Tag Archives: old catholic

My Faith: A Journey and Mission

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today I am writing because a couple of days ago I celebrated the nineteenth anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. Likewise, I have a lot of new readers and subscribers to the site, as well as a lot of Twitter followers who maybe see the title of the page and wonder want I am about. So this is kind of an introduction to me and my faith journey, kind of how I view life. Paul Tillich once said, “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” Truthfully I have in large part adopted that as a model for life and faith as a rather miscreant priest, in large part because so many Christians, especially clergy seem too busy prattling on about programs, policies, politics and seem not to understand that most people, just want a listening ear, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God, either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there will be nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words… never really speaking to others.”

My experience of the Church is profoundly influenced by my life in the nether world of the military culture. My world view is shaped by a blending of various Christian traditions, mutual support and collaboration among believers of often radically different points of view. Because of the love, care and mentoring of people from a blend of different traditions I came to know God and survived a tumultuous childhood with many moves.

As a historian I have been blessed to study church history from the early Church Fathers to the present. As I look to church history I find inspiration in many parts of the Christian tradition. In fact rather being threatened by them I have become appreciative of their distinctiveness. I think that there is a beauty in liturgy and stability in the councils and creeds of the Church. At the same time the prophetic voice of evangelical preaching shapes me, especially the message of freedom and tolerance embodied in the lives and sacrifice of men like John Leland, the American Baptist who helped pioneer the concept of Freedom of Religion established in the Constitution of the United States, of William Wilberforce who labored to end slavery in England and, Martin Luther King Jr. who led the Civil Rights movement.

Likewise that prophetic message of the faith is demonstrated in the ministry, writing and martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries Martin Niemoller and Jesuit priest Father Rupert Meyer. All three resisted and preached against the evils of Nazism. In a more contemporary setting I am inspired by Bishop Desmond Tutu who helped topple apartheid in South Africa.

Women like Teresa of Avila and St Catherine show me that women have a legitimate place of ministry and leadership in the Church. I am convinced through my study of Church history, theology and a deep belief in the power of the Holy Spirit that women can and should serve as Priests and Bishops in the church.

My theology has shaped by the writings of Hans Kung, Yves Congar, Jurgen Moltmann, Andrew Greeley, and Henry Nouwen. I’ve been challenged by St Francis of Assissi, John Wesley and Martin Luther. I am especially inspired by Pope John XXIII whose vision brought about the Second Vatican Council and I am inspired by Pope Francis.

I pray that Christians can live in peace with one another and those who do not share our faith. I pray that we can find ways to overcome the often very legitimate hurts, grievances and divisions of our 2000 year history. At the same time I pray that we can repent from our own wrongs and work to heal the many wounds created by Christians who abused power, privilege and even those who oppressed others, waged war and killed in the name of Jesus.

I do not believe that neither triumphalism nor authoritarianism has a place in in a healthy understanding of the church and how we live. I am suspicious of any clergy who seek power in a church or political setting. I profoundly reject any argument that requires the subjection of one Church with its tradition to any other Church. In fact I think that the arrogance and intolerance of Christians to others is a large part of why people are leaving the church in droves and that the fastest growing “religious group” is the “nones” or those with no religious preference. Andrew Greeley said something that we should take to heart:

“People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good — Catholics were so good to one another, and they were so good to pagans, too. High-pressure evangelization strikes me as an attempt to deprive people of their freedom of choice.”

I grew up in and have lived my life in a very open and ecumenical environment. I have lost any trace denominational parochialism and competition that I might have had if I had become a pastor of a civilian parish instead of a chaplain. It is interesting that the pastor that first ordained me in the evangelical tradition and the bishop that ordained me as a priest both did so with the intent that I serve as a chaplain. Whether it was the recognition of a gifting for the work or the fact that they didn’t want me messing up their civilian operations by asking hard questions I will never know.

I believe that my environment and the men and women who have helped shape my life have been a stronger influence in the way I think about ecumenical relations and ministry than my actual theology or ecclesiology. Whether they were Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Evangelicals or even those considered by many to be outside the faith including Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Mormons and even complete non-believers all have contributed to my life and faith.

I have grown weary of refighting theological debates that have divided the church for a thousand years. Since what we know of theology including our Scriptures and Creeds are based on faith and not science I see no reason to continue to battle.

That doesn’t mean that I think we should put our brains in neutral but rather we must wrestle with how to integrate our faith with science, philosophy and reason, otherwise we will become irrelevant. In that sense I identify with Saint Anselm of Canterbury who wrote about a faith seeking understanding and Erasmus of Rotterdam who very well understood the importance of both faith and reason. In that sense I am very much at home with the Anglican triad of Scripture, Reason and Tradition when it comes to approaching faith.

I struggle with faith and belief. After Iraq I spent two years as a practical agnostic. As Andrew Greeley wrote: “Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”

I am an Old Catholic and believe that inter-communion does not require from either communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion, or liturgical practice characteristic of the other, but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith. I like to think that I embody what the early Anglicans referred to as the via media and that somehow my life and ministry has been about building bridges at the intersections of faith with a wide diversity of people.

