“He will come like child.” Rowan Williams’ “Advent Calendar”

Last fall's leaf

I have long been an admirer of the estimable Rowan Williams, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, since the time I saw him give an awkward, brilliant, and humble paper in 1989 in Oxford. Since then I have read with profit his thoughtful theological books and essays. But I just learned that he also has written poetry. I came across this fine Advent poem today. It is from his first collection of poems: After Silent Centuries (Oxford, 1994), and is now available in The Poems of Rowan Williams’ (Oxford, 2002 and Grand Rapids MI, 2004).

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

© Rowan Williams

(Photo by R. L. Floyd, 2015, “Autumn leaf after the rainstorm,” Ashuwillticook  Rail Trail, Lanesborough, MA.)

“Better Late Than Never” Reflections on women in ministry.

C of EI find myself profoundly moved at the news that today the Church of England has consecrated their first woman bishop, Libby Lane.

I am old enough to remember when there were few women in ministry. In fact, in the Episcopal Church of my youth there were none. No bishops, no priests. Not one.

When I was in seminary, one of my teachers was Emily Hewitt, one of the first women “irregularly” ordained into the Episcopal Church, a very inspiring presence. I recall thinking, “This brilliant women is teaching me about ministry, and people are telling her that she can’t do it herself.”

As a young man I migrated to the United Church of Christ, which had done better on this issue, but still I had few women colleagues early in my ministry. I remember with great affection and respect two pioneering women ministers in the UCC: Gladys York from Maine and Catherine Chifelle, from Massachusetts, who later became a congregant of mine in Pittsfield. They served small congregations where they were faithful and well-loved.

My second call was to be the associate minister at Hammond Street Church in Bangor, Maine, where Ansley Coe Throckmorton was the senior minister. I don’t know whether it was true or not, but we were told that Ansley was the first woman senior minister of a “tall steeple” church in the UCC. I was proud of serving with her, and got to see close up some of the challenges she faced from folks who didn’t want to recognize the authenticity of her ministry.

This year is the 40th anniversary of my ordination. I would mention all the wonderful women who have been my ordained colleagues through the years, but I might forget somebody. I also supervised several women seminarians in field education, much to my benefit. I give thanks for them all.

Then several years ago my own daughter came home for Thanksgiving and announced that she was going to seminary to discern a call to ordained ministry. She is now ordained and inspires me all the time.

The church is an intrinsically conservative institution. That is not all bad. We don’t move too fast most of the time, and that is both the beauty and the bane of the church.

But it took, it has taken, way too long for the church to recognize the God-given gifts of the women among us. And there are still wide swathes of the church where women’s gifts are undervalued, unappreciated and unrecognized.

Thank God that is changing. I pray it will change more and more.

Today the Church of England took an important step. The truth is that it has come very late in this particular game. And it is not the last step that needs to be taken. Not by a long shot.

But perhaps today we should all just celebrate and be glad at what took place.

Norwood Days: We All have to Start Out Somewhere

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe all have to start out somewhere.

I was reminded of that today when a friend sent me a funny clip about church from Saturday Night Live and I immediately recognized that it had been filmed at the little church I grew up in.

I had seen rumblings about this on the Norwood Facebook page, that there had been a film crew at the Church of The Holy Communion, a beautiful Episcopal church in Norwood, a small town in Bergen County, NJ.

Both my parents were raised in Congregational churches (and my Mom was for a time a Methodist), but when my Mom beat the dust of the Midwest off her heels and moved to New York City she became an Episcopalian. Both my parents were, for a time, librarians at General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal school in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.

They lived on the Upper West Side when I was born, which is how I came to be baptized at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, which if you’re keeping track of things like this, is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral.

Before I started school we moved to Closter, New Jersey, a little town in Bergen County across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. My Dad was a commuter at the time, working downtown as the photo and caption editor for the Religious News Service, the public relations arm of the old National Conference of Christians and Jews.

