Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Church in the Round

By Dr. Kwok Pui Lan

This blog post is excerpted from a sermon preached at St. John's Memorial Chapel on December 6, 2012. For the full text of the sermon visit Dr. Kwok Pui Lan’s blog.  

St. John’s Memorial Chapel at the Episcopal Divinity School was built in the nineteenth century. I asked historian David Sigenthaler what chapel and worship was like when he was a student at the school in the 1950s. At that time the altar was set against the east wall, the faculty sat up in the chancel, and the students sat in the pews facing each other. Each would have an assigned seat and chapel during that time was compulsory. The design of sacred space mirrored the hierarchical setup of the community. In the 1960s when Christopher Durasingh and Ed Rodman were students, the pews were removed and replaced with chairs.
In 1992 when I joined the school, the altar was brought forward to the crossing and the ambo was placed on the west side near the entrance. The students sat facing each other.

To honor Brett Donham who renovated St. Paul’s at Brookline after the fire in 1976 and our presider Rev. Jeffrey Mello, the rector of St. Paul’s, we have created a worshipping space modeling after St. Paul’s in which the congregation and the choir sit surrounding the altar. Donham talked about the rationale of why he designed the church in such a way:

“The traditional forms of church buildings, with everyone facing in the same direction and with the ‘expert’; the intermediary or interpreter, on a raised stage addressing an audience is the antithesis of gathering in community.”

Today many churches are recovering the early roots of Christianity. Donham continues, “In these places people gather in community to offer praise and thanksgiving, to reflect on scripture, to share stories about Jesus Christ and his impact on their lives, to share a commemorative meal, and through this to come into communion with Christ, and with one another. These are communal activities, with many players, several centers of action and movement, and require the ability to see one another and feel as a gathered body.”

The church in the round exists not for itself but for others. One of the hallmarks of the church in the round, as theologian Letty Russell has described in her book with the same title is hospitality to those on the margins. Macrina demonstrated her hospitality by feeding the hungry, providing for the needy, and taking care of young women. The two aspects of gathering for worship and sending out to service are inseparable.

Sometimes we are disheartened because we find the church more like the form of a triangle, in which power is concentrated at the top, instead of in the round. The church design and liturgy reinforce the separation between the clergy and the laity. Worship is often separated from ordinary life and from a sense of mission. It fails to give the sustenance that we need or meet the deepest longing we have for God.

In the season of Advent, a time of anticipation and expectation, let us renew our hope and work for a church in the round. One of my students Lucretia Mann brought to my attention an Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, who has said that church is not an institution, but a way of being, that is deeply bound to the being of human, the being of the world, and the being of God.*

We can each bring something new to rejuvenate and enliven our community and way of being. We do not need to abolish the old church in order to create something new. We can redesign and reoccupy sacred space within traditional buildings so that we can experiment with different ways of being with God. In this semester, we have seen several creative expressions of using sacred space, particularly in the Eucharist led by Stephen Burns and Christopher Duraisingh. In the course of doing so, we experienced new centers and movements as people of God.

The church in the round is also a process and not a perfect circle. Sometimes we move two steps forward and one step back. All we are asked to do is to transform the triangle or the rectangular form in our chapel to make it rounder each day to the glory of God. Amen.

* John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 15.

Kwok Pui Lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School and her book Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude (with Joerg Rieger) is published by Rowman and Littlefield.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Transformative Liturgy

By Brett Donham

In October I participated in the most transformative worship service in my life. It was held in the St. John’s Memorial Chapel of the Episcopal Divinity School. I say “transformative” because it demonstrated possibilities of imagination and creativity that I had not experienced before. I say “participated” because, although I had very little formal role in the service I felt fully engaged, moved, and impelled by the liturgy. This was not a typical passive experience in a church. All senses were engaged; sight, sound, intellect, and emotions.

