Feast of St. Jerome

Today is the feast day of St. Jerome, one of the great Western Fathers, who labored long to bring the Scriptures to the common man by producing his translation of the Bible into Latin, the language of the Western Roman Empire.

"Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" - St. Jerome

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J.R.R. Tolkien on the Sacrament

"Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament...There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death - by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires."

-J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941;
from Letters of JRR Tolkien (1981), p. 53-54

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Williams and Benedict

Since the Pope has been in England this week, there are natural comparisons being drawn between him and the leader of the Church of England, Rowan Williams.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that there could hardly be two more different Christian leaders in today's Church than Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Benedict has been called "God's rotweiler" because of his perceived role as the dogmatic enforcer of pure doctrine. Rowan Williams on the other hand has been accused of wishy-washy halting leadership as the Anglican Communion moves (stumbles?) through its present crisis of authority.

Yet, for all their genuine differences, Benedict and Rowan share many striking similarities in their influences and ways of thinking, according to this really fascinating article from UK's "The Tablet." Check it out!

Note on the bottom picture: Abp. Rowan Williams (left) co-presiding at Holy Communion at the recent conference of African Anglican bishops. Celebrating with him (to the right) is Archbishop Robert Duncan, leader of the newly-formed Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), the orthodox alternative to the Episcopal Church. Since it is the ambition of the ACNA to replace the Episcopal Church as the "official" expression (in communion with Canterbury) of Anglicanism in North America, I think this is really interesting image, since these two are clearly acting as if in full communion here.

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Pope's visit and England's reaction

Here is a piece from the UK's Telegraph (quoted in full below) addressing the hostile reception that some quarters of the British Media and intelligentsia are giving to the Pope's visit to England this week. It calls for a more honest and truly open dialogue (open even to religious dialogue partners!) within aggressively secular British culture:

This week will witness the historic spectacle of the Pope delivering an address in Westminster Hall to the leaders of British society. Later on Friday, Benedict XVI will visit Westminster Abbey – but it is his speech in the Palace of Westminster that carries the greater symbolic weight. No building in Britain reveals more of the foundations of our constitution. Medieval kings were feasted and deposed in the 900-year-old hall. Guy Fawkes and King Charles I were tried there. So, too, was Sir Thomas More, for refusing to accept the right of the monarch to exercise papal powers.

The last fact underlines the sensitivity of the visit of Pope Benedict, which begins on Thursday; for, unlike John Paul II, he will be here as the guest of the Queen. Matters are made even more delicate by scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, for which Benedict XVI has been put on trial by the British media. As this newspaper has argued, that is the wrong spirit in which to approach this remarkable state visit. The attempts to implicate this Pope in paedophile abuse have fallen apart under scrutiny – and, in any case, he will be here as our guest, not as a defendant. In the past, Westminster Hall may have served as a courtroom; but it is also a setting for hospitality, and that will be its function this week.

The role of host is an opportunity for people to show off – in a good way – all that is best about themselves. At the Palace of Westminster, the former Joseph Ratzinger will breathe the air of an institution that, in contrast to Continental legislatures, has resisted tyranny. He is expected to recognise this by referring to the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a gesture rendered all the more poignant by the fact that as a very young man he served, briefly and unwillingly, in Hitler's armed forces.

In 1940, the British people fought not only to resist conquest but also to preserve their tolerant values. Today, this country permits and even celebrates many things of which the Catholic Church disapproves. But it should be stressed that this Pope, perhaps more than any other, is an admirer of British democracy. As a devotee of Cardinal Newman who speaks our language fluently, he appreciates our tradition of civilised discourse with people whose views we do not share.

In recent months, that tradition has been threatened by the anti-religious rhetoric of "defenders of the Enlightenment", who display an intellectual intolerance almost worthy of the Inquisition. That is a shame. By all means, let critics challenge the Pope's teachings while he is here. But this four-day visit is not an invitation to drown out the voice of the leader of a billion Christians with sneering and mockery. Visitors to these shores as well as British citizens have the right of free speech. Our distinguished guest must be allowed to exercise it.

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Methodists and Apostolic Succession?

"Apostolic Succession" has been one of the much-debated concepts within the Christian world. All agree that Apostolic Succession has to do with guarding the "faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3); the faith taught by the Apostles of Jesus Christ and handed down to us.

Many teachers working in the Protestant traditions argue that Apostolic Succession refers only to the process by which the pure teaching of the Apostles is transmitted from one generation to another. Various forms of institutional structure could affect this transmission and a bishop-to-bishop lineage is not necessary for apostolic succession to exist.

Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans along some Lutherans and other Protestants, on the other hand, argue that Apostolic Succession is the transmission of authentic teaching and authentic leaders through a lineage of authentic bishops whose lines descend from the Apostles. That is, the Apostles trained and ordained bishops to replace them, who then trained and ordained other bishops, and so on, right down to the present day. The only valid ecclesial ministry is that ordained by and working with these bishops. We can see the early forms of this idea right back in St. Irenaeus' teachings against the heretics: (paraphrased) 'We can be sure we have the authentic faith because we have the authentic bishops who learned from those who learned from the Apostles' (see Against Heresies, Book III, chp. 3; ANF v.1, p.415). The succession of bishops, valid clergy orders, valid sacraments, and the succession of teaching, in this conception, are all inseperably conjoined. For this reason, many in these groups would look at those Protestant Churches that lack this 'historic episcopate' as, at best, 'incomplete' Churches, or (at worst) not churches at all. Certainly the validity of their ordinations and clergy are suspect.

