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From the President

These Are Not Easy Times for Bridge-Builders: Berea College Baccalaureate Sermon

Before driving down here to Berea for the first time Friday night, I spent a few days at a church conference in Cincinnati. Our group paid a visit to the Freedom Center Museum, that remarkable tribute to the Underground Railroad. There’s a great view toward the south from the terrace of that building. To your left is the baseball stadium, and to your right there’s another one, just as big, and I’m told there’s a third one close by, so there’s no question, you’re in Cincinnati. But it was the view straight ahead that caught my eye, the view of Mr. Roebling’s grand suspension bridge, across the Ohio River, connecting Ohio to Kentucky. For a native New Yorker like me, it was a very confusing moment. I could have been in Brooklyn Heights, staring at the Brooklyn Bridge, a bridge that was built 20 years later by Mr. Roebling’s son, a bridge featuring the same intricate network of cables suspended between a similar pair of neo-Gothic arches. But if I had been in Brooklyn, I would have seen the towers of lower Manhattan looming at me from the other side. What I glimpsed from the Ohio side of the bridge, of course, was not the proud but fragile towers of Manhattan but, to be polite, the more modest skyline of Covington, and the inviting start of the winding road south, the road my wife and I traveled Friday afternoon to arrive here at this amazing place, and to speak to this amazing class of 2014.

What a privilege to be with you all on this day so full of blessing and promise! What a privilege to stand here with the staff and faculty who have been so important in helping you shape your intellectual, emotional and spiritual lives. What a privilege to be here among your families and friends and supporters without whom you could never have done what you have done. I hope you will remember that. And what a privilege President Roelofs has extended to me to stand here in this pulpit—a stranger to this place—and to preach what your founder John Fee called the impartial Gospel of love, and to preach to people like you. You have experienced that impartial love first hand, since the day you first walked on this campus four or two or thirty or however many years ago.

Back in Cincinnati on Thursday, when I was standing on the terrace of the Freedom Museum, staring at that lovely bridge, our tour guide said something that has stayed with me. Gesturing toward Mr. Roebling’s graceful and solid achievement, she told us proudly: “No enslaved person ever crossed that bridge.” That would not have been the case if it had been opened just a few years earlier than it did, because the Roebling bridge didn’t open until 1867, by which time every person of African descent in Ohio or Kentucky was free to cross any bridge they wanted to— legally free anyway, and if only for a time. Formerly enslaved people and their descendants would have to endure 100 years of Jim Crow before the freedom to cross would really be the case. And that would only be the case thanks to the bravery and determination of those who marched for freedom across many another American bridge, including that bloody bridge in Selma.

“No enslaved person ever crossed this bridge.” I wonder what John Fee would have made of that statement. This is my first time in Berea, so I haven’t had the time or chance to research whether he had any comment to make in 1867 when that bridge opened between Cincinnati and Covington. It was about that same year that he and his colleagues returned to this place in the heart of the Appalachian hills, and courageously reopened this college. They were determined to relight the beacon of free inquiry in a nation torn asunder by violence and prejudice and oppression—God bless them for it. They put their lives and livelihoods on the line, fiercely determined that the blood shed in that great civil slaughter would not have been shed in vain.

Class of 2014, the beacon those founders lit is now yours to carry. You have been shaped by an institution whose founders made no peace with oppression, a place of light and learning where the building of bridges is not just a task for structural engineers like John Roebling, but the task of everyone in this room. Bridging the differences separating religion and race and economic class has been and continues to be this college’s sacred vocation. And a rare vocation it is, especially in these violent and polarized days. And now that vocation is yours.

You will not have it easy. These are not easy times for bridge-builders.

Marilynne Robinson, one of the best novelists writing in American today, shares my admiration for Berea College, and for other colleges like it that were founded on evangelical and abolitionist principles—Oberlin, Knox, Grinnell, Carleton. Robinson just published a book of essays with a lovely, poignant title. It’s called When I Was A Child I Read Books. There are too many children in this country about whom that cannot be said. Her book includes a shrewd essay on the founders of Oberlin College, who had not a little to do with the founding of this institution. Learning communities like Oberlin and Berea she would call works of generous imagination, and, as she writes, “the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be.” (p. 29) I think that is a good description of how this community came to be, as John Fee and his colleagues in the 1850s imagined a country free of slavery, open to all talents, a community both healthy and humane.