We gathered around a Baptismal font filled with water. The presider, Stephen Burns, started the service by having us repeat portions of the Baptismal Covenant following which, as we moved past the font to our chairs, we baptized ourselves again from the water in the font. Seating was arranged in choir form in the nave with parallel rows of chairs facing each other across the nave. The pulpit was at one end of the space and the altar at the other end. We faced one another as a community with the action taking place first at one end, then at another and sometimes in the middle. Lessons were read from one end and the choir led by Ellen Oak supported us in hymns from the other end. The trustees stood where they were seated for their commissioning. The hymns had a greater variety and more intensity than what I was used to. At the Eucharist we all gathered around the altar. The prayers were loosely based on the standard rubric but seemed more personal. During Communion two large drums sounded with deep sonorous tones that seemed ancient and deeply fundamental to who we were in relation to our God and to Christ.

Last week I had a similar experience at the annual service of Lessons and Carols held also in the Chapel. The seating was arranged in a V arrangement, half inclined towards the center aisle and half inclined towards the altar. The choir, sounding better than I can remember, was arranged in a shallow arc on the steps to the apse. A few of the hymns were traditional, sung by the whole gathering, some were Medieval sung in Latin by the choir and some were duets or solos. The sources of song ranged from the full congregation in the middle of the space, to the apse, to the organ loft and to the rear of the Chapel. The readings ranged from traditional to poetic. At one point Ellen started a song at the west end and slowly walked with dance movements to the east end, uniting the various sources of sound. While the music and the readings ranged over thousands of years, there was a unity and artistic wholeness in their selection. The Virgin Mary was a frequent theme.

For me it raised the question, “why can’t all services be like these were, feeding us in so many ways?”

The diocese of MA is experiencing modest growth in members of the Episcopal Church, but much of the country is seeing a slow steady decline. With few exceptions, not many people between the ages of 16 and 56 are going to church any more. One reason, among many, is that the typical Sunday service is frequently boring and takes place in a building that smells musty, is dark, and whose layout stifles creativity, energy, and life.

The new worship team at EDS of Miriam Gelfer (Dean of Students and Community Life), Ellen Oak (Director of Music), and Stephen Burns (Associate Professor of Liturgical Theology and the Study of Anglicanism), appear to have a vision to change all that and we are starting to see manifestations of the exciting possibilities. Ellen and Stephen are experts in creative liturgy and the imaginative use of space to enable it. Miriam has brought them together in an atmosphere of joy and creativity to make it happen. Miriam’s high standards and appreciation for excellent music are key ingredients. These experiments are not 1970’s feel good, hang banners and all will be changed, efforts. Rather, like the Lessons and Carols service, these experiments are being tried with thoughtfulness, integrity as well as spiritual and aesthetic wholeness. They appeal to all the senses and the intellect. The truly exciting news is that these experiments have the potential to change the Church and to make it again an exciting and life giving place for all ages to be. Seminaries are where this change must begin because seminaries have the flexibility and the obligation to immerse their students in new wants of being in community.

Not all these experiments will be entirely successful, but enough will be that EDS can build enough credible models to influence the entire church. Just as important, EDS will be sending forth graduates with a thirst to make worship more engaging and armed with examples of how to do it.

Brett Donham is the former chairman of the EDS Board of Trustees and highly regarded architect who founded the firm, Donham & Sweeney in 1967. The architect firm has designed new religious buildings such as the Wilson Chapel at Andover Newton Theological School and renovated others including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brookline.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"The Jewish Annotated New Testament" at One Year Old