Though this teaching appeals to me on one level because it secures more continuity with the Ancient Church, I have never been able to discount the manifestly holy lives of so many genuine Christians in the non-'Apostolic Succession of bishops' churches. Indeed, in my personal experience it often seems that real zeal for Christ, manifestly holy lives, love of God and of his Word are all more likely to be found among the laity in these non-episcopal Succession churches. And "you shall know a tree by its fruits" (Mt. 7:16 ff). On the flip side it is obvious that whole churches, while maintaining the historic episcopate, have nevertheless diverged on matters of important doctrine (as seen, for example, in the rift between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy over Original Sin and Papal authority). The existence of an historic succession did not of itself ensure doctrinal harmony.

Yet it remains true that the great majority witness of the Church today, and across the ages, has held that the Apostolic Succession of bishops is an extremely important mark of the Church - part of what it means to be "apostolic" as we profess in the Nicene Creed.

The question then arises for a United Methodist Church that claims to be a legitimate branch of the "one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church": can we make any credible claim to apostolic succession? Methodists seem to answer 'yes' to this question in 3 ways:

The first is to argue that apostolic succession is not limited to bishops alone but (contrary to the teachings of the historic episcopate churches) is passed along through all ordained ministers together (bishops, elders, and deacons together) or through a presbytery. Many early Methodist leaders were ordained Anglicans and a few ordained ministers did participate in the ordinations of Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury as our first bishops, therefore the succession of ministers is maintained all the way back to the Apostles. There are apparent Biblical instances (see 1 Tim. 4:14) and perhaps a couple of statements in St. Ignatius of Antioch that might be read this way (compare for example Letter to the Trallians, 7 with Letter to the Philadelphians, 7, with Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8-9).

Whatever its merits, this approach will be a hard sell to our ecumenical dialogue partners in the historic episcopate churches.

The second approach is to argue that the Apostolic Succession of bishops can be, and on occassion has been, transmitted through elders/presbyters in unusual or emergency situations. The succession normally proceeds from bishop to bishop, however, in certain instances where the death of a bishop made this impossible, groups of elders have consecrated new bishops, who in turn have been recognized as legitimate by the broader catholic Church. We read of one example of this in the Ancient Church in St. Jerome's Letter CXLVI when he describes the episcopal succession of the city of Alexandria.

Thus, considering the unusual historical circumstances of Christians in the American colonies cut off from valid sacraments, Fr. John Wesley's action in consecrating Thomas Coke was irregular but not invalid, and the United Methodist Church enjoys a valid succession to this day.

With both preceeding arguments it might be added that in the Scripture and the early literature, there seems to be some interchangeability or overlap between "prebyter/elder" and "episcopos/bishop" though they are clearly seperate offices by the late Second Century.

The final, and most intriguing, argument put forward by some Methodists (and indeed, in the 19th Century, by some Anglicans as well) was that John Wesley himself had been secretly consecrated as a bishop by a Greek Orthodox Bishop named Erasmus of Arcadia, and that Wesley's consecration of Dr. Coke was perfectly consistent with the ancient and ordinary pattern. The reason for the secrecy was of course the British law (at the time) forbidding ecclesiastical "interference" from foreign bishops, since the English King was the earthly governor of the Church of England. I first read of this argument a few years ago as put forward by Gregory S. Neal, a high-church Methodist pastor.

I recently ran across it again from the well-known and widely-read evangelical Methodist blogger, Shane Raynor, who points out that, if any record substantiates this account (in the eyes of our ecumenical partners) that Bishop Erasmus did in fact make Wesley a bishop in the Orthodox lineage, it would have tremendous ecumenical consequences for United Methodists, in particular with our relations to the Anglican, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Churches. There would presumably no longer be any question whatsoever of the validity of our clergy orders and at least one great obsticle to full communion with these other catholic Communions could be obliterated.

I suppose we now need only wait for some intrepid scholar - probably not unlike Indiana Jones - to scour the ancient ecclesiastical libraries of Arcadia (if there be any) to learn the truth. I would do it, but my Greek isn't good enough right now. Plus I've used most of my vacation time for this year. Does anybody know if that episcopal see has remained in continuous existence since the mid-18th Century?

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The official United Methodist Church website, www.umc.org , was recently reformated, and I've noticed in recent days there are alot more articles that interest me and seem to be a bit more practical toward planning and doing ministry; even evangelistic ministry is finally getting highlighted more. Here are three recent items from the UMC homepage that suggest to me that our denominational leadership is moving its focus in the right direction:

Text "Bible" and give one to a seeker

More teens becoming "Almost Christian"

Keys to building vital congregations