When I have tried to embrace traditionalism or choose to fight theological battles I have ended up tired, bitter and at enmity with other Christians. In a sense when I tried those paths I found that they didn’t work for me. I discovered that I was not being true to who God had created and guided my life, education and experience. I feel like T. E. Lawrence who wrote:

“The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

My favorite theological debates have been with other chaplains over pints of good beer in German Gasthausen or Irish pubs. Those were good times, we argued but we also laughed and always left as friends and brothers. I believe since we are human that none of us will ever fully comprehend all of God or his or her truth. I believe that the Holy Spirit, God’s gracious gift to her people will guide us into all Truth. For me my faith has become more about relationships and reconciliation than in being right.

As far as those who disagree with me that is their right, or your right, if that is the case. I don’t expect agreement and I am okay with differences and even if I disagree with an individual or how another religious denominations polity, theology, beliefs or practices those are their rights. In fact I am sure that those that believe things that I don’t are at least as sincere as me and that those beliefs are important to them. I just ask that people don’t try to use them to force their faith or belief on others, be it in churches or by attempting to use the power of government to coerce others into their belief systems.

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under christian life, ethics, faith, Religion

Church, Faith, Tolerance and Reconcilliation

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“Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” Paul Tillich

My friends, I write this because of something that happened to me a couple of days ago. It was an incident that upset me greatly because it ended up in the fracturing of a relationship by a friend who evidently could not tolerate where I was in my life as a priest and Christian. I discovered again the reality of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God, either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there will be nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words… never really speaking to others.”

My experience of the Church is profoundly influenced by my life in the nether world of the military culture. My world view is shaped by a blending of various Christian traditions, mutual support and collaboration among believers of often radically different points of view. Because of the love, care and mentoring of people from a blend of different traditions I came to know God and survived a tumultuous childhood with many moves.

As a historian I have been blessed to study church history from the early Church Fathers to the present. As I look to church history I find inspiration in many parts of the Christian tradition. In fact rather being threatened by them I have become appreciative of their distinctiveness. I think that there is a beauty in liturgy and stability in the councils and creeds of the Church. At the same time the prophetic voice of evangelical preaching shapes me, especially the message of freedom and tolerance embodied in the lives and sacrifice of men like John Leland, the American Baptist who helped pioneer the concept of Freedom of Religion established in the Constitution of the United States, of William Wilberforce who labored to end slavery in England and, Martin Luther King Jr. who led the Civil Rights movement.

Likewise that prophetic message of the faith is demonstrated in the ministry, writing and martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries Martin Niemoller and Jesuit priest Father Rupert Meyer. All three resisted and preached against the evils of Nazism. In a more contemporary setting I am inspired by Bishop Desmond Tutu who helped topple apartheid in South Africa.

Women like Teresa of Avila and St Catherine show me that women have a legitimate place of ministry and leadership in the Church. I am convinced through my study of Church history, theology and a deep belief in the power of the Holy Spirit that women can and should serve as Priests and Bishops in the church.

My theology has shaped by the writings of Hans Kung, Yves Congar, Jurgen Moltmann, Andrew Greeley, and Henry Nouwen. I’ve been challenged by St Francis of Assissi, John Wesley and Martin Luther. I am especially inspired by Pope John XXIII whose vision brought about the Second Vatican Council and I am inspired by Pope Francis.

I pray that Christians can live in peace with one another and those who do not share our faith. I pray that we can find ways to overcome the often very legitimate hurts, grievances and divisions of our 2000 year history. At the same time I pray that we can repent from our own wrongs and work to heal the many wounds created by Christians who abused power, privilege and even those who oppressed others, waged war and killed in the name of Jesus.

I do not believe that neither triumphalism nor authoritarianism has a place in in a healthy understanding of the church and how we live. I am suspicious of any clergy who seek power in a church or political setting. I profoundly reject any argument that requires the subjection of one Church with its tradition to any other Church. In fact I think that the arrogance and intolerance of Christians to others is a large part of why people are leaving the church in droves and that the fastest growing “religious group” is the “nones” or those with no religious preference. Andrew Greeley said something that we should take to heart:

“People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good — Catholics were so good to one another, and they were so good to pagans, too. High-pressure evangelization strikes me as an attempt to deprive people of their freedom of choice.”

I grew up in and have lived my life in a very open and ecumenical environment. I have lost any trace denominational parochialism and competition that I might have had if I had become a pastor of a civilian parish instead of a chaplain. It is interesting that the pastor that first ordained me in the evangelical tradition and the bishop that ordained me as a priest both did so with the intent that I serve as a chaplain. Whether it was the recognition of a gifting for the work or the fact that they didn’t want me messing up their civilian operations by asking hard questions I will never know.

I believe that my environment and the men and women who have helped shape my life have been a stronger influence in the way I think about ecumenical relations and ministry than my actual theology or ecclesiology. Whether they were Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Evangelicals or even those considered by many to be outside the faith including Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Mormons and even complete non-believers all have contributed to my life and faith.

I have grown weary of refighting theological debates that have divided the church for a thousand years. Since what we know of theology including our Scriptures and Creeds are based on faith and not science I see no reason to continue to battle.