By Dr. Lawrence Wills

Photo by Matthew Griffing
A few decades ago, a common “meme” of jokes began something like this: “A priest, a minister, and a rabbi are in a lifeboat. . . .” Humor is based on tension and the release of tension. The tension of a priest, a minister, and a rabbi in the same lifeboat was the basis of the meme, but today that particular tension is no longer sufficient to propel a joke.
The priest, the minister, and the rabbi are now often on the same faculty in seminaries and religion departments. One of the results of this shift in the American landscape is The Jewish Annotated NewTestament (edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, published by Oxford University Press). It consists of a modern translation of the New Testament with introductions and notes by Jewish scholars. Passages such as the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commandment, or Paul’s arguments with the Galatians over the continuing validity of the law are placed in the context of first-century Judaism, and the refrain of many of the annotations is: the traditional Christian understandings of these texts must be radically re-assessed.
I contributed the material for the Gospel of Mark, and was part of a panel in Boston to discuss the significance of this surprisingly hot-selling work on the New Testament. The venue for the panel reflects the changing discourse on inter-faith issues. It was at Emmanuel Center just beside Boston Common, which itself is a cooperative venture of Emmanuel Episcopal Church and Central Reform Temple. Also on the panel were Pheme Perkins (professor of New Testament at Boston College), Pamela Werntz (priest at Emmanuel Church and EDS 2000), and Rabbi Howard Berman (rabbi of Central Reform Temple).
It has long been recognized that the Gospel of Matthew remains loyal to Jewish law, and that even Paul was much more concerned that gentile converts not be held to the law than he was that Jews in Christ should give it up. But Mark has been considered a gospel for a gentile audience that followed Paul’s message to lay aside Jewish law. This is now questioned as well by many scholars. Even if Mark and the audience are gentile (there are several apparent inconsistencies between this gospel and first-century Judaism), it is not clear that Mark sets aside the validity of the law. When Jesus heals the leper (Mark 1), he does not reject purity laws concerning leprosy, he “cleanses” the leper and brings him into a state of purity. Even the fact that Jesus touches the leper does not necessarily mean that Jesus disregarded Jewish law. Some Jewish texts of the period indicate that at the end of time there is a special dispensation of purity on those who are within the new community. Jesus has the power to dispense purity, and this may have been a common Jewish conception. Other terms in Mark are now seen as more fitting within a Jewish context than in a gentile. Most of the New Testament texts refer to “demons,” but like the (Jewish) Qumran texts, Mark usually calls them “unclean spirits”—one might facetiously say “non-kosher spirits”—which the Holy Spirit will overcome.
Every tradition survives and thrives by re-telling a story of its own origins and internal heroism, and Christianity is no exception. (Don’t be na├»ve—if your organization doesn’t do that, it won’t last out the decade.) The New Testament texts became in the second century a story of “Judaism there, Christianity here,” or even “Judaism bad, Christianity good,” but in the first century it was not so simple. This volume represents an opportunity for reflection by Jews and Christians, as Jewish scholars bring their training to bear on the question, “What did this internal debate look like in the first century?”
The discussion at the Emmanuel Center was very spirited and raised far more questions than could be treated in the session, but for me the most poignant moment came when Rabbi Berman closed by saying, “If books like the Jewish Annotated New Testament had existed a hundred years ago, the history of the twentieth century for Jews might have been very different.”
At the same time that it is reported that the number of anti-Semitic acts in Massachusetts and Connecticut was up this year, the shifting public discourse in general seems clear. But is there a new tension in the land? “An imam, a Southern Baptist minister, and a feminist are in a lifeboat. . . .”

Dr. Lawrence Wills is Ethelbert Talbot Professor of Biblical Studies at Episcopal Divinity School. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Facing Death

By The Rev. Dr. Emily K. Robertson

About twelve years ago, I was laughing with my rug-hooking friends about the play on the words “die” and “dye.” In my craft we dye a lot of the wool we use because color is very, very important to us. So, I decided to make my epitaph rug. (See photo right.) I really like this rug even though it is much cruder than what I usually do. Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.

Since I was in my thirties, I have said and believed that I would live to be 100 with my wits about me. They say that if you tell God your plans, she laughs. Well, we will all have to wait to see how hard God laughs at me. However, the one thing I have never given a thought to is the death of others that would surround me as I went about facing my own old age. Death comes for us all.

Looking death in the face is what my sister, Sue, has had to do. Last year, she was diagnosed with a quick moving, fatal form of cancer. She told me that she was going to commit suicide before her illness became too debilitating. I could understand how she felt on a rational level and I told her that for what it was worth, I supported her in her decision.

My daughter, Chris, and I made the very long journey to Sue’s home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan last fall to visit Sue. I talked to her in late July and she said that she thought that she had come downstairs from her bedroom on the second floor for the last time. That was indeed grave news.