But looking around in the 2010s, Robinson sees a country where such generous imagination has begun to shrivel. Here is what she writes:

Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in a spiritual free-fall.” When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.” Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.” This tedious pattern, [she writes], has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is…the end of community and the beginning of tribalism. (p.30)

It is with this passage in mind that I chose the text for this baccalaureate sermon, taken from Paul’s second letter to his congregation in Corinth, a community whose generous imagination had also begun to shrivel. Paul knew that the church in Corinth, the church that he had founded, had begun to draw up sharp lines of separation. For them the lines were not so much racial as religious—the dividing line between “us” who are spiritual and “them” who are not. But Paul has no patience with such invidious divisions. “If anyone is in Christ,” he declares, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new!”

I look out from this pulpit at all of you, and newness is what I see. In your youth, in your freshness, in your eagerness, in your pride, I see a new creation, a generation with a renewed sense of hope. I rejoice in your newness. But your youth, your freshness, your eagerness for new horizons and new possibilities, your sense of possibilities that lie before you—all these good things will amount to very little if you succumb to what Marilyn Robinson describes as the all-to-human temptation to puff yourselves up, to see yourselves as better than others because of your education, or your skin color, or your social class or the job you land or your station in life, if you embrace the tribalism of “us” versus “them.” Especially on glorious days like this, when we march around the aisles and wear fancy clothes, when our achievements are held up for everyone to behold and to cheer, it is imperative that we remember with Paul that everything we are, everything with have, every achievement that is ours, all this is from God:

Who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

I want to tell you a story, a kind of parable of reconciliation. It is not an entirely happy story, and in fact begins in an act of racial violence. But as the abolitionist founders of this college knew, the kind of reconciliation Paul talks about is never easy. The grace of radical forgiveness never comes cheap.

Twenty years ago, a young woman named Amy Biehl was a brilliant 26 year old graduate of Stanford, fired with a passion for social justice. She won a Fulbright scholarship to the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa, at a time when government oppression of the anti-apartheid movement was at its most violent. Amy’s project was to set up reading and tutoring programs for children in Gugulethu, one of the townships located in the salt flats outside the city, where thousands and thousands of black South Africans were forced to live in squalor by the white apartheid regime. It was a time of tremendous political unrest and violent government suppression, violence centered in the townships. It was dangerous for a white person to travel there. Just days before she was to leave for the States, Amy was driving a black friend home to Gugulethu when a mob of local black youth stormed the car. They pulled Amy from the driver’s seat, and stoned and stabbed and beat her to death on the side of the road, despite the pleas of her black companions to spare her as someone who was on their side, someone who regarded blacks and whites as equals, as colleagues in the struggle.

Four young men were convicted of killing her, and sent to prison.

Just two years later, the apartheid regime collapsed. In 1994, my own teacher and mentor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chaired the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which offered amnesty to anyone, white or black, who committed politically motivated crimes during the apartheid struggle, but only if they publically admitted their wrongdoings, and did so in the presence of the victims or those representing them. The victims of violence would then be asked if they would offer their forgiveness to their aggressors. There are many people in South Africa and elsewhere who took issue with the Commission and the amnesties it granted. I for one remain convinced that the process, however flawed, helped the country avoid a bloodbath of retribution, and created vital space for a new multi-racial South Africa to emerge under President Mandela’s leadership. In the words of Bishop Tutu, “Without forgiveness there can be no future.”

Amy Biehl’s parents agreed. In 1994 they made the long, sad journey from California to appear before the Commission and to confront the perpetrators. To the shock of most people present, the Biehls argued for amnesty for their daughter’s murderers. They later visited the homes of their families, embraced their mothers, and took these penitent young men under their wing. For the Biehls, justice was a matter of restoration, not retribution. As Mr. Biehl bravely stated:

The most important vehicle of reconciliation is open and honest dialogue…we are here to reconcile a human life which was taken without an opportunity for dialogue. When we are finished with this process we must move forward with linked arms.

The Biehls created a foundation in Cape Town in their daughter’s memory, dedicated to furthering the work among impoverished children and young people that their daughter had begun. They even hired one or two of the young men who had been granted amnesty to be trained as part of the staff.

My story does not end there. About five years ago, my own daughter and I visited the Biehl Foundation in Cape Town. Liz was then in her late 20s, an Oberlin graduate, a poet and school chaplain. She was in South Africa on a study grant, interviewing chaplains in Christian schools around the country to see how they were handling racial and religious difference in the new, multi-racial South Africa. I was also in South Africa then, teaching at an Anglican seminary, and took time off to act as Liz’s driver and traveling companion.

At the suggestion of one of her colleagues, who had been a student at Stanford a few years after Amy Biehl had graduated, Liz and I stopped at the foundation offices. The foundation people had arranged for us to be driven into Gugulethu, to visit the various schools and day care centers that the Foundation supported, places of deep poverty and tremendous hope. Our driver was a young black man about Liz’s age, well-spoken and thoughtful, and clearly a familiar and welcome figure in all the places we visited. I suspected that he had grown up in the neighborhood. After we visited the last of several tutoring centers scattered through the township, and were getting ready to get back in the car for the return trip to Cape Town, I asked him about his history, how he got into this kind of work, and with so many opportunities opening up for people like him in the new South Africa, what made him stay with it. There was a long pause. “I am glad to be doing this, grateful to be doing this,” he said, “because, you see, I was one of the persons responsible for her death.”