That doesn’t mean that I think we should put our brains in neutral but rather we must wrestle with how to integrate our faith with science, philosophy and reason, otherwise we will become irrelevant. In that sense I identify with Saint Anslem of Canterbury who wrote about a faith seeking understanding and Erasmus of Rotterdam who very well understood the importance of both faith and reason. In that sense I am very much at home with the Anglian triad of Scripture, Reason and Tradition when it comes to approaching faith.

I struggle with faith and belief. After Iraq I spent two years as a practical agnostic. As Andrew Greeley wrote: “Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”

I am an Old Catholic and believe that inter-communion does not require from either communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion, or liturgical practice characteristic of the other, but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith. I like to think that I embody what the early Anglicans referred to as the via media and that somehow my life and ministry has been about building bridges at the intersections of faith with a wide diversity of people.

When I have tried to embrace traditionalism or choose to fight theological battles I have ended up tired, bitter and at enmity with other Christians. In a sense when I tried those paths I found that they didn’t work for me. I discovered that I was not being true to who God had created and guided my life, education and experience. I feel like T. E. Lawrence who wrote:

“The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

My favorite theological debates have been with other chaplains over pints of good beer in German Gasthausen or Irish pubs. Those were good times, we argued but we also laughed and always left as friends and brothers. I believe since we are human that none of us will ever fully comprehend all of God or his or her truth. I believe that the Holy Spirit, God’s gracious gift to her people will guide us into all Truth. For me my faith has become more about relationships and reconciliation than in being right.

As far as those who disagree with me that is their right, or your right if you disagree. I don’t expect agreement and I am okay with differences and even if I disagree with an individual or how another religious denominations polity, theology, beliefs or practices those are their rights. In fact I am sure that those that believe things that I don’t are at least as sincere as me and that those beliefs are important to them. I just ask that people don’t try to use them to force their faith or belief on others, be it in churches or by attempting to use the power of government to coerce others into their belief systems.

To my friend who broke contact with me when I refused to debate his argument that I should submit myself to his Church and tradition, the door is open for reconciliation.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Church of Love: Reflections on the celebration of my 15th Anniversary of Ordination

Christmas in Iraq 2007

It is hard to believe that I am a Priest and that I have been one now for the past 15 years. I held ordination in a two different Evangelical churches dating back to 1989 and had served as a Chaplain in civilian hospitals as well as the Army National Guard and Reserve before I was ordained as a Priest by Bishop Phillip Zampino of the Charismatic Episcopal Church Diocese for the Mid-Atlantic on July 7th 1996. It was what I thought was the culmination of my journey to the Catholic faith since the Charismatic Episcopal Church in that area considered itself very much on the Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic leaning side of that denomination.

My journey to a sacramental and catholic faith had began as a child when Navy Chaplain who was a Roman Catholic priest was instrumental in helping me continue to believe when a Methodist Sunday School teacher told me that my dad, then serving at An Loc Vietnam was a “baby killer.” I really do still trace my vocation as a Priest to that man even though my journey on the way to this faith was rather circuitous.  That journey continued all thorough my life as an Evangelical Christian and was intellectually cemented in at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where in my Church History and Systematic Theology courses I became convinced of many Catholic teachings. It took another four years after graduation leave the Evangelical movement to the CEC and had I not gone there I would have likely ended up in the Episcopal Church or one of the more Catholic leaning continuing Anglican churches or somewhere in the Old Catholic movement.  What took me to the CEC was the recommendation of an Anglican friend who thought it would be a good fit.

I was ordained on the evening of July 7th 1996. The ordination date was actually advanced several months because of my impending mobilization to support Operation Joint Endeavor, the Bosnia peacemaking mission.  We arrived the night prior to my ordination and I had a talk with Bishop Zampino talking about the “new phase of ministry” that I was entering. He reminded me that the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Ordination) was not was not about a change of ministry but something different. In Catholic theology ordination is very different from most of Protestantism where there is little difference in the estate of the ordained minister and lay people.  In Sacramental theology when a person is ordained to the Priesthood there is an ontological change brought about by the Holy Spirit. Once a person has been ordained they are spiritually changed, which is the origin of the saying, “Once a priest, always a priest.” The Priest can be dispensed of his or her obligations as a priest and in the case of grave misconduct or heresy even forbidden to act as a priest; but they remain priests forever.

The Bishop’s words reinforced something that I already understood from my theological education and formation but had not been put as bluntly with such effect by any of my professors or the Priests that mentored me.  When I was ordained that Sunday evening it was on the feast of Saint Willibald of Eichstadt, a Celtic Benedictine missionary born in England who settled in the small Bavarian town of Eichstadt.  He remained as the Bishop of that small diocese for 40 years and is buried in the picturesque cathedral located in the city. His brother Wunibald was also a missionary and Abbott in Heidenheim and their sister Walburga governed the female community at the same abbey. I was ordained in the evening which also meant it was July 8th in Germany, the feast day of another Celtic missionary Saint Killian the martyr bishop of Würzburg. It so happened that my first assignment as a Priest would be in Würzburg just a few weeks later.  I feel a close connection to each of these Saints as the date of my baptism was that of the Feast of Saint Wunibald, December 18th.

