A Rector for the first time I found myself, within weeks of starting this position, faced with the events of 9/11. How was I, so new to this call, to have any idea what the congregation would need? It seemed that the only real response was to open up the church that night and offer a place for us to come and pray, sing, and be together. And so we did. In fact we started a series of ecumenical prayer vigils, held over the next year. In a simple Taize style of prayer and song, sometimes in our Episcopal Church, sometimes in the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or United Church of Christ church, our united communities gathered in solidarity and mutual comfort praying for a world that seemed to be falling apart.
About eighteen months after 9/11, just as the congregation and I were getting settled into comfortable relationships, the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson as Bishop. While personally I celebrated this event my congregation was rocked. I was away on vacation when the General Convention consented to his election and authorized his consecration. That night I had a dream that when I returned to the church all of the parishioners had left and in their place was a crowd of curious spectators, come to see how we were going to handle this. In reality no one left, at least not right away. And a few new people did come, and stayed, relieved to have a church that claimed to affirm all people.
Over the next year I found myself invited into email discourse with a couple of parishioners who had strong thoughts on the issue of openly partnered gay Bishops. Most of these folks were accepting of partnered gays and lesbians in the general population, but ordaining them was another matter. The emails developed into a friendly debate. I used Richard Hooker and the founding principles of Anglicanism (Via Media), to support the ordination of gay and lesbian people. I no longer remember the sources my companions in debate used to argue in support of that one sentence in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, mostly because regardless of who was quoted or how the argument was framed, it did not persuade me to change my mind. Likewise my arguments, regardless of who I cited, failed to sway the minds of those who argued against the ordination of Gene Robinson and others.
It seems to me that, the ordination of women, changes in worship, language we use for God, and other movements of the Church, are matters of the heart for which intellectual debate is just an exercise in church history and biblical criticism. They are of the heart because they deal with how we know God, know ourselves, and know others. They are of the heart because they deal with how we understand God’s self-revelation throughout time. They are of the heart because they are matters of relationship. Relegating our discussions of these matters to intellectual discourse only, fueled by theoretical circumstances and relationships, enables us to maintain hard lines. But when we engage these matters through real lived relationships those hard lines blur. It is much more difficult to tell someone they are not worthy of serving God as an ordained person when that person has been a pastoral presence in my life. When, because of a mutual relationship, I have come to see them as God sees them and know how God is living in and through their lives.
Of course much of the head stuff had to do with how we understand and interpret scripture. Admittedly I fall into the camp of understanding scripture as a living breathing on-going revelation of God’s self. Like the Jewish art of Midrash, I appreciate turning scripture over and around and letting God invite us into new understandings. I like to wrestle with scripture – both with what the scholars tell us the scripture means and with what we as Christians living the text come to understand. It’s delightful when this is a process that allows the heart to inform the head and the head to inform the heart. When our engagement with and understanding of scripture is both an intellectual endeavor and a relationship building one.
As a parish priest I yearned for some way to enable us to move beyond the head and into the heart. To do this I invited us into dialogue. Some of our conversation took place around resources that we read. Some of our conversation took place in the context of facilitated talking and intentional listening, led by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. Some of our conversation took place with a workshop on “Human Sexuality in the Old Testament” led by a seminary Old Testament profession and “Development of Human Sexuality” led by a psychologist, professor, and Episcopal lay woman who was also a partnered lesbian.
All of these were good efforts. We learned a lot. But even still our conversation was lacking. We deepened our relationships with “one another” but not with others outside our community. I yearned for tool that would help us grow beyond ourselves.
Years later I think I have not only found that tool, but helped to create it, through the WordsMatter Language Project. You can learn more about it here. In particular I threw myself into writing a “theology of the conversation” – considering the way in which what we engaging in is relational, incarnational, and sacramental. It’s a theology that builds off of the prologue to the Gospel of John:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2Word was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through Word, and without Word not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in Word was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1, adapted).
Some suggest that Logos, translated here as “Word” can also mean “Discourse” or “Story” or, perhaps, even “Conversation.” The Logos, by nature, invites relationship and sharing in and within creation. Our belief in the Trinity helps us understand how the Holy Spirit enables the Logos to be activated through time. Eastern theologians use the word "perichoresis," an interpenetrating dance-like relationship, when trying to describe the Holy Trinity. That divine community of interpenetrating love continues to go outward, so to speak, inviting all creation into the dance.
As Christians the Nicene Creed is historically the way we profess our faith in a triune God, a God of relationship. In the Nicene Creed we speak of one “catholic” church. But what does “catholic” mean? Simone Weil and Teilhard de Chardin suggest a broad definition of catholic: it must include the whole world. God’s household is the whole planet: it is composed of human beings living in interdependent relations with all other life-forms and earth process. A theology of this project is inherently sacramental and incarnational: Sacrament is traditionally defined as “an outward and visible expression of an inward and invisible grace.” The world is sacramental because it is an expression of God’s Self. The world is incarnational because we know the creative Word of God, which was with God before creation, is made manifest in the world in human flesh, in Jesus. Thus, the world is a sacramental incarnational reality.
Therefore the theologies that undergird this WordsMatter Language Project and conversation guide are “Relational,” “Sacramental” and “Incarnational”: God reveals God’s self in and through creation in ongoing dynamics. One way we Christians understand God’s self-revelation is through scripture. Other ways we encounter God are through human relationships and our interdependence with creation. From these encounters with God we form language: words, images, and symbols, to convey that experience.
The season of Epiphany is upon us. A season when we are invited to explore the ways in which God reveals God’s self to us, expanding our understanding of God, self, and others. May the manifestation of God and of God’s love poured out in human flesh, bless you this year. May your conversations be rich, may your heart burst open in love, and may your heart inform your head and your head inform your heart. May you be challenged by others and may they be challenged by you to grow more deeply in faith and understanding. May we share our stories and grow in trust, hope, and compassion, even as there will remain ways we disagree. May we be guided by our dreams, inspired by God, to bring forth God’s love. And may we fear not as we journey toward the star that guides us toward the living God.