He then drove us into the township to show us where she had been killed, at the side of the road near a filling station, just a few hundred yards from where his grandmother lived in a corrugated tin shack, from where he had grown up. He told us everything about that day, about how it had happened, and what had happened to him afterwards. Liz and I sat in the back seat, taking it all in, looking at each other in silence, feeling how sobering and unsettling it was to be with him, but realizing too how moved we were by his quiet eloquence and his quiet sorrow.

When we pulled into the street where we were staying in Cape Town, and he prepared to drop us off, on an impulse I asked him if he would join us for a moment on the sidewalk, so I could perhaps take a photograph of him standing next to Liz, with the beautiful Table Mountain of Cape Town in the background. It is a haunting photograph. Liz was then the same age as Amy Biehl was when she died. And there she stood on a Cape Town street, next to one of Amy Biehl’s murderers, a young man who through a grace-filled act of forgiveness had been restored to a productive life, carrying on the mission of reconciliation that Amy Biehl had exemplified both in her life and in her death.

All this is from God, Paul writes, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

Beloved class of 2014, on this beautiful and significant day in your lives, you and I are a long way from South Africa. But the path of justice and restoration, the radical message of reconciliation and forgiveness, is a message nonetheless that you are all equipped to tell. Think back to that bridge across that all-too narrow, all-too-shallow Ohio River, linking Cincinnati with Covington, linking Ohio with Kentucky, linking free state with former slave state, our violent past to our promising future. Think of that bridge as I think of my photograph. Think of it as an icon of reconciliation, a permanent reminder of the continuing need of reconciliation between “us” and “them”. Reimagine that bridge as Paul might have reimagined it. Reimagine it as a path to liberation, a path uniting and reconciling black and white, male and female, Jew and Greek, native and immigrant, Christian and Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu and atheist. Reimagine it as a bridge leading toward a reconciliation that rejects separation not by enforcing uniformity but by embracing the common good. Such a spirit of reconciliation is deeply embedded in the DNA of this great institution. That spiritual DNA has now been grafted into yours.

Go from this place as builders of bridges, as ambassadors of reconciliation. God has made of one blood all the peoples of the earth. In your work, in your play, in your joys and in your achievements, show that to be true.

God bless you, and Godspeed.

Doing Scripture through the Prayer Book

In the next several weeks, the entire Bexley Seabury faculty will be showcased in an eight-part video series introducing on-line audiences to the spiritual practices of the Book of Common Prayer. We are working with the Rev. Chris Yaw, founder of ChurchNext, a start-up non-profit dedicated to exploring new platforms for Christian formation in dioceses and congregations throughout the world.  I filmed my four-part segment—on Scripture and the Prayer Book—yesterday in my Chicago office, with Chris behind the camera and my former parishioner Simon Carr’s beautiful painting of the Transfiguration forming the backdrop. I like to think of this project as an excellent example of what we are calling our “seminary beyond walls.” Chris and I hope that our series will have widespread use in parishes and congregations around the country, as well as among individuals sitting in front of their laptops and connected to the Internet.  My gifted colleagues—Tom Ferguson, Jason Fout, Karl Ruttan, Ellen Wondra, John Dally, Suzann Holding, Milner Seifert—and I are proud of what we have accomplished, and grateful to be working for an Episcopal seminary where such innovative projects constitute our very reason for being.

To find out more about ChurchNext and the Bexley Seabury Prayer Book Series, visit the ChurchNext website.   And encourage your colleagues, friends and parishioners to consider subscribing to the series. The first four-part segment—featuring Dean Tom Ferguson on global Anglicanism and the Prayer Book tradition—is scheduled to be aired on-line next week. To give you a sense of what we are up to, here’s a preview of the script I wrote for yesterday’s filming. It’s a five-minute segment (one of four) focusing on “doing” Scripture through the Prayer Book. Let me know what you think.

Happy Eastertide to all.

Doing Scripture through the Prayer Book: singing psalms, shaking hands, pouring water, breaking bread

We have already seen how deeply the language of Scripture has influenced the language of the Prayer Book.  But it’s not just the language of the Bible that has shaped Prayer Book worship.  Even when Scripture isn’t quoted directly, almost every ritual action that the Prayer Book provides for in its rubrics (in effect its stage directions) exhibits what might be called scriptural resonance.

