The Sacramental World of the Bible

Originally written for “Trinity Today,” the monthly newsletter of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Old Strathcona, Edmonton, Alberta

As General Synod 2016 approached, Anglicans across the country were invited to study a report entitled “This Holy Estate,” on the question of same-gender marriages. The Thursday morning study group at Holy Trinity Anglican Church spent four weeks in this undertaking. It was an illuminating time for me, not because it changed my perspective on the “big question” (it didn’t much!), but because it showed me just how broad a spectrum of viewpoints could be encompassed in a group of less than ten people, particularly with respect to the Bible and how we read it. None of us in the group read the Bible from a purely literal standpoint, but the place it occupied in our lives was very different, from a profound reverence to near-indifference.

The exercise led me to ponder how we ought to approach the holy Scriptures. I am suggesting that we take a sacramental view of the Bible, which I believe will help to open its words for us to become the living Word of God.

The Sacraments as we understand them have both a material and a spiritual reality: the material both points to and conveys the spiritual. The water of Holy Baptism points beyond itself to the reality of incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church. The bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist likewise points beyond, to the reality of the presence of Christ in the gathered community and the world around us. In the same way, the words of the Holy Bible lead us beyond the printed page to the reality of God’s presence in humanity and in the world which God created, and ultimately to the redemption of the world through the death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Although Anglican tradition has always placed a high value on Scripture, let it be said here that we do not worship the Bible, but rather the God whom the Bible reveals. The great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker said that the Church – the “called-out” people of God – is founded on scripture, tradition, and reason, which has come to be known as “Hooker’s tripod.” Through the interplay of the three legs, the Church can continue to move forward in its participation in God’s mission. Clearly, Scripture has a foundational and supportive role in this mission.

From itpexels-photo-372326.jpegs beginning, Anglicanism has placed a high value on the public reading of Scripture. Besides being written in English, the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) made some important innovations in worship. Cranmer reduced the multiple monastic daily services to two, the “daily offices” of Morning and Evening Prayer, with the implied expectation that people would participate daily. A system of reading the scriptures (a “lectionary”) was provided for these services, so that anyone who attended them regularly would hear the entire Old Testament every two years, the New Testament three times a year, and the Psalms monthly. While daily attendance at the offices was the exception, the Prayer Book established the centrality of the Scripture in our worship.

More recently, we have come to understand the Eucharist as our church’s central act of worship. While the Sunday lectionary we now use is not nearly as comprehensive as the original daily lectionary, it still places a considerable portion of the Bible before worshipers on a regular basis.

Unlike some other churches of the Reformation, the Anglican church has never defined itself confessionally, by articulating core beliefs to which all members are expected to assent. We have instead tended to define ourselves as a communion through our liturgies. Our worship tells us – and others – who we are. If our worship defines us, it is no stretch to see that the importance of the Bible in our worship also helps to defines us.

So… how do we read the Bible? How do we understand what it is and what it is not? How can it speak to us today without it becoming stale? The Collect of the Day for the Sunday between Nov. 6 & 12 gives some hints about our church’s historical view of Scripture.

Eternal God,
who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning,
grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,
that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

(Anglican Church of Canada, Book of Alternative Services, p. 391,
or the Book of Common Prayer, p. 97)

First, it does not say that the Bible is “God’s Word” but rather that God caused it to be written. Fallible human beings put pen to paper to write its many and varied texts, under divine guidance but not as God’s holy puppets. They saw and heard and remembered – and then wrote.

Second, it clearly asserts that the scriptures are to be used. They are given for our learning: “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” How we do this is a matter of personal choice and habit. There is no one right or wrong way for Christians to interact with the Scriptures, except of course, not to do so at all!