Shortly after that Sue began to receive hospice care. While her son, Adam, was away retrieving a hospital bed to put on the first floor for Sue’s use, Sue felt very poor indeed and called an ambulance to take her to the hospital where she died a few hours later.

So even though Sue was determined to take her own life whenever she saw fit to do so, she advanced in her illness to receive hospice care. Even though she was in hospice care, when things got dicey, she chose to go to a hospital for traditional treatment that might prolong her life. It is good to have options and choices. Sue died on August 6th.

Sue chose to live as long as she could. My brother chose a different route.

Four weeks ago I was sitting in an easy chair looking at the day’s mail when a policeman came to my door. He informed me that “they” had been looking for me all day because my brother, Mark, had taken his life in the early hours of that day, but had left no contact information in his apartment except that of his ex-wife.

I was shocked by Mark’s death, but not surprised. He was so bitter, so depressed, and so turned in on himself that there really could be only one end, the one he chose. Is death important at all? One wonders. Look at all the people and other living things that have lived lives before us on this planet. Everything dies. We all die.

Is it our human ego, our personal sense of self worth that makes us think that the ending of our life would be very important in the general give and take of our days? I started asking people about death months ago. What I concluded was that the people around me did not seem very fearful of death itself, but rather of not having autonomy in the last days of life, of not having choices. Choices mean ego involvement.

But when you think of all the death that has occurred and is occurring right now all around us, we can see that our own deaths are pretty inconsequential in the big picture. So what is important?

Here is the beginning of a great sermon! But, I’ll save you all that today and just say that when each of us looks death in the face, can we do so knowing that we have loved and loved and loved? Can we love so much in life that our love and kindness and caring is all given away by the time when we die?

The Rev. Dr. Emily K. Robertson (MATS ’06) is the Co-Pastor of the First Church of Squantum, Congregational, in Squantum, Massachusetts, and an award-winning rug-hooker whose works have been exhibited frequently and published in magazines.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Intersex and Transgender Theology

By Kwok Pui Lan

The Episcopal Church took the courageous step to approve same-sex blessing service at the General Convention last July. At the same time, the Church voted to amend church laws to include that no one would be discriminated based on “gender identity and expression.” The church affirms “gender identity (one’s inner sense of being male or female) and expression (the way in which one manifests that gender identity in the world) should not be bases for exclusion, in and of themselves, from consideration for participation in the ministries of the Church.”
The Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge, an Episcopal priest and chaplain at Boston University, has worked with others for a number of years for the passage of the amendment. He was one of the panelists to speak about intersex and transgender theology at the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) on September 7. Other panelists include Dr. Susannah Cornwall from University of Manchester, Dr. Megan K. DeFranza of Gordon College, and Iain Stanford, a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School.

Professor Patrick S. Cheng of EDS moderated the panel and said in his opening remarks that the Christian community has talked more about lesbian and gay issues than transgender and intersex concerns. He welcomed Dr. Cornwall, an expert on intersex theology and ministry from England, to EDS to have a dialogue with other scholars in Boston.

Intersex people are those persons whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly male or female, because they have combinations of physical features of both. Intersex people have also been called “hermaphrodite” or people with “disorder of sex development” (DSD), although these terms are contested.

Cornwall’s book, Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology, is the first full-length examination of the theological implications pf intersex conditions and their medical treatment. Currently she is interviewing intersex Christians to deepen her study. She said that the Church of England has begun to discuss ministry to intersex and transgender persons, which is a step forward.

Cornwall emphasized that intersex persons challenge a binary construction of gender, which has dominated Christian theology for centuries. The acceptance of a non-pathological understanding of the intersexed necessitates the re-examination of some of the Christian images and teachings, such as the church as a feminine bride to a masculine god, the maleness of Christ, body and perfection, and marriage based on complementarities of the male and the female sexes.

