Thursday, May 18, 2006

Alexander for Presiding Bishop

The Living Church offers us a Q & A session with Neil Alexander, Bishop of Atlanta and nominee for Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I really like this guy.

Before highlighting some of his answers, I should probably disclose that I am slightly biased in favor of Alexander. He is the only nominee that I have ever met. Back in 1988, while at Nashotah House, I attended a national program called "The Preaching Excellence Workshop." Neil Alexander, then homiletics professor at General, was one of the facilitators of my small group. One of our activities was to prepare a homily in 20 minutes on a text assigned to us and then preach it before the group. My text was Mary's encounter with the risen Christ. I attempted to speak from Mary's perspective. I bombed, big time, and said as much as I sat down. The other facilitator, an elderly priest, laid into me at high volume. Afterwards, I skipped lunch and went outside to smoke and fume. Neil came out and suggested we take a walk. He listened to me rant, and then offered a line that I've used often over the years; "It seems to me that Roy used a bulldozer when a trowel would have worked just as well." Simple, but enough to diffuse my outrage. We talked a bit about the exercise and he offered some suggestions for future preparations of homilies under pressure. He then asked about my life at the House and my family. As we arrived back at the entrance to the dining room, he invited me in to join him for lunch. A limited interaction, but one that has been etched on my heart as an example of good pastoral care.

Now, on to the particular responses in the TLC article that caught my eye. First, his description of the current state of the Episcopal Church:

I believe the Episcopal Church is much stronger than most people believe it is. Unquestionably, we are distracted these days with all of the conversations regarding human sexuality, and homosexuality in particular. These are important questions that require our best efforts to discover a way forward together. But however important the questions about sexuality and all of the attendant issues may be, they are not the sum total of the church’s mission and ministry. The gospel imperatives that drive the church’s mission are far too important to allow them to languish while we await a new consensus to emerge on the issues of the day. We are tough bunch, we Episcopalians. The great social movements in our nation’s history have challenged us and threatened to divide us before. By God’s grace we have kept moving forward, treated each other with gentleness and grace, and kept our eyes focused on mission while we waited on the Spirit to open before us a way forward…
Regarding the Windsor Report:

First of all, it will be the duty of the Presiding Bishop to carry forth the response of the General Convention to the Windsor Report to our church, the Anglican Communion, and where appropriate, to our ecumenical partners. The Presiding Bishop’s personal positions are less important than his or her ability to articulate the positions established by our church.

Personally I resonate quite strongly with the spirit of the Windsor Report, but there are many details that need to be sorted out. Many of its recommendations were cast under extreme time pressure and should be understood as a place to begin the conversation, not indications that the conversations are over. I think that responding to the Windsor Report uncritically would be just as tragic as responding negatively. It is a fine piece of work by folks I respect. We don’t honor the gift they have given us by a simple up or down vote on the Windsor Report. We honor their work by serious engagement with it and at points that engagement may mean respectful disagreement together with the proposal of thoughtful alternatives.

Our church’s ties to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion are of critical importance with respect to our mission and ministry in the Name of Jesus. I believe the historical frameworks of the Communion serve us well by coordinating partnerships in mission between member provinces of the Communion. Doing gospel mission together across the national, economic, political, and cultural boundaries that divide us is the hallmark of Anglicanism when we are at our best. If we allow the missionary fabric of our worldwide Anglican relationships to be replaced by juridical and canonical structures we will have compromised our greatest strength for accomplishing the mission of Jesus…
And finally, regarding worship:

Contrary to popular opinion, I believe that church attendance in many places is low because people cross the thresholds of a congregation and discover a tired, dumbed-down, undemanding liturgy that is poorly thought through and sloppily executed. People want quality. People join churches that are contagious, that are not embarrassed to be who they are, that dwell on their strengths. Even now, most people who become Episcopalians will say that were drawn to us because of our liturgy and music. So why do we insist on watering it down? Why do we assume that new members cannot learn the liturgy? We did. It was new to all of us at some point, wasn’t it?

If we want to grow the church we need to begin ministries in places where we presently do not have congregations. We need to stop apologizing for being Episcopalians and throw the doors open to everyone who wants a deeper relationship with God in Jesus Christ through our common life of mission and ministry. And we need to play to our strengths—catholic liturgy and evangelical preaching, and hands-on ministry to persons in need…
I found this particular answer very helpful for me right now. I spent last week at a congregational development seminar in Florida. Even though I gleaned much valuable information and new ideas over the week, some of the things I heard about worship, and the examples we were given through our daily worship, were quite troubling. I’ve been sitting with this discomfort, trying to get some distance in order to sort out how much of my resistance springs from my personal inclinations (as one trained at Nashotah House), and how much is from the fact that the ideas presented were faulty. Bp. Alexander’s statement, that we need to stop watering down our liturgy and stop apologizing for being Episcopalians, states in a much more subdued way the sentiments that I’m wrestling with right now. As I might have expected, he uses a trowel, when my inclination was to fire up the bulldozer.


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