Third, we see that our interaction with the scriptures is not a mind game—knowledge for the sake of knowledge—but should lead us beyond the written word to the Incarnate Word. The intended learning should change us. The goal is always a deeper relationship with God in Christ—everlasting life. We are called to become the living Word of God in the world. The Bible is not the end-point of our faith. It is the prime foundational document of the Christian faith, a faith which is not in the Bible but in the one to whom it points.

How do people use Scripture? Sometimes we may sit alone with our Bible in reading or meditation. Very often we hear Scripture proclaimed in the liturgy. At times, we may join in Bible study. In whatever way we interact with Scripture, we are invited to let the words before us change us and draw us ever deeper into a relationship with the One who caused those words to be written. This is truly sacramental – a holy action drawing us closer to God. The Word of God is thus not a static reality on a printed page, but a dynamic reality in the lives of the faithful.

I sometimes preface sermons with this prayer, which I now offer in closing:

Gracious God
Through the written word and the spoken word,
May we become your living Word,
Through him who was and is the Word made flesh,
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. AMEN.

Wearing the Cross

Notes for a sermon for Holy Cross Day, 2014, at Holy Trinity, Edmonton.

Texts: Num 21:4b-9; Ps 98:1-6; 1 Cor 1:18-24; John 3:13-17

cross222At Choir practice on Thursday night, one member asked what this “Holy Cross Day” was. Good question! It goes back to the year 335, when the Church of the Resurrection (now called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem was dedicated. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, the chief organizer of the building of the Church, had found some wood on the site which she held to be the True Cross of Christ. The day became associated with the exaltation of the cross as the symbol of Christ’s victory. It has been in the calendar of the RC Church and many Orthodox churches ever since.

In Anglican practice, it was regarded as a lesser feast, which meant it was never observed on a Sunday. The revision of the calendar in the BAS raised it to the status of a “Feast taking precedence over a Sunday.” Because it’s on a fixed date, it doesn’t turn up very often—today is only the fifth time since the new calendar came into use, and the first since 2008. I am glad that Fr. Chris chose to celebrate Holy Baptism on this day, because the symbol and the sacrament are closely related. The cross is the most widely-used symbol of Christ’s victory over death. In Baptism—the sacrament of new birth—a person is brought into participation in the Risen Life: the old self is dead! Our practices of Baptism obscure that a bit, but if you have ever taken part in an outdoor full-immersion Baptism, the symbolism can’t be missed. There’s danger here!

In that light, we observe that the cross can be a powerful symbol of danger and death. Again, our practices have tended to shield us from that reality: it can be hard to see a gleaming, jewel-bedecked cross as an instrument of torture and death, but that’s where the symbol comes from.

The cross was almost unknown as a symbol for the church’s first three centuries. The most common symbol was a fish. At a time when Christian faith was at best tolerated by the state, and at worst persecuted, the cross was a reminder of Imperial oppression and cruelty. Perhaps paradoxically, the use of the cross as we now know it only began to appear after Constantine had made the faith legal, and after the abolition of crucifixion as a mode of punishment and execution—right around the time when his mother is said to have discovered the True Cross. (If that seems like an odd coincidence, well…maybe it really isn’t.)

Revolutions bring huge changes—that’s what the word means! Among other things, Constantine’s religious revolution made the church safe for the first time in its history. Somewhat ironically, the church then adopted the most “unsafe” symbol of all as its emblem. This exemplifies the upending of so much of the Church’s life in the 4th Century, some of which we heard about in the first session of our Thursday morning study. For one, we heard how Harvey Cox in “The Future of Faith” called the pre-Constantinian period “the age of faith” and the subsequent era “the age of belief.” The two things are not at all the same thing: belief has to do with thought, while faith has to do with action. “Belief” in this sense is a noun, while “faith” is really a verb.

The early church was primarily concerned with how people lived and behaved—a desire for “orthopraxy.” After Constantine, the church’s focus changed to what people thought—a desire for “orthodoxy.” Harvey Cox suggests that we are now in the early days of a new age of the church, which he calls “the age of the Spirit.” The cross stands as the pre-eminent symbol of the age of belief, and it has often been used to teach particular beliefs.

