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Under the Wing


Readings from Why Christianity Must Change or Die; letters to and from Bishop Spong.


These readings raise the possibility of something I had pretty much given up on, namely a reentry to the Christian tradition. If, like Jesus calling the fisherman to discipleship, Bishop Spong is calling us to join him in the church of the exile, should we? This morning I want to explore a few factors that incline me toward accepting his offer. In all this, I would like you to consider whether an entry of the Grail into the Episcopalian communion is a viable idea. Is it desirable? Is it possible? And what if anything would change? Is there some change you would like, that joining with the Episcopal Church would make possible?

First, what inclines me in the direction of Exilic Episcopalianism? Three things. The first, I suppose, is a sort of cognitive dissonance reduction. I have for years predicated my personal and professional life on the study of the Bible, theology, and religion. Since I have lost my faith and my Christian identity, I am left holding the bag, stranded in absurdity, not unlike Sisyphus. I still know the lore of the Bible, and I still like to preach from it, but this only highlights the pathetic position in which I find myself. Among my Secular Humanist buddies, my religious knowledge is appreciated as a means to demystify religion and reorient the ex-believers. But I feel like Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, reduced to a party clown, able to do tricks for the entertainment of the jaded. If we were able to recover some continuity with the Christian tradition, this part of me would feel useful again, and at home. But for the rest of me to feel at home, it would have to be a radically left-wing, demythologized, non-supernaturalist, dogma-free Episcopalianism.

Second, I was an Episcopalian lay preacher and chalice bearer for three years in North Carolina, and I loved it! But as I drifted ever leftward, the false claims of the liturgy (that stuff about God intervening to save the poor, for example), as well as the bowing and scraping it required, alienated me. I could no longer join in. I was a spectator only. And yet I still feel great nostalgia for the parish life, the colorful and quaint traditions of Episcopalianism, the bells and smoke, the stained glass and the drama. And you know why. I have often spoken of religion as being essentially esthetic in nature. The only faith required to play the game is Coleridge's "poetic faith," the "temporary willing suspension of disbelief." We may be stimulated, even transformed, by our imaginative participation in liturgy, if, that is, we can find one we do not choke on repeating. For instance, I'm not sure I could even "sing" the Nicene Creed, as Niebuhr suggested, much less say it straight as propositional prose. But then, Bishop Spong's "Exilopalianism" does include liturgical revision. For the record, let me note that I think such revision could be quite effective and avoid both Unitarian Newspeak and Vatican II primer-language. All that is needed is to say whatever noble and progressive things you want to say in the diction of poetry and stateliness. Go beyond the 1979 Prayerbook in theology but back toward the 1928 book in terms of language. "It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing."

I am thinking here of a religion of nostalgia, to borrow  Don Cupitt's term for what he rejects and to apply it to what he practices. In the foreground we would place a spirituality of inquiry, as we have always done at the Grail. But in the background, still plainly visible, would be the color and comfort of the Episcopal tradition. I think here of Cupitt's formula: "Traditional Christianity is our Old Testament." That means transcendence, not rejection.

By the same token, the Grail, even as an Exilopalian congregation, would continue as a model of what I believe is the way of the future in spiritual communities: a community of seekers for each of whom his or her personal religious background has come to function as equivalent to an ethnic background: a cherished definer of one's identity, but not the last word in spirituality or belief. Such diversity profoundly enriches a congregation. To have a Zen Stoic like Roman, a Jew like Robert, a theological chameleon like Dow, and so on, gives a breadth and scope of spiritual resources such as few congregations either have or have the opportunity to actualize.

Third, to me, the Secular Humanists, Atheists, and Freethinkers have a tin ear, a blind eye, when it comes to the magic of life. I find their negative fixation, even when they recognize this as a problem, to be absolutely sterile and stifling. They are, in my opinion, a prime example of the problem Tillich pinpointed: you cannot speak of the Absolute without the aid of artistic and poetic symbols. This is just what Unitarianism and Secular Humanism try to do. I still make the brief for plain old Secularists, people who just stay home and read the newspaper on Sunday mornings. They can have a genuine spiritual life through music, art, literature. But when one tries to organize a quasi-religion around the lack of religion, the result has been thus far a total disaster. And it will continue to be.

Seeking a link with the Episcopalian tradition would reintegrate us, potentially, into that symbolic stream of rites of initiation and passage, of color and wonder. I'm not sure how much of that we could accommodate here in the Grail meetings, but that is something we could discuss.

As an Exilopalian, I would employ the gospel tradition in the manner I am now accustomed to: treating Jesus as a mythic figure, a figure of great power for certain purposes, as the literary use of the Christ figure over the centuries has shown, and as a collective name for the wisdom tradition collected under that name in the gospels. A kind of Q-Christianity.

And the name. The name. I still cannot cough up the self-designation "Christian." I don't want to be under the same insane asylum roof as Falwell and Cardinal O'Connor. I don't want to confuse the issue by entering public debates with the stratagem that "my view, too, is a Christian view, so Christians ought to take it seriously." We're past that. Our thinking must draw on all potential sources and must not seek undeserved clout by the imposition of a theological label. Only so can any view we hold deserve a hearing in a public, non-sectarian conversation. But I would be willing to go this far: I could call myself an Episcopalian, even if not a Christian. How about you?




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