While in Closter we attended the little church in Norwood, where my brother Bill was baptized, a very early memory of mine. My father, never baptized, was then a grumpy agnostic, and from him I learned to take both faith and doubt very seriously. My mother was devout and active in the church.

We moved to Norwood when I was in fifth grade, and then were within walking distance of our church.

I am sure there was sin, gossip, and the sundry pettiness that plagues every congregation of humans, but I felt loved and accepted there, and the fact that I ultimately became a Christian minister speaks well of their care and nurture for and of me.

The rector was a gentle, ancient man, Mr. (always “Mr.” as he was low church) John Foster Savidge. He had an odd way of speaking that I assumed was some kind of special ecclesiastical patois. Only years later did my Dad tell me he had CP and a resulting speech impediment. He was very kind to me, and one time when I was about 11 he came to call and neither of my parents were home. He treated me with great respect and dignity, and told me about his trips to England. Years later I had my own times living in Oxford and Cambridge.

His successor was The Reverend Robert Maitland, who was ironically more blue collar but also more high church and always “Father” Maitland.

It was under his care that I was confirmed. He was a very down-to-earth guy, much a contrast from the patrician Mr. Savidge.

When I was in high school my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. In those days cancer was an unmentionable and few adults talked to me about the prospect of her impending death. One was my beloved basketball coach, John Shine, and the other was Father Bob Maitland. He took me to lunch at the Red Coach Inn (any Bergen County folks remember that?). He showed me what a minister could be.

My Mom did die during my first weeks at college at the age of 53. Fr. Maitland presided at the service at the Church of the Holy Communion, to a packed house as only those who die too young can bring out. I was having none of this God who snatched away the most important person in my life.

But years later after a long and arduous faith pilgrimage (which is another story for another day) I came back to the church and to a calling as a minister, although in a different franchise.

So the Church of the Holy Communion remains one of my landmarks, a holy place. And since I always (usually) love SNL the confluence of these two made my day.

The little clip was a trip down memory lane. I took voice lessons from the organist, Walter Witherspoon, and saw the organ near where I stood for my first recital. I saw the lovely stained-glass windows. I wrote recently about the window dedicated to a  Sunday School classmate of mine who died in a sledding accident when I was in the second grade.

It has been years since I have been back there, but I thank God for the place and the people, mostly now in the church triumphant, that were there in my growing-up days.

Rowan Williams returning to playfulness

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has announced he will step down at the end of the year. He has been leader of 77 million Anglicans for a decade during a particularly fractious period.

So who can blame him for wanting a different kind of life?

Why is he moving on?

I returned to his own writings for some hints and clues.  In his insightful 2000 book, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, he speaks about how we have become, in his words, a “non-playful society.” In an essay on “Charity” he writes,

The skewed character of work in our society is intensified all the time by the lack, the thinness or the impotence of the remaining social rituals that embody charity.  In such a situation, these surviving practices that point to the social miracle bear too heavy a load, and buckle out of shape, becoming prolongations or displacements of, or compensations for the destructive-compettive activities of non-playful society. Things are not helped by the intensity of media attention: sport, from football to chess, is defined in the media as what-professional-others do. For the professional, there is need, spoken or unspoken, not only to win within the terms of the game, but also to win in terms of the rewards that publicity can confer, the odd and fragile ‘goods’ that are supposed to go with celebrity.  For the mass audience, this has largely ceased to be their ritual: it is something enacted for their entertainment, rather than an activity that might affect their own modes of behaving and understanding themselves. (p 62-63)

As I watched the NCAA tournament last night, part of the annual spectacle we Americans call “March Madness,” I was struck by how deadly serious these young men were. They played basketball, but there was little that seemed playful about it. There is truth in Williams’ observation that as sports becomes ever more serious and commodified the rest of us are deprived of the rituals of playfulness, except as spectators (and consumers.)

Williams has lived long enough with celebrity under the glare of the media. He has done his part.