My life since ordination has been rather interesting or as Jerry Garcia put it a “long strange trip.” I have travelled the world as a Navy Chaplain and been able to care for God’s people in many diverse and often dangerous places. To be a priest in the Navy, be a person Roman, Anglican, Orthodox or Old Catholic is an adventure, to celebrate Eucharist, to baptize and to administer the Sacrament of Penance as well as the Sacrament of Healing or as it used to be called Unction in often dangerous places is for me the pinnacle of the priestly ministry.  Many of my friends of other branches of the Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox traditions echo that sentiment. To proclaim the Gospel to men and women in harm’s way and to care for those of other traditions that are given to our care, providing what we can and helping them the best we can while respecting them and their beliefs.

For me the path has not always been easy and I think that most Priests can echo that. In my 14 years as Priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church I ran afoul of some rather autocratic Bishops all of whom are no longer in that Church.  I was banned from writing for a number of years because of my published essays which were considered “too Catholic.” During that time Bishop Zampino even suggested that I explore the Roman Catholic priesthood.  I looked into it in a number of dioceses but never went beyond exploring possibilities. Bishops were polite but less than interested in a married Priest from a Church that was considered valid but illicit.

So despite being banned from writing and even banned from contact with civilian Priests in the state where I was stationed by another Bishop who is now a Roman Catholic layman I remained in the church. During this time I became more disconnected and disenchanted with the church.  When I returned from Iraq I was in a full blown spiritual crisis brought about by PTSD.  My conditioned worsened to the point that for nearly two years I was a practical agnostic.  Faith returned in December of 2009 when administering the last rites to a dying man on the Emergency Room of the Medical Center where I was serving as a Chaplain.

But the faith was different and I no longer fit in the Church though I tried. Despite this my writings, which I had started as part of my therapy became too much for my church and even though faith had returned it was not welcome.  I was asked to leave and thankfully was received by the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, a North American expression of the Old Catholic faith. Since my ordination was valid I was simply received into the Church.

I am very blessed to be able to serve as a Priest and care for the people that God brings into my life. It is now 15 years since that night when Bishop Zampino laid his hands upon me and ordained me into this life. Despite some to the twists, turns and even disappointments I am fortunate as my faith is real again and I can see the good in people and experience the Grace of God in my daily life.  It really is miraculous.  I have a joy again that allows me to pass through the painful and sometimes lonely times that I still occasionally experience.

In my darkest times my only spiritual readings were Father Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries which I began reading to help me get through the nights in between missions in Iraq and through the nights when I returned.  In one of those books, the last of the series entitled “The Archbishop goes to Andalusia” the miscreant Auxiliary Bishop to the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago goes to Seville Spain.  In the novel Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

I have found that this is more than true. My belief now is that the church must be a church of love.  In another book Greeley has a fictional papal contender named Luis Emilio Cardinal Menendez y Garcia makes a speech which the end of which I find particularly inspiring. While it speaks of the Roman Catholic Church I think that it speaks to most churches and reflects how people see us:

“So many of our lay people believe that ours is a Church of rules, that being Catholic consists of keeping rules. They do not find an institution which is like that very appealing. Nor should they.

In fact, we are a Church of love. Our message from the Lord himself even today is the message that God is Love and that we are those who are trying, however badly, to reflect that love in the world. I find that in my own city that notion astonishes many people. How we came to misrepresent that which we should be preaching above all else is perhaps the subject for many doctoral dissertations.

More important for us today, however, is the reaffirmation that we exist to preach a God of love, we try to be people of love, and we want our church to be, insofar as we poor humans can make it, a Church of radiant love.

Does such a Church have a future? How could it not?”

Saint Francis said “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.”

I hope that I do that as imperfect as I am and as earthy as I tend to be.

On the anniversary of my ordination I ask you to pray for me a sinner.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Meditations on the Faith Journey

Last year I was in the midst of a spiritual struggle as I recovered from the collapse of my faith following due to the effects of PTSD that begat a psychological and spiritual collapse following my return from in Iraq in 2008.  That collapse which left me for all practical purposes an agnostic caused me to question many things but eventually faith returned.  On the big matters such as the core beliefs of the Christian faith I was still orthodox in my belief as a member of a conservative Anglo-Catholic communion. At the same time many of my beliefs concerning matters of social justice, war and peace, economic philosophy and a host of other Moral Theology questions returned me to the writings of those that are considered more progressive or forgive the loaded term “liberal.”

As I began to struggle with these and write about that struggle and my journey on this website last summer I found that I was on the outs with my church and was asked by my Bishop to leave.  As a military Chaplain that was a definite threat and for a while I had been talking with the Episcopal Church about the possibility of going to Canterbury.  Well that process really didn’t get far due to changes in the diocese where I was attempting to make the move and an Episcopal Bishop suggested a number of Churches to include my current Church, an Old Catholic Denomination the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church (ACOC).

