano sings:

Ach! mein Lamm in Tigerklauen!

Ah! my lamb in tiger’s claws!

And, as religious leaders and thieves reproach Jesus on the cross, an alto sings:

Alas, Golgotha, hapless Golgotha!

The Lord of glory

must wretchedly perish here;

the blessing and salvation of the world

is placed on the cross like a curse

(Wird als ein Fluch ans Kreuz gestellt).

Making God into a curse. We’re familiar with that from the inclusion of God’s name and Jesus’ name in expletives both casual and passionate. At Golgotha God was willing to be regarded as a curse and to become a curse as a life-and-death matter. Actually, a death matter. Dying.

The scandal of the cross is the scandal of particularity, the contraction of the universe’s spiritual and moral structure to a wretched and disgraceful episode on a Friday outside Jerusalem. Yet that is where God engaged the darkness and became its victim.

We have a few desolate words from Jesus on the cross. Psalm 22, which we recite on this day, elaborates eloquently the inner desolation.

The latter part of Psalm 22, beyond the Good Friday lection, anticipates the missional reach of redemptive suffering, a missional reach that fulfills God’s promise to Abraham that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him. . . .

My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever.

They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done.

May it be so.



Welcome in Holy Week is the news that Bishop Josiah Atkins Idowu-Fearon has been appointed Secretary General of the Anglican Communion. The appointment was announced on Anglican Communion News Service earlier today in a story entitled, “Nigerian bishop to be the Anglican Communion’s next secretary general.”

The announcement is silent, perhaps appropriately, about three salient features of the appointment: First, Bp. Idowu-Fearon will be the first secretary general from the Two-Thirds World, his predecessors having been from the U.K., Ireland, and North America. Given that since 1981 Christians in the Two-Thirds World have outnumbered Christians in Europe and North America – a demographic shift reflected in the Anglican Communion as well – it is appropriate that the next holder of the post hail from the Global South.

Second, the new secretary general is an African. From the Pew Research Center today comes the results of a six-year project in religious demography. Reportedly, while 25% of the world’s Christians are currently in SubSaharan Africa, by 2050 that percentage is predicted to be 40%. The African percentage of total Anglican Communion membership is something like 40% today, and the African percentage of active Anglicans may be a good deal higher than that. So it is appropriate that the secretary general be an African.

Third, the new secretary general is from Nigeria in particular. Two points about this: While the U.K. has the highest number of self-identified Anglicans, about 26 million (out of the global total of about 80 million Anglicans), the weekly attendance is about 1 million or less. Nigeria’s Anglicans number about 18 million, but the average level of church involvement is vastly higher than in the U.K., as it is among Christians throughout Africa. Weekly attendance figures for Nigerian Anglicans may not be available, but it is likely that 6-8 million Anglicans are in church every week.  So the next secretary general will come from a major global center of Anglicanism. Read More…

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