But we have not heard the last from him. He is one of our finest theologian, an astute social critic, and a first-rate poet. Freed from the burdens of the primate’s office I expect he will grace us, both church and world, with new contributions.

But perhaps what he seeks most is play.

Rome Disses Canterbury: A Sad Time for Ecumenism

Ecumenism is in my DNA.

When I was growing up my father worked for the National Conference of Christians and Jews for fourteen years (technically interfaith, I know, but with strong ecumenical bonds). From my early nurture in the Episcopal Church I was taught that all Christians are Catholic since catholicity is one of the marks of the church named in the creed (“One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.”) I learned that the divisions in the church were the result of human sin, and that we were to work for overcoming them and finding our God-given unity. We prayed (from the Book of Common Prayer) for God to overcome “our unholy divisions.”
I remember the excitement generated when Pope John the 23rd promoted “aggiornamento” that was a feature of the ground-breaking Second Vatican Council. The “windows came open for awhile” a Jesuit friend once said to me.

I recall a sermon in the late nineteen-sixties when our rector enthusiastically reported a historic service in San Francisco where Eugene Carson Blake and Bishop James Pike propose a process leading to the eventual union of the Mainline churches(which became the Consultation on Church Union: COCU.)
As a young adult I joined the United Church of Christ in part because of their great history of ecumenism, and their commitment to be a uniting church. I was ordained by the UCC and served for a dozen years as their representative on the Massachusetts Commission for Christian Unity (MCCU). There, I met wonderful, faithful men and women representing the whole spectrum of Christian communions. One highlight was I got to meet and talk with Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, one of the the great Roman Catholic ecumenists.
I studied the World Council of Churches Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry(BEM) document carefully, and used it in both my local ministry, and in my A Course in Basic Christianity.
So I was dismayed this week to read the reports about Pope Benedict offering “traditional” Anglicans the opportunity to come into the Roman Catholic Church with the promise of “Anglican Rite” status. My first response was sadness. The Vatican is basically telling the Anglican Communion that they are not really a church. I thought of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, someone I truly admire, having to sit there in a press conference and pretend he and his church weren’t getting disrespected.
The whole incident represents a giant set-back for a multi-generational ecumenical dream shared by many Christians from all communions, rooted in Christ’s own prayer to God the Father “that we may all be one.” That dream won’t die, of course, because the unity of the church is God-given, and in God’s own time and way it will be fulfilled. But silly me for thinking I might see more manifestations of it in my lifetime.
And how sad for those who will have to leave their church home. How will it all play out? The priests get to keep their wives but leave their parishes? And which Anglican rites will they be allowed to use? The Eucharistic theology in the various Books of Common Prayer is decisively Reformed in character, and has indigestible nuggets of anti-Roman polemic in it. My former Episcopal colleague Father J. Michael Povey writes astutely about this on his blog with the post Which Rites?
Whenever the church of Jesus Christ splits, it is a scandal. It weakens the church’s witness to the world. And when people leave their communion for another, it diminishes the diversity within that communion. The worst thing for a church is to be a bunch of like-minded people. I have often had to swim against the stream of my own denomination, but as my friend Gabe Fackre has always reminded me, “there are no safe harbors.” That is, there are no ecclesial utopias this side of the kingdom of God.
Here in Massachusetts many of the new members in Protestant churches are former Roman Catholics who come for one reason or another. We welcome them and extend them hospitality in our congregations as we should, because they are our Christian brothers and sisters. But to me it has always been bittersweet to see someone leave their church home, and it is a breach of ecumenical etiquette to bad mouth other communions.
I am guessing that the Vatican believes they are holding out an olive branch to the disaffected Anglicans. But the way it was done signals that any real Roman Catholic/Anglican dialogue based on mutual respect is finished for the foreseeable future. And if even they who share so much can’t work for common ground, what chance is there for us “separated brethren?”
So it is a sad time for ecumenism.