When I say “the cross,” you might well ask “which cross?” The commonest version is the so-called “Latin cross,” like the one I’m wearing; there are many variations on this very simple theme. Every one recalls in its own way the death of Jesus, but various churches and movements have adopted particular kinds of crosses, sometimes for historical reasons, but very often to emphasize a particular way of understanding Jesus’ death.

Latin crosses have no figure of Jesus, reminding us that Jesus has passed through death to the Risen Life.

Crucifixes remind us of Jesus’ suffering, a key aspect of substitutionary atonement, one doctrine of how we are saved through the death of Jesus.

Orthodox crosses have three horizontal pieces, a visual reminder of the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion.

Each cross in its own way recalls Jesus’ death and resurrection—the central story of the mystery of salvation.

To recall the story and to seek to understand it is one thing: that’s a matter of belief (orthodoxy). It is entirely another thing to ask “so what?” What difference does the cross make in our lives (othopraxy)? What kind of mission does it point to in the life of the church and of us as individuals? What difference will the cross on our candidate’s forehead make in his life?

It seems to me that we can talk about a “cross-shaped” or “cruciform” mission. The cross on which Christ gave up his life for us was rooted in the earth, reached up to heaven, and outward in loving embrace. Christian life and mission should therefore:

  • Be rooted in the here and now of human life.
  • Reach upward, seeking to want what God wants.
  • Not condemn, but reach out to the world.

And, above all:

  • Reveal the self-giving love that led Jesus to the cross.

Every Christian wears the cross, invisibly from our baptism. Many choose to wear visible crosses like lapel pins, neck chains, or bumper stickers. Whether visible or not, the question is then: do our lives reflect and proclaim the message of the cross we bear?

As we have inherited it, the cross stands as a challenge to the existing order: the symbol of state oppression and cruelty becoming the paramount sign of holy freedom and love. As Paul said, it was (and still is!) foolishness or a stumbling block to people outside the faith, but “to those who are the called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

May our lives, and the lives of all the baptised, proclaim the power, the wisdom, and the love of the God who gave his only son “in order that the world might be saved through him.”


One Year In

Yesterday was a significant date for me, and I almost let it slip by. One year ago, on June 23, 1013, I handed in my keys, and ended my tenure as the Rector of St. Matthew’s Cathedral and the Dean of the Diocese of Brandon. It seems very far away now, but as readers of this blog may realize, it took some time for that distance to take shape.

A lot has happened. Much of it has been good, but there have been some bumps along the way. I spent a lot of time in the fall re-living and re-thinking my time in Brandon, until my dearly beloved challenged me (gently!) to let it go. She’s a wise woman. It’s not healthy to live in the past, as I told many people over the years. Still, it’s one thing to counsel people through grief, and quite another to live through it yourself.

And that’s what I now recognize this past year to have been: it has been a grief process. All the standard aspects of grief (aka response to loss) have been present — except perhaps for denial. It was hard to deny the reality of the change when we were living 1,200 km away from the scene of our previous life. But all the rest were there, including most recently some depression. There have been days in recent months when I have woken up saying to myself “…another b****y day!”

Things change, and indeed things have improved. I have come to recognize in myself the prevailing pathology of clergy: the need to be needed. That thirst hardly needs to be slaked when you’re the Rector of a busy parish, but when I spend most days at home, it became almost overwhelming. Solving the problem simply meant finding meaningful things to do in the church and the community.

That’s happening now, with involvement in leadership or supportive  roles in Vocal Alchemy, the Memorial Society of Edmonton and District, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, and Education for Ministry in the Diocese of Edmonton. That should keep me busy, and involved with people as much as I need. We’re glad to be in Edmonton, part of a vibrant faith community, close to our family, and with time to do the things we really want to do.

Now… when am I going to find time to start writing that book?


