Archives For Rowan Williams

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Emmaus ~ A Poem

Jason Micheli —  February 28, 2014 — Leave a comment

imagesWe conclude our Revolution of the Heart series this weekend with Luke’s 2nd story of Resurrection, the encounter on the road to Emmaus. Oddly in over 12 years of preaching this is the first time I’ve ever preached from this familiar text, which suggests I’ve done a fair job of avoiding it until now.

I recently had a conversation with poet/undertaker Thomas Lynch for a future podcast, in which we talked poetry, prose, preaching and taking the dead and the living where they need to be.

So I’ve had poetry on my mind.

Here’s a poem, Emmaus, by the theologian Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Cantebury.

First the sun, then the shadow,
so that I screw my eyes to see
my friend’s face, and its lines seem
different, and the voice shakes in the hot air.
Out of the rising white dust, feet
tread a shape, and, out of step,
another flat sound, stamped between voice
and ears, dancing in the gaps, and dodging
where words and feet do not fall.

When our eyes meet, I see bewilderment
(like mine); we cannot learn
this rhythm we are asked to walk,
and what we hear is not each other.
Between us is filled up, the silence
is filled up, lines of our hands
and faces pushed into shape
by the solid stranger, and the static
breaks up our waves like dropped stones.

So it is necessary to carry him with us,
cupped between hands and profiles,
so that the table is filled up, and as
the food is set and the first wine splashes,
a solid thumb and finger tear the thunderous
grey bread. Now it is cold, even indoors;
and the light falls sharply on our bones;
the rain breathes out hard, dust blackens,
and our released voices shine with water.

r662738_4757386Perhaps not surprisingly, my sermon 2 weeks on (homo)sexuality in the Church prompted quite a few people to ask me for names and titles of reading on the matter, readings with substance and depth. My first answer is always Rowan Williams‘ 10 page essay ‘The Body’s Grace.’ It’s the best theological reflection on sexuality, marriage and grace out there. The nuance of Williams’ argument points out Stanley Hauerwas‘ contention that the Church should stop arguing about homosexuality until it figures out what we mean by ‘marriage.’

Here, Williams’ examination of sexuality through the lens of grace reveals how little popular, ‘biblical’ books on sex and marriage like Mark Driscoll‘s Real Marriage pay attention that most central of Christian doctrines.

imagesHere’s a snippet. You’ll have to click over to read the rest. It’s worth it.

But is should be clear that the discovery of joy means something rather more than the bare facts of sexual intimacy. I can only fully discover the body’s grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures.

There is more to expose, and a sustaining of the will to let oneself be formed by the perceptions of another. Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perception of another.

The worst thing we can do with the notion of sexual fidelity, though, is to “legalise” it in such a way that it stands quite apart from the ventures and dangers of growth and is simply a public bond, enforceable by religious sanctions.

When we bless sexual unions, we give them a life, a reality, not dependent on the contingent thoughts and feelings of the people involved, true; but we do this so that they may have a certain freedom to “take time,” to mature and become as profoundly nurturing as they can.

We should not do it in order to create a wholly impersonal and enforceable “bond”; if we do, we risk turning blessing into curse, grace into law, art into rule-keeping. In other words, I believe that the promise of faithfulness, the giving of unlimited time to each other, remains central for understanding the full “resourcefulness” and grace of sexual union.

I simply don’t think we’d grasp all that was involved in the mutual transformation of sexually linked persons without the reality of unconditional public commitments: more perilous, more demanding, more promising.

Yet the realities of our experience in looking for such possibilities suggest pretty clearly that an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly.

Decisions about sexual lifestyle are about how much we want our bodily selves to mean rather than what emotional needs we’re meeting or what laws we’re satisfying. “Does this mean that we are using faith to undermine law? By no means: we are placing law itself on a firmer footing” (Romans 3.31): happily there is more to Paul than the (much quoted in this context) first chapter of Romans!

I have suggested that the presence or absence of the body’s grace has a good deal to do with matters other than the small scale personal. It has often been said, especially by feminist writers, that the making of my body into a distant and dangerous object, to be either subdued or placated with rapid gratification is the root of sexual oppression.

I cannot make sense of myself without others, cannot speak until I’ve listened, cannot love myself without being the object of love or enjoy myself without being the cause of joy.

Thinking about sexuality in its fullest implications involves thinking about entering into a sense of oneself beyond the customary imagined barrier between the “inner” and the “outer” the private and the shared.

We are led into the knowledge that our identity is being made in the relations of bodies, not by the private exercise of will or fantasy: we belong with and to each other, not to our “private” selves (as Paul said of mutual sexual commitment), and yet are not instruments for each other’s gratification.

There is something basic, then as Freud intuited, about how we make sense sexually, basic for the fabric of corporate human life. But beyond the whole question of how the body’s grace is discovered is a further, very elusive question.

Sex is risky and grace is not discovered by all; and there is something frightening and damaging about the kind of sexual mutuality on which everything comes to depend – that is why it matters to locate sexual union in a context that gives it both time and space, that allows it not to be everything.

