Catholicity and Culture

Why The Filioque Doesn’t Suck, A Respectful Response.

I’m about to do something that may be highly inadvisable, and pick a fight with the Crusty Old Dean.

But like folks at my Alma Mater will most likely tell you, pushing back on Seminary faculty was a bit of a pastime, and I’m glad to get back into the swing of things.

I fully recognize that I’ve already lost this argument within the wider Anglican Communion, and when the BCP gets revised I’ll say whatever’s put in front of me to say. For the moment, however, I felt called to go to bat for what I feel is an important part of the Western Church’s life and doctrine.

On my wedding day a friend of the family gave me a cross-stitch from his time growing up in an Episcopal Church in the 50’s. It was triumphalist and imperialist and mostly wrong, but it was a keepsake and had been dear to him for years.

Now, this man is the most quintessentially Greek man I know. Growing up in Central Georgia wasn’t enough to take that sense of cultural and religious heritage away from him or his parents. Despite all this he was raised in an Episcopal Church because, at the time, Orthodox Christians who lived away from Orthodox communities were actively encouraged to attend Episcopal Parishes. Our polity bears a striking similarity. Our sense of Catholicity tends to jive well remarkably well together. Our Eucharistic theology is closer to the East than it is to Rome… all of this was enough for the leaders of the Orthodox Church to tell its members in the Diaspora that they could feel at ease among us.

We were the next best thing. Filioque and all.

And then we started ordaining women, and the Orthodox had a problem with that. (The Orthodox have also been expanding their presence in the U.S, making the lack of parishes increasingly less of an issue.)

If the Filioque is a stumbling block to our Eastern Brothers and sisters, it is one among so very many, and pretending like we’re going to get past 1976 (much less 2003) based on christological goodwill alone requires an optimism I don’t have. (The writers at Anglican News seem to have it in spades.)

It’s important to remember that since 1976 we’re no longer talking about full communion. The conversation we’re now having is one centered around “theological understanding and common witness.” It’s noble. It’s necessary. But the degree to which it places claims on our respective traditions is negligible.

All that isn’t to say that I’m against the dialogue, I’m simply against us thinking that its more than it is. So many times I feel like Anglicans in ecumenical dialogues are like the nerdy kid who freaks out after being acknowledged by the head cheerleader. We’re so excited that they talked to us that we lose sight of the fact that we don’t have a chance in hell of taking them out.

There’s another thread to this that concerns me a bit more than our preoccupation with ecumenical concerns, and it comes in two forms; Anti-Medievalism, and a misplaced trust in the state of our current Trinitarian theology.

The heart of the argument against the Filioque is that it was an early Medieval interpolation into the fruit of an ecumenical council, and that point itself can’t really be contested. The historical foundations of the Filioque aren’t up for debate. What we make of those foundations, however, needs to stay alive in our theological consciousness.

What we see in the life of the Filioque, is the persistence of context in the formation of liturgy. It was a good-faith attempt at keeping the Catholic faith alive in a region and at a time where Arians were in the majority, and in positions of power. Place that in tandem with the fact that Augustinian theology was the sine qua non for doctrinal development in the Western world (and largely ignored in the East) and you have the makings of a well-reasoned liturgical change rooted in the clear pastoral needs of the people. And lets be clear, the Creed has always been a principally liturgical document. It was born in the Councils, yes, but its life has been lived in the Mass.

The Filioque received its doctrinal place largely by acclamation. It was contested, suppressed, and contested again, over a period of well over two hundred years. Anselm’s defense of the Filioque pretty well put any theological concerns about the clause itself to bed. It is a product of Western circumstance that, while unorthodox in its implementation, was completely orthodox in its sentiment.

This is the same period of time, and the same general region that gave us the Creed of St. Athanasius which has avoided controversy while retaining a place as one of the 3 Ecumenical Creeds approved by the 39 Articles. It comes out swinging in favor of the Filioque, and is frequently lauded as one of the best articulations of Trinitarian theology we have at our disposal. (See: Saint Patrick’s Bad Analogies.) While it is in no way Athanasian, (It comes just shy of quoting De Trinitate verbatum) I fear that its Patristic namesake has kept it safe.

We are so slow to escape from the overwhelming cultural construct that nothing good happened between 500 and 1300CE. The fact is that Trinitarian heavy lifting that took place in the Middle Ages set the stage for the most formative period of Theological development in the Western Church since Augustine, who a decent cohort are more than willing to lump in with the “nothing good happened” lot. What the Filioque controversy shows, however, is a group of devoutly Orthodox Christians who were devoted to raising their people up in the Catholic faith, and were willing to do the theological heavy lifting that made the change possible.

We are doing precisely the same thing today in so many ways. To be Episcopalian and take a hard stand against pastoral need driving doctrinal development is to speak out of both sides of our mouths.

Which leads me to my second point. The usefulness of the Filioque in formation today can’t be understated. Yesterday Derek Olsen wrote a remarkably poignant description of the theological climate in which we currently live and move. His insight around the tenets of Therapeutic Monotheistic Deism are right on the mark, and the fact that TMD is a remarkably Arian movement needs to be pinned to the wall of every catechist in the Church.

My own Barthian predilections notwithstanding, we are at a juncture where the creative aspects of the eternal Logos need to be taught and preached with abandon. The Filioque and the Athanasian Creed are two tools that can’t stand to live without. Derek was right to note that any Prayer Book Revision has to take TMD into account, and if we’re serious about what that means it follows that we should be serious about retaining the Filioque.