In other words, we not only read Scripture in the Prayer Book tradition; in many ways and in many forms we enact it.

To name just a few Prayer Book moments of scriptural resonance:

  • The dramatic pouring of water into the baptismal font, as the priest blesses it while speaking of Noah and the flood, the crossing of the Red Sea waters, and John’s baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan
  • The laying on of hands at moments of blessing, or in the public service of healing, or during services of confirmation or ordination—perhaps the most frequently mentioned activity in the stories about Jesus and about the earliest days of the church
  • The anointing with scented oil during the rite of baptism, or with the oil of healing at times of physical or emotional crisis, reminding us of Jesus’ own anointing by Mary of Bethany, or of Paul proclaiming to his congregation in Corinth that “we are the aroma of Christ”
  • The sending forth at the end of Eucharist, echoing the injunction in Matthew to Go therefore and make disciples of all nations
  • The smearing with ashes on the first day of Lent, accompanied by the saying in Genesis that we are dust and will return to dust
  • The procession of the palms on the Sunday before Easter, a joyful ritual in response to the reading of the Gospel narrative of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem
  • The washing of feet at the Maundy Thursday liturgy, in keeping with Jesus’ mandate (in old English, his “Maundy”) to love one another as he loves us, to serve rather than to be served
  • The procession of the cross into the church on Good Friday, in response to the dramatic reading of John’s passion narrative and the solemn prayers of the people
  • The lighting of the Pascal candle at the Easter vigil, as we sit in darkness and hear the great Biblical narratives of our creation and our redemption.

As you can see, the list goes on and on.  Almost every ritual action the Prayer Book provides for has its roots in Biblical story and Biblical proclamation.

And there are also those key moments in Prayer Book worship when what we do and see is a direct response to a Biblical imperative: 

  • when we pray the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus taught us to pray,
  • when we share the bread and wine after praying the very words that Jesus uttered at his last supper with his friends—“Whenever you do this, do this in memory of me”
  • when we pause at the start of our Eucharistic celebration in Rite I to hear the Great Commandment that Jesus gave us, quoting both Leviticus and Deuteronomy:

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

To hear and follow these two commandments of Jesus, to follow them in our relationship with each other and with the world God loves: in the end, as Archbishop Cranmer knew, that is what Prayer Book worship—what Common Prayer—is really all about.

The Geography of Evil

Graves srebrenica bosnia and herzegovinaA sermon preached on Good Friday 2014, Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago

Every year on the evening between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Episcopal cathedral in New York sponsors an all-night reading of Dante’s Inferno, all thirty-four exciting and horrific cantos. The timing is grimly appropriate. The action of the entire Divine Comedy begins on Maundy Thursday of the year 1300. Dante the pilgrim makes his way down through the many circles of hell, and then climbs the seven story mountain of purgatory, and then—like a human rocket ship—is catapulted into the heavenly spheres of the Paradiso, all in the scope of an Easter weekend.

I expect that by this time, the readers in the Cathedral will have concluded the last canto of the Inferno. It is a shocking canto, perhaps more shocking to the 14th century reader than it is to us, as it begins with a blasphemous parody of one of the most beautiful Latin hymns of Holy Week. As Dante approaches the deepest center of hell, his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, warns him in a mix of Latin and Italian:

Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni verso di noi,/ pero dinanzi mira,

which, roughly translated, means “The regal banners of the inferno are flying in front of us, so keep your eyes peeled and your powder warm.” So somehow Virgil, a pagan who died in the first century, knows the words of the opening verse of one of the greatest seventh century hymns in honor of the Cross, a hymn still sung in monasteries and sanctuaries throughout the world on days like this.

Vexilla Regis prodeunt;

Fulget Crucis mysterium,

Quo carne carnis conditor

Suspense est patibulo


Abroad the regal banners fly,

now shines the Cross’s mystery:

upon it life did Death endure,

and yet by death did life procure.

Vexilla regis prodeunt—The banners of the king go forth. Virgil has the wit to add, “the banners of the king—of hell”—because he and his protégé have now reached the very pit of the Inferno, where no fires burn, where everywhere is ice. It’s a place where the banners of the king of hell in truth proceed nowhere at all. They are in fact not banners that Virgil points to, but ghosts, shades, “ombre”—the shades of those who had committed the worst sin that Dante could imagine—the sin of betrayal. And at the very epicenter of the inverted cone of hell as Dante imagines it is Lucifer, the Great Betrayer, the fallen angel of light, emperor of this woeful realm. He stands there waist deep in ice, frozen, immobile. No romantic hero he, but a kind of death machine, with one head and three faces—demonic parody of the Trinity. His body is the color of decay, as ugly now as it once was beautiful. His six eyes weep tears and bloody foam, and each of his three mouths chews the living corpses of one of the three men whom Dante regarded as the three greatest of traitors. Cassius and Brutus, assassins of Julius Caesar, each squirms in one of Lucifer’s two outer mouths. The center mouth chews Judas Iscariot. Judas’ head and upper body are hidden from view inside that horrible mouth, his legs outside kicking and trembling in the icy winds—winds kicked up by the six batlike wings of the fallen seraph who forever holds him captive.