It turns out that the ACOC and Old Catholicism is a good fit for me.  On the basics the ACOC and Old Catholics are Catholic, just not Roman holding to the faith of the undivided Catholic Church before the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox split of 1054.  Old Catholicism began in the Netherlands even before the Reformation due to the neglect of the church by Rome and finally by the 1700s this National Catholic Church of the Netherlands was in conflict with Rome which sent Roman Bishops to set things right. But try as they might they could not eliminate this Catholic Church in a heavily Protestant country.  Following the First Vatican Council of 1870 which defined the dogma of Papal Infallibility which had been instituted by Pope Pius IX in 1854 when he unilaterally without the benefit of a General Council the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Dissenting Bishops and Clergy from Germany, Austria and Switzerland began national Catholic Churches and entered into communion with the Dutch Church to form the Utrecht Union.  The basic beliefs include the Eucharist as the core of the church which is a community of believers. The historic Creeds, Apostolic Success, the seven Sacraments and first seven Ecumenical Councils are core beliefs as are a commitment to the ecumenical movement.  Transubstantiation is rejected with the Eucharist being considered a mystery of faith as it is in the Orthodox Churches.  The church has married clergy and since 1994 has ordained women including bishops.  Its apostolic succession is recognized as valid by Rome although Old Catholics are defined as being in schism. With the exception of women clergy many of these tenants were the same as my old church.

I have found a home in this movement where my faith and charisms are valued and where I know that following my time in the Navy that I will still have a spiritual home and connection.

It has been an interesting journey and I can see the hand of God in the move.  I am at peace and my faith continues to grow.  Last year I knew that I was living on borrowed time in my old denomination as my writings diverged from the mainstream of that church, most notably in social policy.  Some will find fault with this and probably lump me in with men like theologians Hans Kung and the late Bernard Häring who are vilified by conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church for their progressive views.  But I am okay with that, they are two of the men who helped bring me from Evangelical Protestantism to the Catholic faith.

Pray for me a sinner,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Quiet Alleluia: Padre Steve Celebrates Easter 2011

“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”  — Henri J.M. Nouwen

Those readers and friends that have walked with me over the past two years on this site as well as those that walked with me before I ever put pen to my thoughts know how much I have struggled with God and faith since my return from Iraq. Easter has been difficult during that time as was Christmas.  My journey has been marked by many doubts. Today was different. Today we observed a quiet Easter out at the Island Hermitage marked by solitude and community.

The day was quiet and uneventful. I have been writing of late on the Easter story as told by Longinus the Centurion who Church tradition accords the honor of being the Centurion who remarked at the foot of the cross “truly this man was the son of God.”  The Centurions of the Bible have always been models for me as a Christian because they were career military men who served a far flung empire and at in least one part of their careers served in an unpopular occupation of a subjugated land with a proud and unbroken populace.  In their case it was Judea of the First Century and mine was Iraq. The story of Longinus as he is known to Church tradition is one that has fascinated me, a gentile officer of an occupying army discovers God at the scene of a brutal execution which he himself supervised. The story has helped me as I imagined what it must have been like for a Roman Centurion serving in a troubled land ruled by a cabal of corrupt politicians representing Rome, the family of Herod and the powerful institution of the Jewish Temple leadership composed of the High Priest, the ruling Sanhedrin and various religious parties. Likewise the lad featured an undying insurgency dedicated to overthrowing the Romans and what some considered the corrupt administration of the High Priest who they believed to be a collaborator with the Roman occupiers. These were the Zealots.  I was fascinated by the story and the story led me to a deeper appreciation of the Easter story.

We had contemplated going to Camp LeJeune to Mass at the Base Chapel. My friend Father Jose is a wonderful pastor and serves as the base Catholic Chaplain. While it would have been nice to see him celebrate the liturgy it meant that we would do so as strangers in a large community of faith.  Judy and I still both struggle with large gatherings especially where we know very few people and decided that we would celebrate Eucharist together. We were joined in this by my land lady Sharon.  It was a quiet but joyful expression of faith and community where each of us has at times suffered under sometimes cold and unfeeling Church institutions and leaders.

I used the story of Longinus as my homily telling the story in story form rather than as a theological treatise or sermon.  After the homily we confessed the faith of the Nicene Creed, prayed for the church and the world especially the outcast and persecuted and celebrated the Eucharist around my small pine dining room table, which is actually in my living room which doubles a my bedroom. The Island Hermitage is not a mansion.

Later in the day Judy and I would take our little dog Molly on a walk through a park not far from here. The park is a woodland and wetland area on the Bogue Sound side of the island. To walk in those peaceful woods hearing, seeing and listening to the sights and sounds of nature was wonderful. Molly especially loved it as she hunted for some of the deer that she had seen a few days before while walking near the hermitage.  Following that we drove the 2 ½ miles to lands end with Molly’s ears and fur flapping in the breeze as she stood on Judy’s lap with her head and shoulders hanging out the door.  The evening was also quiet as I finished the Easter installment of the Longinus story and Judy made a number of bracelets from her seemingly unending supply of bracelet stuff.