Liturgy is formation. Its the heart of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The Filioque was produced at a time where that was felt more acutely than ever, and the Western Church, Catholic and Protestant alike, has affirmed repeatedly until the Ecumenical wave of the last 50 years.

It seems to be that my lot as a young priest is to scream into the wind of movements I wasn’t around to play a part in, and this feels a lot like screaming into the wind. But with a Prayer Book Revision looming on the horizion, I reckon its something I’m going to need to get used to.


Death Had A Good Week: A Sermon for Proper 22.

Death had a good week this week.

10 killed and dozens injured in Oregon. An execution in Virginia and in Georgia, with another stayed at the last minute in Oklahoma.

Hundreds more unnamed, many in our own city have fallen victim to violence. Have fallen victim to a despair and to a spirit of darkness that runs through so much of the world that surrounds us. Death is common place.

Like our president said. Our response has become routine. Our debates have become scripted. Our positions have become more entrenched.

And just like the Pharisees in our Gospel today, we test each other. We ask the biting questions. The leading questions. The questions that affirm our own positions, that write our own points, that make perfectly clear, to any who are around us, exactly which side we are on.

The Pharisees asked Jesus is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Knowing full well what the Torah said. They set him up. They laid the trap.

Jesus knows the answer that they’re looking for. He knows he’s being played. He comes back with another question. “What did Moses teach you?”

They said, Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce his wife. Moses allowed a man to write a certificate that, in the time of Jesus, would leave a woman stranded without support. That would put a women in the social position of a widow without the same structures and provisions that provided relief to widows. The law of Moses allowed a man to put a woman in a position where she was fighting for her life. Where she was cast out and cut off from the family that she relied on for her sustenance.

Is it lawful? Yes.

We hear a lot about that question these days. About what the boundaries of the law allows. About what our Rights are. About the right to bear arms. The right of the State to take vengeance upon itself on our behalf.

It is because of our hardness of heart. Because of our hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for us. It is because of our of your inability to see the depths of God’s creative love. It is because we are broken.

We became hard like Pharoah who could not hear the cries of the slaves. Who would not let go. Who cannot see the justice of God.

So frequently in the Gospel the Pharisees ask Jesus about what is lawful. And so frequently in the Gospel Jesus is not concerned with what is lawful.

Jesus is concerned with what is right.

The laws are a product of our brokenness, and Jesus is here to call us to more.

Christ gives us a gracious place to make our stand. Recognizing that some relationships are indeed too strained to be saved. That it is better for some to be apart, but it is never, never, our place to dismiss one another out of hand. To cast one another aside and out of love.

Christ pushes the boundaries of what the people surrounding him knew. And following in Jesus’ example begs us to ask the question, as we navigate a time where positions are so entrenched as to be immovable; What is it that Christ is calling us to?

If we don’t see it clearly now, we can give ourselves Grace. The disciples didn’t always get it either.

As Children are being brought to Jesus, as he takes them in his arms and blesses them, the disciples shoo them away. Knowing that the teacher who has already had so many demands placed on his time doesn’t need the distraction of those who are not able to care for themselves. Who don’t have resources. Who don’t have social capital. Who don’t have a voice.

Where the disciples see distraction, Jesus sees the opportunity to share love.

We live in a society that so often tells us, and others, that “You are not worth my time.” Jesus makes a stand and says, No, it is these to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. Be. Like. Them.

We have to become very clear. Right now. About what we believe.

Kelly Gissendaner, a model of the power of God’s redeeming love, was killed by the State of Georgia on Tuesday. When she entered the execution chamber, she apologized for her role in the murder of her former husband and began to weep. As she was strapped to the gurney where she would be injected with pentobarbital until she died, she sang Amazing Grace until she couldn’t any longer.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.

Amazing Grace, the hymn written by a Slave Ship captain, who after a slow, painstaking process of conversion, stopped working the Southwest passage, and became an Anglican Priest.

Amazing Grace, I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.

We sing it all the time. There isn’t a one of us who hasn’t heard it before and my question is now. For all of us. Do we believe it?

Do we believe that Christ’s redemptive work means that no one is beyond the bounds of our community. Even those who we would level a gun against. Even those who would level a gun against us.

Do we believe that the message of the risen Lord has anything to say to a City that has had one hundred gun-related homicides this Calendar year?

Do we believe that the Gospel has anything to offer to a country that has had 994 mass shootings since Sandy Hook?

Do we believe that the word of life can move in a country united by a Pope’s visit, who, the second he returns to Rome, schedules 6 executions?

Do we believe that Christ is calling us to care for Children in our midst in a country with the highest rate of Child poverty in the developed world.

The question the Church must ask itself now is… do we believe that Grace is Amazing?

That it has the power to reach into our relationships and mend them. No matter how broken they may seem?

Do we believe that Grace is Amazing?

Can it tell our children that they are more than what they lack, that they are more than happy little consumers. That they are loved. That they are cared for. So that maybe when they grow up they will never reach for a Gun in anger.

Do we believe that Grace is Amazing?

Will we let our hearts be softened enough to take those who hurt us, those who test us, those who would put us to death into our arms and bless them.

Do we believe that Grace is Amazing?

The world needs the Church, the world needs us, to say yes. Unabashedly. Unashamedly. Yes.

Grace is Amazing. Grace can change us. Grace is stronger than death. Grace is here.

Image Credit: Matthew Alderman. St. Cecilia with SS. Tiburtius and Valerian. Ink on Vellum, 2010, private collection, Washington, DC.

Note: I don’t intend to make a regular habit of posting my Sermons. There are other, better venues for that. I just needed to get this one out here.