Home? And home again.


My spouse and I went back to Brandon this past weekend for the first time since I retired last June. It was a very quick trip, squeezed in between commitments here in Edmonton, but it was not a short trip. Our total road time was over 25 hours, somewhat  inflated by poor weather in Saskatchewan on Monday morning.

JourneyThe purpose of the trip was to attend a wedding. The bride had joined the choir as a choral scholar at St. Matthew’s Cathedral three years ago, becoming in time not just a paid singer but an active congregant. Her fiance came with her in the second year. It was a joy to be asked to celebrate their marriage with them and old friends.

On the Sunday morning, we decided that we had to go to church at St. Matthew’s. There is something of an unwritten rule that departed clergy should steer clear of the previous place for a while, but we really wanted to see some people. Besides, the parish is still between rectors, so I was hardly stepping on the toes of my successor.

I left a happy, healthy parish, and I found that not much had changed. A few people had left, but there were also a number of fresh faces in the pews, along with (hallelujah!) a substantial contingent of children. Most things were much the same, with a few things now done a bit differently, but the folks we talked to were still the same great people whom we had come to love over our 10½ years there.

DSCN0165A big difference for me was sitting in the congregation for a Sunday for the first time ever, realizing just how long a building it is, and how far away is the celebrant at the Eucharist. It might have helped my ministry there if I’d taken some time to sit in the pews — but that’s history now. That parish was home for a decade, and the people there still hold a big piece of my heart. Nonetheless, it is clear that we have moved, both physically and spiritually. Holy Trinity is becoming home, for which we are very glad.

Some people wanted to discuss parish issues with me, but I was quite able to say, “That’s not my problem.” That ended the discussion, but not the conversation. The relationship is different now — simply as friends, not as pastor and congregant. For at least one person, that seemed to be a relief! And indeed, it is a bit of a relief for me too, because I don’t have to be “on,” as clergy always have to be in public. Today I can go to coffee time after worship and see the stipendiary clergy having serious conversations with various people, and I can think, “That used to be me,” and then I can smile.

We went to our previous home, and then we came home again.


Notes for a sermon preached at the Great Vigil of Easter, April 19, 2014, at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton.

Texts: Matthew 28:1-10; Romans 6:3-11; Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21 

Resurrection Icon

When Fr. Chris asked me if I would preach at this service, I hardly waited a heartbeat before saying “Yes.” In my previous position in a different diocese I always had to relinquish the pulpit to the Bishop on major festivals, so it has been some years since I last preached at a main Easter service. Nonetheless, as I was preparing this sermon, I was reminded of the advice to be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it!

Major festivals can be major problems for preachers. Both Christmas and Easter pose the challenge of bringing something fresh to stories which “everyone knows.” There’s nothing very surprising for most church-goers in hearing the Easter Gospel.

Or is there? Can there be? I believe so…

I was once asked to help some people deal with a difficult situation. They had been close friends for many years, but the relationship was now under severe strain. In the course of a long conversation, one of them turned to another and said “I know our old friendship is dead, but I am hoping there may be a resurrection,” and started to muse about what that might look like. My heart instantly said, “Yes!” and I was about to jump in and start addressing that possibility—but something stopped me short. Instead of affirming that hope aloud, I said “Just a second. Let’s back up a bit.” Why? Because my head then told me was that resurrection is never, and can never be, something of our devising, but is rather an act of God. It is not up to us to tell God what God should do (and then be cheesed off at God when God doesn’t come through), but rather to give God space to let God do what God will do.

What is the space into which God can bring resurrection? In one word: death. We cannot fully comprehend resurrection unless we have fully grappled with the reality of death. There is no Resurrection without Crucifixion. There is no empty tomb without an occupied tomb. As the Apostles’ Creed says,

He descended to the dead.