But, as I hinted earlier, the body’s grace itself only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption.

To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child.

lt is perhaps because of our need to keep that perspective clear before us that the community needs some who are called beyond or aside from the ordinary patterns of sexual relation to put their identities direct into the hands of God in the single life. This is not an alternative to the discovery of the body’s grace.

All those taking up the single vocation – whether or not they are, in the disagreeable clinical idiom, genitally intact – must know something about desiring and being desired if their single vocation is not to be sterile and evasive.

Their decision (as risky as the commitment to sexual fidelity) is to see if they can find themselves, their bodily selves, in a life dependent simply upon trust in the generous delight of God – that other who, by definition, cannot want us to supply deficiencies in the bliss of a divine ego, but whose whole life is a “being-for,” a movement of gift.

There is the great freedom of the celibate mystic in deploying the rhetoric of erotic love in speaking of God; and, even more importantly, there is that easy acceptance of the body, its needs and limitations, which we find in mature celibates, like Teresa of Avila in her last years.

Whatever the cost, this vocation stands as an essential part of the background to understanding the body’s grace: paradoxical as it sounds, the celibate calling has, as one aspect of its role in the Christian community, the nourishing and enlarging of Christian sexuality.

It’s worth wondering why so little of the agitation about sexual morality and the status of homosexual men and women in the Church in recent years has come from members of our religious orders. I strongly suspect that a lot of celibates do indeed have a keener sensitivity about these matters than some of their married fellow Christians.

And anyone who knows the complexities of the true celibate vocation would be the last to have any sympathy with the extraordinary idea that sexual orientation is an automatic pointer to the celibate life; almost as if celibacy before God is less costly, even less risky, for the homosexual than the heterosexual.

It is impossible, when we’re trying to reflect on sexuality, not to ask just where the massive cultural and religious anxiety about same-sex relationships that is so prevalent at the moment comes from; and in this final part I want to offer some thoughts about this problem.

I wonder whether it is to do with the fact that same-sex relations oblige us to think directly about bodiliness and sexuality in a way that socially and religiously sanctioned heterosexual unions don’t. When we’re thinking about the latter, there are other issued involved notably what one neo-Marxist sociologist called the ownership of the means of production of human beings.

Married sex has, in principle, an openness to the more tangible goals of producing children; its “justification” is more concrete than what I’ve been suggesting as the inner logic and process of the sexual relation itself.

If we can set the movement of sexual desire within this larger purpose, we can perhaps more easily accommodate the embarrassment and insecurity of desire: it’s all in a good cause, and a good cause that can be visibly and plainly evaluated in its usefulness and success.

Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world); and this immediately brings us up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff’, but – just as worryingly – of non-functional joy: or, to put it less starkly, joy whose material “production” is an embodied person aware of grace.

It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. lf the creator were quite so instrumentalist in “his” attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy… ?

The odd thing is that this sense of meaning for sexuality beyond biological reproduction is the one foremost in the biblical use of sexual metaphors for God’s relation to humanity.

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our sermon series on marriage and relationships I decided to blog my way through the Bible’s own Skinemax Channel: The Song of Songs.

In 1.9-17 of the Song of Songs, the young woman and her lover voice to one another their reciprocal admiration for one another. They name their attraction. They call out what they find beautiful in the other. About the other.

9 I compare you, my love,
   to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots. 
10 Your cheeks are comely with ornaments,
   your neck with strings of jewels. 
11 We will make you ornaments of gold,
   studded with silver. 

12 While the king was on his couch,
   my nard gave forth its fragrance. 
13 My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh
   that lies between my breasts. 
14 My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
   in the vineyards of En-gedi. 

15 Ah, you are beautiful, my love;
   ah, you are beautiful;
   your eyes are doves. 
16 Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
   truly lovely.
Our couch is green; 
17   the beams of our house are cedar,
   our rafters are pine. 

I once had an old professor at Princeton who shared with us how he and his (criminally young) newly wed wife spent every evening of their honeymoon reciting a section of the Song of Songs to one another.

From either side of their bed.

Naked.

I’m sure he thought something like: ‘I’m showing them how powerfully scripture and liturgy can form every part of our lives.’

We all thought: ‘Gross.’

The vomit in my throat aside, my professor was (inartfully) conveying an ancient and sweeping biblical principle:

There is no deeper knowing of another than knowing the other in their nakedness.

Two people stripped of every guise or pretense, making themselves vulnerable to another, baring every imperfection and risking to see if they are a delight to the source of their delight…

They know each other in a way that no one else can know them.

Except God.

imagesAs Rowan Williams writes:

“The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God…”

This is why nakedness in general and the Song of Songs in particular long have served as a metaphor for how we know and are known by God.

It’s this metaphor from which comes the practice of veiling the bride.

The gradual, ongoing unveiling of bride to groom and groom to bride that happens over the course of a marriage is like a laboratory of learning how God sees us.