About an hour ago I took Molly on a walk to do her nightly constitutional and as we walked in the dark I looked up into the clear night sky to see thousands of stars.  In 2008 I walked home from church on Christmas Eve looking up into the cold winter night sky wondering if God even existed.  Tonight I looked at the sky and uttered a simple thank you for the resurrection. I know that I believe again. The belief that became real again in 2009 during my “Christmas Miracle” while on duty at the Naval Medical Center is now a quiet and real part of my life and ministry, especially to those who have lost their faith or struggle with faith. It is a quiet alleluia that is now a part of my life again. It is not the same as what I had before and certainly some critics including some in my old denomination have labeled me a liberal, a heretic and even an apostate mostly because I do not agree with their political agenda or narrow and often undemocratic understanding of the Gospel and its social ramifications.  I suppose that should bother me but it no longer does. My skin has become more resistant to such critics and while such criticism from people that I counted as friends still stings in general I am much more resilient to it, obviously the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of this miscreant priest.

Yet I remain a Christian and an Old Catholic and treasure the gift that God has given us in Christ.  The ministry that I have now is different but it is founded upon that faith that people like Longinus discovered that first Easter and I can only say “I believe alleluia!”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Grace in Freedom: Lent 2011

“Grace is the beauty of form under the influence of freedom.” Johann Friedrich Von Schiller

“Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

My readers who have been with me the past couple of years know that Lent is probably, no wait definitely my least favorite part of the liturgical year. I think it is because the way that I saw it in the past. The problem was that I saw a long list of things not to do, or too do and that Lent was more about getting things “right” in terms of obligations, fasting, prayer, penance and trying to survive 40 days until Easter liberated me from the torture.

The last couple of years I have tried to make light of Lent writing about how to survive the season in rather humorous ways, or rather cynical ways as I struggled with PTSD, depression, abandonment and a loss of faith that for all practical purposes left me an agnostic. It was the only way that I knew how to deal with it because before Iraq my Lenten observances prior to Iraq, while genuine were torturous because I had missed the reason for the season. This year is different because my life is starting to come back into focus and faith after a long absence has returned.

This year I begin Lent in a new church. My readers know that last year I was tossed out of my old church by a corrupt bishop who later got destroyed his ministry and lost his office because of his own duplicitous nature and hubris. The charge was that I was too “liberal” and that I would be better I found a home with the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, North American Old Catholic. I also was transferred to be the head of the Pastoral Care Department of a very busy Naval Hospital on a Marine Corps Base. Both the changes in church as well as the change in duty assignment have helped me.  I am more at peace and find work rewarding. I find that I am at peace in the ACOC a church where my Catholic faith and more “liberal” views are in sync and where I am not looking over my shoulder wondering if I will be censured or silenced as I had been in my previous church on a number of occasions.

While I still struggle with PTSD the effects are not as pronounced as they were even six months ago.  I made my first trip by air since my father died last June. Since returning from Iraq air travel, crowds, noise and light have often sent me into a complete panic and what I would describe as a PTSD “meltdown.”  While I still experienced some anxiety during the travel I was able to deal with it and had no panic induced meltdowns.  That was a major milestone for me and a sign that I am getting better.

So this year Lent and Ash Wednesday was different than either before Iraq when I was trying to faithfully observe the rituals but missed the bigger point and the time after Iraq where Lent made little sense because I didn’t even know if I believed in God.  This year my celebration of Lent, and I use the word celebrate rather than observe is grounded in the love, grace and mercy of God. Something clicked this year and I think it was in really understanding the words found in Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, the 5th Chapter verses 17 through 21.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 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. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:17-21 NRSV emphasis mine)

What I have discovered in this is something that has changed is that middle part “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

That has become liberating because I think I finally get what really means. It is about a God who of his own accord loves his creation; he loves real people in a real world including me.  Lent like all of the Gospel is about reconciliation between God, humanity and creation. Likewise it is also about reconciliation and forgiveness between people and even nations. It is about the Prince of Peace and less about external ritual.

I’m not saying that there is no value in observing spiritual disciplines such as fasting, abstinence or additional prayers or good works, but if they don’t lead us into a deeper relationship with God and help bring us into right relationship with others they really are worth nothing. I think that Jesus when talking about those that made sure that everyone saw the external aspects of their faith, or to better put it how holy they were, hit the nail on the head. In fact it was the Gospel lesson today in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” It is faith and the grace of God in Christ Jesus that is the only antidote to the sin that keeps us from living fully reconciled to God and our neighbor and for that matter the only things that can bring us to joy not trying to impress people with our piety.

I will be observing some of the Lenten disciplines this year but with a far different attitude and expectation in the past. I will seek to live the reconciled life both with God and those that I in relationship with and those that I come across. I realize that it is okay to be me and that I can be real and don’t have to try to be someone or something that I am not. It is to live in grace and freedom in right relationship to God, people and his creation. This Lent I will endeavor to live in that grace and freedom seeking to live the reconciled life.