Three times Jesus’ disciples had heard him foretell his passion and death, and then say “on the third day rise again,” but it seems very clear to me from the various accounts of the resurrection that what actually happened came as a total surprise. The women in today’s Gospel reading were not going there to wait for Jesus to rise again, but simply to “see the tomb.” It was an act of mourning and grief that led them there in the pre-dawn greyness. They had seen their Lord die on the cross. They had seen his body lain in the tomb. They had kept the Sabbath, and they returned to their graveside vigil as soon as it was possible to do so.

They went in grief, in full knowledge of the actual death of their master. What happened at the tomb is shrouded in mystery: the four Gospel writers all tell the story a bit differently, as they strive to bear witness to a unique event. What happened at the tomb was unlike anything anyone had seen before, or has seen since, so it should is hardly surprising that the four stories differ. Police today will tell you that eye-witness testimony is highly unreliable, even when reporting something as commonplace as a motor vehicle accident. There is nothing commonplace about the Resurrection!

In this one great act, God reached into our human history and reset everything. What humankind had accepted as normal and expected as our due—the eternal nature of death—suddenly becomes not so! The Resurrection makes everything new for all humanity, with the promise of a new creation, a new way of living, a whole new reason for being.

It is always and eternally new—even if the story is 2,000 years old! It says that what was is now over—including and especially the ultimate rule of death. As Paul wrote:

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.

It is so tempting to leapfrog the tough stuff: the Gethsemanes and Calvarys and silent tombs of our lives, and get immediately to the bright daylight of Easter. However, if we truly wish to enter the light, and to experience it for what it really is, we must first embrace the darkness. Barbara Brown Taylor, the noted Episcopalian teacher, preacher, and author, has recently published a book called “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” which I intend to read very soon.

In an interview about the book, she said this.

The great hope in the Christian message is not that you will be rescued from the dark but if you are able to trust God all the way into the dark, you may be surprised. [1]

I believe that my friends who hoped for a resurrection of their friendship needed first to trust that God was with them in the darkness of the loss of that friendship—and then God could surprise them with what the truly new looked like.

Two young people come for baptism on this holy night. The waters of baptism are a sign of cleansing and rebirth, to be sure, but before that they remind us of danger and death, like the waters of the sea that overwhelmed Pharaoh’s armies. Amazingly, almost beyond surprise, the people of Israel found themselves on the farther shore, set forth into their new life as God’s chosen people. The risen life—the life of the baptized—is a holy life of wholly unexpected surprises. Let us pray that God will part the waters for these two, leading them into a life of seeking not their wishes but God’s.

Let our alleluia’s tonight and in the days to come be shouted with joy and thanksgiving—and with a renewed sense of surprise and wonder at how God has made all things new.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!


A Most Wonderful Weekend!

I have spend most of this weekend doing one of the things that I love best — singing. I often tell people that I joined my first choir at age 7, and have missed only about 5 years of my life since then singing in some choir or other. At the moment, I am a member of two choirs, Vocal Alchemy and the choir of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton. I have lost count of the choirs I have belonged to in the intervening years, but it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is: I sing!

There is a famous saying, probably originating in Orthodox Christianity, that the one who sing, prays twice. I believe that with all my heart. Singing, especially choral singing, demands everything of a person. It involves the body, the mind, the emotions, and the spirit. If one is truly singing, the whole person is involved. If one is singing in community (i.e. in a choir), it also extends the person beyond the individual to become truly a part of a community.

A choir director once said that we needed to be able to hear the person next to us. If we couldn’t hear that person, we were either singing too loud, or we  (or the other person!) were dead. That’s a good metaphor for community in any setting, but it works really well in a choir. No individual voice should be heard, rather one should hear the voice of the choir. A truly fine choir sounds like one voice, but also sounds like no voice in particular. A real community is dominated by no one person, but finds its voice when individuals join in chorus, hearing each other, and responding to each other. The individual is not lost, but is part of thwhole, contributing to the voice of the whole.