Williams continues:

“The body’s grace itself only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption. To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child.”

The prevailing Gospel of Inclusiveness leads too many couples to presume that love and marriage means their partner should accept them as they are and never ask them to change.

Cultural presumptions aside, the fact remains that true married love changes you whether you think it should or not.

Married love changes you because, other than your relationship with God, marriage is the only place in which you are perceived as you truly are, shorn of all pretense.

In marriage alone, you are shaped and changed by the perceptions of other. Seeing you for who you really are, your spouse alone can help shape you into who God would you have be.

It’s in being seen for you really are

It’s in being seen naked, in both a literal and metaphoric sense

And yet still being loved, still being a cause of delight for your delight

That you get closest to how God loves you

And thus grow into God’s likeness for you.

Some Christians refer to marriage as a sacrament. Others prefer to name it a covenant. Everyone concurs that marriage is a ‘means of grace.’

Like the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Just as the habit of constant communion over a lifetime shapes you in unseen, untold, unnumbered ways, being revealed to another over a lifetime reveals, by grace, a different you.

 

 

 

No to Women Bishops

Jason Micheli —  November 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

Maybe you already heard– The Church of England just voted by a hair NOT to allow women in the episcopacy. It’s funny to me that there’s still enough residual cultural Christianity left in the West for the media to continue reporting on the inner machinations of the Anglican Church. But that’s not the point I want to make.

Here’s my point. And it has nothing to do with how culturally antiquated, sexist, undemocratic etc this story makes the C of E appear.

It’s more like a quick nugget of theological observation:

I’ve long thought the best argument in favor of ordaining gay Christians to ministry is that the Church has already baptized them. Baptism, after all, is the beginning of Christian vocation. In a sense, we’re all ordained in our baptisms to some form of Christian service/witness in our lives.

Pastoral Ministry is but one form that baptismal vocation takes. If the Church isn’t ready to ordain gay Christians, then, it shouldn’t baptize them.

Shut the door where the theology starts, in other words. 

The same logic holds true when it comes to women serving as bishops- especially in the Anglican Church. The Church already has women ordained to ministry as priests. Having them serve as bishops is a matter of promotion not ordination. It’s functional not theological. If the Church isn’t ready to have them serve as bishops they shouldn’t have ordained to serve as priests. It’s sloppy thinking to such an extent that sexism is the only credible explanation.

Sadly, this is another knock on Archbishop Rowan Williams, one of my heroes. Another case of a good, brilliant leader proving unable to dent an ineffective bureaucracy.

I hear it all the time when I’m planning a funeral service for someone who was not a Christian. Families often have a strong need to mis-remember their loved one as someone who was more religious than was actually the case. Families also presume that someone like me won’t perform the funeral service for someone who was not a disciple, which isn’t so. In those instances it’s not uncommon for me to hear equivocations like: ‘so and so believed in God; so and so just didn’t believe in institutional religion.’ 

Here’s the thing that always takes them by surprise: I hate institutional religion too.

Rowan Williams’ replacement as Archbishop of Canterbury has just been appointed by the Queen. Williams is a giant in the theological world and a hero of mine. He straddles the liberal-conservative divide in a way that makes him hard to peg and wins him few allies.

By most accounts, Williams’ ten year run as archbishop was ineffective or, worse, disastrous. His ten years in Canterbury prove a cautionary tale. Even someone with a peerless mind, an obvious love of God, a gentle spirit and a healthy dose of creativity was incapable of changing the institutional blight of an established denomination (the Church of England).

Rowan Williams and my own United Methodist tradition sprang to mind as I read Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.

Keller’s emphasis on church renewal is combatting the natural tendency of churches to drift towards institutionalism by recovering a sense of the church as a movement of believers towards a unifying vision.

Keller helpfully distinguishes the characteristics of institutions and movements. It should come as no surprise where almost every mainline church and denomination falls in this rubric.

Institution

Held together by policies

A culture of rights and quotas, a balance of responsibilities and rewards

Emphasis on compensation, extrinsic rewards

Changes in policy involve long process, much resistance and negotiation with many parties

Decisions made procedurally and slowly

Innovation from top down, implemented in department silos

Feels like a patchwork of turk conscious mini-agenices or committees

Values: security, stability, predictability, ‘we’ve always done it this way…’

Slow to change

Emphasis on tradition and custom, future trends are dreaded and denied

Jobs given to those with tenure, next in line

Few can articulate mission, or mission is actually the agendas of many different groups

Movement

Held together by common purpose, vision

A culture of sacrificial commitment

Emphasis on celebration, intrinsic rewards

Vision comes from leaders trusted by group with loyalty

Decisions made relationally and rapidly

Innovation bubbles up from all, executed by all

Feels like a unified whole

Values: risk, creativity

Dynamic, quick to respond to needs

Emphasis on present and future

Jobs given according to fruitfulness

Everyone can articulate mission and every endeavor contributes to it