Read more: The Geography of Evil

The End of the Story

I have always felt a close kinship with Nicodemus. He is one of several figures in the Gospels who approach Jesus in good faith only to get much more than they bargained for:  like the rich man who had followed the Law diligently from his youth, the man whom Jesus loved, and yet felt forced to flee his presence in guilt and sorrow because the demand Jesus made—to sell all he had and follow him—was more than he could bear. Or the Syro-Phoenician woman who sought a cure for her daughter, only to be rebuked like a dog for presuming to cross the boundary dividing insider from outsider, circumcised from uncircumcised, Jew from Gentile, men from women. To her credit she had the temerity to stand up to Jesus. Not many of us would, I suspect. Certainly not Nicodemus.

By the time Jesus has finished with him early in John’s gospel, Nicodemus all but disappears from view. He asks God what we all ask God at some point in our lives: How can these things be? And Jesus’ response is so total, so overwhelming, that Nicodemus doesn’t stand a chance. Nicodemus is always in the dark: masking his quest in the darkness around him, struggling hard against the darkness within him. And Jesus has no patience with him:

“How can a man be born again from his mother’s womb? How can these things be?”

“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

It’s a nightmare of a rebuke, this rebuke of Jesus, in the darkness that Nicodemus thought was safe—a rebuke that sails into him from nowhere, like the winter wind wreaking havoc through the barren trees.

If we are honest with ourselves, and honest with God, this rebuke may be our nightmare too. It’s just not safe, this religious business. I am not talking about what the cultured despisers call “organized religion”—with its membership lists, its church councils, its pledging rolls, its liturgical niceties, its bishops defending against lawsuits, its competing seminaries. No, that part of religion, ironically, feels safe and familiar. For better or worse, we do institutions pretty well.

The part that’s not safe is the encounter with God—not just questioning Jesus (he seems to enjoy that), but simply being with Jesus. Especially when we think we know what we are doing. Like Nicodemus, we do not always understand. We do not always trust. Many of us, if we approach God at all, would rather not allow ourselves to be seen by the light of day.

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.

We never find out what becomes of Nicodemus. We see him only once again in John’s gospel, toward the end of the story, again in darkness, as he drags a load of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body in the tomb, Jesus being safer dead than alive. What a load to bear in the darkness. He will use those spices to anoint the corpse, laying it in the safety of the graveyard. Nicodemus will leave Jesus’ body where it is safe to leave it, and for that act of bravery and compassion God’s blessings on him.

We’ll never know, at least in this life, what became of Nicodemus after that. But knowing his after-story is not the point. The story in John’s gospel is not really about Nicodemus, struggling with Jesus in the dark. The story is about us. It is an Easter story. And although we all can predict the end of our stories—the human mortality rate still stands at 100%—we cannot predict, or control, how God will lead us to our end. We cannot predict where our own place at Calvary might be. But we can know what I hope Nicodemus finally knew, when he heard that the tomb was empty—that in Christ all things will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

The Spirit of God blows where it chooses. Knowing that is perhaps what Christian life is all about, allowing ourselves, opening ourselves, to feel and hear the wind when and where it blows, embracing it, breathing it in, with arms wide open and in the full light of day. To acknowledge God the Spirit breathing in and through our ordinary lives, and to allow ourselves to be born anew, born from above, even if it means dying to what we are and rising again to a life of hope and compassion and reconciling love that we have only begun to imagine and embody.

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

For ten years I had the privilege of leading an historic endowed congregation in Lower Manhattan. Of course, it is difficult to imagine a parish functioning in expensive lower Manhattan without an endowment.  There are five Episcopal parishes below 14th Street, all five of which exist in the shadow of the great Megillah of endowed parishes, Trinity Wall Street. In fact, my parish--St. Luke in the Fields--owed its very survival to Trinity.  For a hundred years it had functioned as a Trinity chapel in the West Village, in effect a wholly owned subsidiary of the Wall Street parish. In 1976, in the midst of a real estate meltdown (Trinity is a major landowner downtown), Trinity decided to shed its "chapels." They gave the newly constituted vestry of St Luke's title to an entire city block (including three rows of Federal townhouses suitable for market rate rental) and a million dollars. By the time I was called as rector 18 years later, shrewd investments had tripled the dollar amount, the rentals were grossing $700,000 a year, the school was flourishing, and the parish one of the most active and innovative in the city.