In her intriguing remarks, DeFranza pointed out that the Bible offers material to discuss intersex issues. As someone who has grown up in a fundamentalist church in which women were not allowed to even pass the offering plate, she was surprised to find discussion of “atypical” bodies in the Bible. For example, in his discussion of divorce in Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus refers to different types of eunuchs, including those who have been so from birth (as different from those who have been castrated). DeFranza argues that intersex persons would have been included in this group. In Isaiah 56:3-5, the eunuchs who hold fast to God’s covenant are blessed. DeFranza said that instead of “an icon of shame,” the eunuch is raised up as “a model of discipleship.” The Bible also refers numerous times to barren women and some among them might have been intersex.

Just as intersex persons disrupt our ways of constructing gender, transgender people challenge us to see gender identity and expression not as fixed, but in a continuum. Partridge and Stanford reminded us that transgender theology concerns the whole church, because it affects how we see theological anthropology, the nature of creation, and the Body of Christ.

Partridge said that the feast he liked most is the Feast of Transfiguration. It marks the liminal space that life is not static and Christians are called to grow to be like God, as in the doctrine of theosis in the Eastern Church. He invited us to see creation as variegated and always changing and to have an expansive notion of the collective embodiment of the Body of Christ. With such an inclusive understanding of creation and the church, each person will be free to discern who God has called him or her to be and to embody the vocation that God has given.

Stanford was at the General Convention when the Episcopal Church passed the amendment not to discriminate transgender people. He noted that in church politics, the blessing of same-sex union is considered a “sexuality” issue, while the inclusion of transgender persons is seen as a “gender” issue. But the two are much related and often overlap with each other. He reminded us that homosexuals were called “inverts” by nineteenth-century sexologists such as Havelock Ellis. For them, the problem had more to do with gender non-conformity than what these people did in their bedrooms. He, too, exhorted the church to transform its understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality in its theology and ministry.

The panel provides much food for thought at the beginning of the semester. To continue the conversation, Professor Cheng is organizing a group to further discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer issues and theology. The video of the panel will be available later at the Episcopal Divinity School website.

Kwok Pui Lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School and her book OccupyReligion: Theology of the Multitude is forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Change Will Do You Good

By Bryan Cones

When I first set out for seminary at the age of 19, my thousand-mile journey took me to sleepy Nodaway County, Missouri, where a Benedictine monastery welcomed about 80 men a year to prepare for priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Given the requirements for priesthood in the Roman Catholic world, we were a pretty uniform lot—most of us were even “college age,” though there were a few “late vocations,” that is, guys in their 30s.

Fast forward 19 years and here I am again, having traded rural Missouri for uber-urban Boston, and specifically the ivory towers of Cambridge here at the Episcopal Divinity School. There is a monastery close by—the Society of St. John the Evangelist—but that’s where the similarity ends. All I have to do is look at my classmates to see the difference: a woman who moved with her partner and children from Texas; another with one child just out of diapers and another only six months old. A woman from northern Virginia who is tired of being, in her words, a “unicorn”—“the” Black Episcopalian in her church. There are commuters from the suburbs, a distance learner from Vermont; some are married or partnered, others single. One man comes to EDS from Burma—he’s Baptist, by the way—another is an Anglican from Nigeria. And that’s in a class of 18.

Change is a watchword in churches these days—as in “change or die”—and my class represents the kind of change I hoped for when I first became an Episcopalian and then came to seminary. It’s a class that embodies the experiment in change the Episcopal Church has been pursuing over the past couple of decades, a church with more open doors and fewer boundaries, a church ready to take risks and maybe fail. It’s also a class that reflects some of the sticking points the experiment has uncovered: the challenge of rethinking our approach to human sexuality, the legacy of racism in a church that is still 90 percent white, the relationship between the Episcopal Church and its sibling churches in the Anglican Communion.

Pretty exciting stuff, and it feels like an exciting time to be exploring possibilities for serving in the church. But I think more change is coming—in me, in my classmates, in the church—and I feel confident that the EDS community is one that’s going support that kind of growth. I’m encouraged by a favorite of mine in the communion of saints, John Henry Newman, whose one journey had a good number of twists and turns. “In a higher world it is otherwise,” he wrote, “but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Not bad advice for a seminarian or the church as a whole.

Bryan Cones, a writer and editor from Chicago, is pursuing a certificate in Anglican studies at EDS.