God bless you during this Lenten Season.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Church Maintained in Love: Maintaining Integrity and Preserving Relationships When Asked to Leave a Church

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right….” Martin Luther

The past three years have been filled with change and transition for me as anyone who is a regular reader of this site understands.  This week another transition took place as I was asked to leave the Charismatic Episcopal Church over my perceived “liberal” writings and spiritual journey.  This has been a long time in coming and while I was surprised at the timing I was not surprised that it eventually came to this.  While my Bishop states that he did not ask me to leave the tenor of his call, which was pastoral and friendly yet used terms such as “you do not appear to be happy in the CEC,” “I would think that you might be happier in another church” and “liberal beliefs” indicated to me that I was being asked to leave and that was how I interpreted it.  He did not at all threaten my status in the military as I made my transition but left me with the impression that the sooner I found a new home the better.

Before I go into the process of how this happened I have to say that I depart the CEC without rancor or personal animosity and that unlike many who have departed the CEC will not engage in criticism or attacks on that Church or its leadership.  While I have theological, philosophical and pastoral disagreements with where I see the CEC going it is not for me to sit as the judge upon the CEC.  I have too many friends in the church and dare not risk relationships over issues that are mine to deal with.  At the same time I will in this post note those differences.  But again I say that all churches have the right and responsibility to do what they think is correct regarding their beliefs and how to deal with their clergy and laity that have differing views.  It is my view that unless a person is willing to stay within their church and abide by its discipline that they should leave peacefully.  I also believe that if a person feels that they are bound by the faith and by Scripture to remain in a church as a voice of loyal opposition that they should but have the grace not to make their opposition a personal crusade to get their way or to force change in their church before it is time.  I believe that a person who practices principled opposition can never use his opposition as an excuse to seek further division in the church. Likewise a person cannot allow his or herself to become so attached to his cause that he sees his opponents as enemies and allows hate to dominate his actions.

I believe that the Church is a community centered on Jesus and bound together by our baptism, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One God and Father of All.  I believe in this community that there are many expressions of that faith.  We maintain the faith that comes passed to us in the Gospel “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:19 NLT)

Within this context lies my journey. As a priest in the CEC I was bound by my vows to be obedient to the discipline of the church.  When I entered the CEC in 1996 I felt very comfortable with those vows. Over the course of the years I began to have misgivings about those vows as the church went through a number of very bitter splits over what amounted to be the issue of power and authority.  Money was at the root of much of this but also the personal misconduct of a number of Bishops as well as clergy aggravated the situation. In the United States during the period of 2004-2007 a total of 8 bishops left the church to form their own denominations or join other groups, many taking the majority of their clergy and parishes with them. Two of these bishops would return to the CEC in later years. One Archbishop resigned and became a Roman Catholic layman. One Archbishop was removed from his episcopate and left the church to form his own church and eventually the world-wide Patriarch was forced to step down after being complicit in the cover-up of an affair of his archdeacon and the wife of a layman in the church whose father was a priest in the military. All of those Bishops did more to damage the faith and witness of the CEC than any article that I could ever write so I am not ashamed as I have behaved with honor and maintained my vows.

During my time in the CEC I had a number of negative experiences with Bishops and clergy that are no longer in the CEC. The Archbishop that laicized and became Roman Catholic had forbidden me from writing after publishing two articles in a conservative Catholic journal.  The accusation was that I was “too Catholic and misrepresenting the church.” Of course my writings were following the lead of this bishop and a number of others that were trying on their own accord to push the CEC into communion with Rome. He did not inform the Archbishop for the Military of this.  I later had conflict with this bishop when I corrected a priest in his diocese who was not following what the bishop said to do. For my trouble I was forbidden to have relationships with civilian clergy in that diocese. When this bishop laicized this diocese imploded, only a few missions with very few members remain in the CEC. The others found homes in communions that the other departing bishops formed after failing to remove the Patriarch in 2006.  I had many friends leave the CEC at that time.  Thus from 2004 I had no local support of fellowship with anyone in the CEC. The bishop that inherited the scattered remnants of this diocese never contacted me in that time, apart from my fellow chaplains I felt completely cut off from the church.  Thus when all the major scandals and schisms occurred I only had the support and fellowship of a number of the priests of our military archdiocese. Despite this I felt bound to my vows as none of the Bishops that remained had wronged me in any way and I valued my relationship with my military bishop and fellow chaplains.

The CEC continued its implosion while I was in Iraq with the resignation of the Patriarch. I wondered if the CEC would survive in any form and began to explore options contacting a number of communions while in Iraq. When I returned home suffering from PTSD flashbacks, insomnia and anxiety as well as the lingering effects of wear and tear injuries to my shoulders and knees and a badly sprained ankle which refused to heal I was in pretty ragged shape. I told Judy that I felt that I needed to leave the CEC and recognizing the danger of a hasty move she persuaded me to stay and at least wait a year to make any decisions.

In fact in light of the journey that I have been on, especially since returning from Iraq in February 2008 I had began the process of seeking to find a home. This was done in large part because when I am done with my military service we plan on retiring in the Hampton Roads area.  One thing that I discovered after Iraq was that I needed local relationships and a church home.  This was something that even if I had remained in sync with the CEC that they could not have provided and I did find a local church home at St. James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth.