But endowments are a mixed blessing, at the mercy of stock market volatility and the hard-to-resist temptation to increase the yearly draw beyond the usual 5% to hide a deficit (a practice that in the past our own seminaries understood only too well). Endowments are also notorious breeders of institutional complacency. It takes a bold leader to move a congregation from reliance on the benefactors of the past to a readiness to invest their own money in the present, preserving the endowment to help guarantee the future. And of course, the great majority of Episcopal parishes cannot match the reserves of our better endowed parishes, and struggle just to keep the lights on. As I say, church endowments can be a mixed blessing. They can be seen to encourage the  creation of  a two-tiered set of churches--those that have (and will continue to flourish) and those that don't (and won't).

I write all this in Atlanta, where my Bexley Seabury colleagues and I are attending the annual gathering of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, known as CEEP. For the first time, our ten Episcopal seminaries are present as full members. All ten seminaries owe our continued existence in large part to our endowments, and to the generosity of our alumni and supporters. Of course, we are all here in Atlanta with our development officers, hoping to win friends and influence influential people. 

But the good news is that this is not a gathering of wealthy and complacent Episcopalians. There is a palpable sense of mission here, and a clear desire to address the financial and spiritual crisis faced by all our congregations and institutions, endowed or not. It is clear to me, as it is to many participants here, that our large endowed parishes have a moral obligation to nurture and support the kind of leaders we need to engage God's mission as our church has been called to engage it. We have the resources to do it. We need to find the will. This means raising up lay and ordained leaders who will help us, in effect, re-invent what it means to be church, especially for the fast-growing number of younger people who think what it means to be church is to be exclusive, strident and censorious on the one hand, or boring, complacent and outmoded on the other.

In the next ten years, there will be a massive wave of retirements of priests like me--members of the boomer generation who are in some ways responsible for the present mess we are in. My hope is that my colleagues here at CEEP can put our mouths where our money is, and redouble our efforts to raise up new leaders for the long run, in ways that will rejuvenate and strengthen all our congregations, endowed or not.  The Gospel demands nothing less. 

Baptism Makes Us All Outsiders

I write this President’s message during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. "It has been reported to me...that there are quarrels among you, brothers and sisters." Now there's an understatement. Imagine what Paul might have said about present-day Christians, now scattered, as my colleague John Dally reminded us recently in chapel, into over 30,000 different Christian denominations.

In what has rightly been called our current ecumenical winter, Paul's words stab deep. With Paul we yearn for unity. Yet at the same time many of us fear in our own congregations what perhaps the Corinthians feared in theirs in their quest for unity—we fear being co-opted, or absorbed, or belittled, or worse thing, perhaps, just pitied and ignored.

But we need to lay fear aside. In the end, as Paul knew, it's our common baptism into Christ's death and resurrection that unites us, no matter what branch of the Christian family we find ourselves in, or no matter how many church-dividing stumbling blocks our theologians lay before us.

But we have to be careful. The Spirit can be dangerous, and our baptism in common can take us to places we had not expected to go, especially those of us determined to keep our denominational integrity intact. Ecumenism has been all about a search for inclusiveness, a search for the formula that will allow all of us, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, to find a common home, a temple where all can worship in safety. Baptism seems tailor-made for this task, the ultimate symbol of Christian inclusiveness.

But baptism is not necessarily a rite of inclusion, nor perhaps should it be. As Bexley Seabury Board member Bishop Tom Breidenthal has argued, we should learn to regard baptism not as a rite of inclusion but as a rite of expulsion. That word expulsion comes as something of a shock. Embracing our common baptism is not about finding a peaceful center where we can all feel comfortable and friendly and polite. To embrace our common baptism is to allow the Spirit to blast our centers apart.  Jesus was baptized by John, and immediately the Spirit expelled him into the wilderness. Nicodemus wants to follow Jesus, but to his horror he's told he needs to be expelled from the womb a second time. Andrew and Peter, James and John, abandoned the everyday world they knew, expelled by the Spirit into the presence of this strange man Jesus, following him even to Calvary, leaving a puzzled and scandalized father Zebedee to ponder his lonely fate in the dust of their sudden departure.