So: this weekend…
I spent it singing! Vocal Alchemy’s spring retreat was held yesterday. The morning was for the women, and my spouse went to take part in that. I joined back in for lunch, and then we spent the afternoon singing as a full choir. After an evening of relaxation, we headed off this morning for the morning events at Holy Trinity, which for us means choir practice at 9:30 AM, followed by the the 10:30 AM service of Holy Eucharist. We usually stay for coffee hour, but not today, because I had to  be at the Vocal Alchemy men’s workshop by 1 PM.

It was great afternoon. I sang in a men’s choir for 10 years in Brandon MB, and came to love making music with other men. Today reminded me of the great times I had with Prairie Blend. I am so grateful for that experience, and so grateful that I can continue to sing in other contexts.

I sing.
I pray.
I live.
I cannot easily distinguish between these three facts.

Thanks be to God for a wonderful weekend! May there be many others.

Settling In

This past weekend was a great time, divided between two commitments. On the community front, my spouse and I had the great pleasure of singing with Vocal Alchemy, the community choir we joined last fall. The major work on the program was Schubert’s Mass #2  in G Major, a lovely piece with some very special vocal challenges. (It’s what sopranos and tenors call a “screech”!) I had the privilege of singing the bass solo in the Benedictus, which was a very wonderful experience. A great experience, no less than some of the concerts we sang with the Richard Eaton Singers in past years. One of the interesting aspects for me was standing in the back row, right up against the organ. You haven’t lived until you’ve sung a concert with a pipe organ right behind you!

View from the Northwest - 100 Street and 84 Ave.
View from the Northwest – 100 Street and 84 Ave.

That was a great experience, but the highlight of the weekend for me was a celebrating the Eucharist at Holy Trinity. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed this part of my life until I put on my vestments on Sunday morning. I fluffed a few words in the Great Thanksgiving, a sign to me that I was more keyed up than I had really allowed myself to admit. After the service, quite a few people complimented me on, which felt good and also a little odd. After all, I was only doing what I had done almost every Sunday for 26 years!

In my early years of ordained ministry, I often found myself in the same kind of situation — being complimented for something that I was doing out of my sense of vocation. It took me a while to learn simply to say “Thank you,” and then move on. Yesterday’s experience took me right back to those days. One of the things that my early years as a priest did was help to confirm my confidence that God had in fact called me to this ministry, and therefore the Church had not made a huge mistake, regardless of what various people around me had said throughout the process. This weekend was much like those early days in some ways.

(In case you hadn’t figured it out before, I have long suffered from intense self-doubt and the self-criticism  that follows from that.)

It was a wonderful weekend, receiving affirmations from different directions, and confirming my sense that we are where God has called us to be. Our move to Edmonton was primarily motivated by selfish needs: this is the one place we have regarded as home for most of our married life, and our daughter and grandchildren are in this area. That made the choice of place quite clear, but recent events have helped to tell me/us that this is not just a place to live, but also the place where God has called us — into a ministry that is beginning to unfold in exciting ways.

So… what is coming?

Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday. Before heading off to a Vocal Alchemy rehearsal, we eat at Holy Trinity’s pancake supper, which I have been asked to open with grace.

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. At 6 AM (egads!) I am scheduled to be at the Central LRT Station, participating in the Diocese of Edmonton‘s “Ashes to Go” program. Afternoon — the first session of a group study of Matthew’s Gospel. Evening — singing in Holy Trinity’s choir for the Ash Wednesday liturgy.

Thursday: church choir practice.

Sunday: for Lent 1 Holy Trinity has one of its very infrequent Sung Matins services. I have been asked to celebrate Eucharist in the chapel afterwards for those who really desire the sacrament — a great privilege!

I am settling in, finding myself a place in this city which I know and love, and in a faith community which I am coming to love deeply, even after only a few months.

The future looks more and more exciting all the time. I have come home to where God has called me.

Thanks be to God!