During that year I experienced a major crisis of faith that left me for nearly two years as a practical agnostic wondering where God was. Christmas of 2008 was so bleak that I left the Christmas Eve Mass at Judy’s parish before it started walking into the cold of the night asking God if he even existed.  Faith was a struggle for the next year, but I did find a local church home at St. James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth whose priest, Father John Agbaje became my pastor and friend. Though I was still struggling I found comfort in the liturgy and tradition of this historic church. It was a place of solace, something that I had not had in the CEC for many years.

By the summer I realized that if we were to remain in the Hampton Roads area that I would have to leave the CEC if nothing else for the local relationships that we were building at St. James. While this was occurring my faith journey continued. I saw many things going on in much of the church world, to sometimes include the CEC that concerned me as a Christian. These were pastoral, societal and political issues and not creedal issues even though for many conservative Christians including most of the CEC they are “hot button” issues.  While I consider myself a moderate many people on the far right consider that to be “liberal.” Due to the poisonous political and social climate that we live in here in the United States most people are no longer open to debate or dialogue on those issues. Since I have written about this in my recent article “Faith Journey’s: Why I am Still a Christian” ( https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/faith-journey%E2%80%99s-why-i-am-still-a-christian/) I will not go into them here.

In fact it was the Monday following that article that I received a call from my military archbishop telling me that I would have to find a new denominational home due to my “liberal” beliefs.  He is a friend and I sure that the call pained him to make, we go back almost 15 years.  I do not know what led to the call but presume it was pressure from other bishops to do something about me although he stated that this was not the case. I hold no ill will toward Bishop Doug or anyone else in the CEC leadership for asking me to leave. In a way it was a relief as I realized that my writings, even as circumspect as I tried to make them could cause problems for me in the CEC.

At no time did I attack the leadership of the CEC or its stand on any of these issues but evidently some considered my statements as a challenge to the church and its authority.  I am of the belief that to remain viable that there should be differing opinions on matters that are pastoral and societal and not out of keeping with the Christian tradition.  For me it does not matter if a church is conservative or liberal, if it silences dissent by people who are committed to that church for dissent on non-creedal issues then it does itself a disservice in the long run. But again I have to say that the CEC like any Church has the right and responsibility to maintain its church discipline and uphold what it believes to be true and that asking me to leave was within the bounds of its canons

Another endorsing agent helped me find the the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church (http://www.apostoliccatholic.org/default1.htm) an Old Catholic Communion whose ethos is very similar to mine.  I have had meaningful talks with the Presiding Bishop, Diana Dale and a number of priests who have served or are serving as military chaplains.  I really look forward to serving in the ACOC for many years to come.

My original desire was to leave the CEC quietly but my writings have placed me at odds with the CEC as a whole and as a consequence I have been asked to leave.  I can do so in good conscience knowing that for 14 years I served the church well and presented a positive view of the church even when the church was going through its most difficult times.  I can maintain my integrity and be more open in my beliefs by leaving than remaining.

Over the past three years Bishop Doug has been most supportive and even had not chided me on other articles that voiced similar sentiments as the Faith Journey’s article and I shall maintain a friendship even if we disagree on some issues. Relationships matter and I refuse to make enemies on my way out of the CEC. I will miss my friends at Church of the Messiah in Jacksonville where we worshipped in 2002-2003 and St. Michael’s in San Clemente who hosted the best of our military diocese convocations, as well as my friends and brothers in the Archdiocese for the Armed Forces. I will remain in contact with many through Facebook and other means.  Friends are friends and I and I will not leave with the bitterness and animosity of so many that left the CEC earlier in the decade, people who have not been able to move past their hurt and embrace their new church homes.

I hope this article in some ways explains my journey. Bishop Doug has already let my fellow military priests know that I am leaving the CEC so at least some people know what has happened. I will contact those that I am closest to personally and provide this article to others.  This is a painful time of transition but it is the right decision for both the CEC and me.

My official change over to the ACOC will take place sometime next week.  I thank all of my friends in the CEC for your support and prayers over the years.  I will keep the CEC and you my friends in my prayers as I continue my journey.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

Non nobis, non nobis, Domine
Sed nomini tuo da gloriam

Postscript: I had a conversation with Bishop Doug this morning. In that conversation he stated that he did not ask me to leave the CEC in our conversation two weeks ago, just that I appeared to be “unhappy” in the CEC and might want to look elsewhere because of “liberal views” suggesting the Episcopal Church as a possibility.  This is true, he did not directly ask me to leave, but I interpreted the call in that manner he used the term “liberal views.” It was that term that led me to believe that perhaps he had been talked to about me as the term is loaded in the current climate of American religious and political debate. I did not mention other instances regarding past encounters with some in the current CEC leadership that also influenced my interpretation of Bishop Doug’s words. That serves no purpose and I will not mention names or even incidents because I do not want those encounters to be used against the CEC or anyone in it.

I implore anyone that reads this post NOT to disparage Bishop Doug in any way. He is a gentleman and a Christian and I know that he bears me no malice whatsoever. He has been attacked personally on the blogs of many that left the CEC and I cannot countenance that or lend my voice to those criticisms. SLD+

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