The baptized community is not about inviting people in, which is what our ecumenical discussions try so hard to do, and to such frustrating and feeble effect. Baptism is not about widening the circle of insiders and distinguishing them from outsiders. Baptism makes us all outsiders, expelled from the center to inhabit the margins, driven by the Spirit out of our places of safety—whether it's our fishing boats or our churches, our racial prejudices or our economic comforts—to make common cause with the poor and the isolated, the refugee and the captive. One reason we may have entered an ecumenical winter is at there has just been too much talk of safety, or simply too much talk.  Perhaps in this troubled season we might just let the Spirit empty us of churchy eloquence so that the cross, that ultimate sign of expulsion, might be revealed in all its power to save. Perhaps it's time for our churches in their ecumenical discussions to stop jockeying for position at the foot of the cross, and instead for the sake of all outsiders empty ourselves of our denominational certainties so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

Worth the Wait

Robben Island, the bleakly beautiful island off the coast from Cape Town, is now a national museum and a World Heritage Site. It was once a leper colony, and then for decades housed the prison where Nelson Mandela and scores of other political activists were brutally imprisoned. Tour boats now shuttle regularly between the island and the Cape Town waterfront. Once you get to the island, you climb aboard a bus, led by an elderly guide who is likely to be a former prisoner.

The most important stop, of course, is the tiny cell where Mandela was kept in isolation for decades. But what I remember most from my first visit in 1999, just two years after the prison was decommissioned and opened to the public, is a limestone quarry, a high white cliff blinding you even in the winter sun. During the years of apartheid, this was where Mandela and many of his companions were put to meaningless work, chiseling away at the cliff to no real purpose, permanently damaging eyes and lungs. With the dust and the wind and the glare, it is a relief to get back on the bus and head back toward the sea. But as the bus turns from the quarry toward the main road, you will notice a small pyramid of stones, carefully piled at the crossing. It is an odd sight, jarring. It looks like a burial mound. But it is in fact a marker of new life. After the prison had been closed and apartheid ended, there was a reunion of former prisoners at this site. They erected this cairn of remembrance as a signpost on the road to freedom.

Robben Island rockpileI took a photograph of that rockpile. As the world mourns Mandela's death, I think of this image as an icon for Advent—an icon for this season of waiting. When the racist government imprisoned Nelson Mandela all those years ago, their intention was to put an end to expectation, to cut off hope. But Mandela knew how to wait. For South Africa, his release signaled the triumph of hope over the tyranny of fear, a triumph poignantly celebrated in those memorial stones.

The triumph of hope: that, after all, is what this Advent season is about—hope in the midst of suffering. In these mean times in our own country, when immigrants are demonized and the poor get poorer, it is well to remember whom we are waiting for: an impoverished child, born in a shed to parents uprooted by tyranny, a Savior who will suffer at the hands of tyrants only to rise triumphant not in vengeance but in mercy, seeking not retribution but restoration, offering both reconciliation and a thirst for justice. Mandela himself was no Messiah—he knew that better than anyone. But his long walk to freedom allowed us a glimpse of what true redemption will look like. It's worth the wait.

God Bless Africa;
Guard her children;
Guide her leaders
And give her peace, for Jesus Christ's sake.

A blessed Advent and Christmastide to all.

Two Cheers for Samuel Seabury

A few days ago, it was the turn of the Bexley Hall students to organize and lead the community Eucharist at Trinity Lutheran Seminary.  Susan Smith, the rector of the local parish, would preside, and I was asked to preach.

It was the feast of the consecration of Samuel Seabury, not an auspicious theme for an Episcopal preacher in a Lutheran institution. For all we owe to him as Episcopalians, the Rev. Mr. Seabury was not a very attractive character. In saying this, I am in pretty good company.  Alexander Hamilton didn’t think much of him either. In the run-up to the American Revolution, Seabury was fiercely loyal to the British crown.  From the safety of Westchester Country, in 1775 he launched a series of pamphlets (signed only “The Farmer”) defending the Tory position against those clamoring for independence.  Hamilton—a master polemicist—launched a brilliant if venomous response.

The spirit that breathes throughout is so rancorous, illiberal, and imperious; the argumentative part of it is so puerile and fallacious; the misrepresentation of facts so palpable and flagrant; the criticisms so illiterate, trifling, and absurd; the conceits so low, sterile, and splenetic, that I will venture to pronounce it one of the most ludicrous performances which has been exhibited to public view during all the present controversy.

The criticism stuck. A year later, after a short time in an insurrectionist jail, Seabury took refuge in British-occupied New York City, where he served throughout the war as chaplain to a British regiment. With the British withdrawal, Seabury sensibly if rather ignobly changed sides, moving to Connecticut in the hope of reorganizing an Anglican church that was pretty much in shambles. A small group of like-minded clergy gathered in Woodbury to elect him as the first American bishop, sending him off to England for consecration. Even with Seabury’s Tory history, the English bishops had no stomach for  ordaining an American who would not swear allegiance to George III as head of the church.  So Seabury made his way to Scotland, where he was ordained at the hands of Scottish bishops who were equally hostile to English hegemony. And thus, the American church—and for that matter, the Anglican Communion—was launched.  There’s a postscript to the story. Both Seabury’s son and grandson entered the Episcopal ministry, and both held distinguished faculty positions at the General Seminary. But the grandson inherited the grandfather’s gift for championing the wrong cause at the wrong time.  In 1861, as important a year in our history as 1775, Samuel Seabury III published a small tract entitled “American Slavery, Defended.”

Read more: Two Cheers for Samuel Seabury

President Ferlo Cheers Illinois Marriage Equality

The Rev. Dr. Roger A. Ferlo, president of the Bexley Seabury Theological Seminary Federation, welcomed the arrival of marriage equality in Illinois:

"I am delighted that Illinois has joined 14 other states in endorsing marriage equality. Years ago, as a parish priest in Greenwich Village, I was inspired by the example of gay and lesbian couples who kept their relationships alive despite intense social disapproval. They were an example to me and to others in the congregation that what matters to God is not the sexual orientation of the partners, but their honesty, integrity and life-long fidelity. Now something is right in the eyes of the state that has always been right in the eyes of God."

The Bexley Seabury Theological Seminary Federation forms an Episcopal educational center in the Midwest that offers a new model for sustaining rigorous theological education. Our flexible academic programs, rooted in ecumenical partnerships, offer fresh options for clergy and laypeople who are preparing for ministry in a changing church. Learn more at


To Train the Trainers

I am delighted to inaugurate this monthly column as a permanent feature of our new Bexley Seabury website. I hope you will take a moment to explore the various new features of the site, especially our new course offerings, the bios of our combined faculty and our new and continuing Board members, the photographs and personal stories, and the description of the daily worship and the disciplines of formation that mark our common life in Christ.

One of the features of our common life in both Columbus and Chicago that I find most meaningful is the longstanding Seabury tradition, now shared by Bexley, of praying in weekly rotation for each of our alumni by name. Leadership in the church, especially in these difficult times, is a lonely vocation. It is a privilege to pray for every graduate in the course of the academic year. That kind of intercessory prayer—a sign of our solidarity with all who are in ministry—is integral to our seminaries' historic identities. This round of intercessory prayer affirms that we are all in this together.

It was in that spirit of solidarity that last week our newly united board of directors unanimously adopted a vision and mission statement for our new federation. The two statements are now a permanent feature of this website, and can be accessed under the "About" tab on the home page. The two statements read as follows:

Our vision: Bexley Seabury is called to be a 21st century seminary beyond walls – open to all who seek to deepen their Christian formation in a generous spiritual and intellectual tradition.

Our mission: As an Episcopal center for learning and discipleship at the crossroads of the nation, the Bexley Hall Seabury Western Seminary Federation forms lay and clergy leaders to proclaim God's mission in the world, creating new networks of Christian formation, entrepreneurial leadership and bold inquiry in the service of the Gospel.

Even—-especially-—as we face continued structural change and diminished resources in our mainstream churches, we believe that our new federation is called to be generous, not anxious, in its Christian witness to the world. We are committed to sharing a global Anglican tradition of wisdom and learning, broken open and available to all. Our aim is to empower people to replicate the kind of teaching and learning that they have experienced in our courses—in their own congregations, dioceses, and places of daily work and ministry.

We seek, in short, to train the trainers—to teach the teachers of the next generation of faithful Christians. Our aim is to create lifelong learners, faithful Christian leaders whose lives remain always open to transforming grace. Bexley and Seabury offer these gifts and vocational aspirations to the wider church conscious that our size—we are the two smallest Episcopal Church seminaries—is in many ways a great advantage. Together we can maintain both a sense of proportion and a sense of humor. To paraphrase Paul, who knew what it means to live loose to institutional requirements, it is not we ourselves we preach, but the Gospel of Christ in the world. That is why we are here.

Watch this site!

President Roger Ferlo

Roger Ferlo

Roger A. Ferlo is the president of the Bexley Seabury Federation and professor of biblical interpretation and the practice of ministry. Ferlo, who was previously the associate dean and director of the Institute of Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary, where he also served as professor of religion and culture, took up his duties at Bexley Seabury on July 1, 2012.

Prior to working at Virginia Seminary, Ferlo, who trained for the priesthood at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, spent 19 years in parish ministry, serving in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. He has 14 years of teaching experience at the university and seminary levels; 15 years of service on the board of the National Association of Episcopal schools, including a term as president; and nine years of service on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Colgate University ('73, summa cum laude), where in 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Ferlo holds a Ph.D. from Yale University ('79) and has authored and edited three books and numerous published essays, sermons and reflections.