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From the PC(USA) website:

Christian and Muslim Egyptians are deeply grieving the death of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians beheaded by the Islamic State in Libya on Sunday. Their witness is the ultimate act of faith.

The 21 men executed were poor laborers who had left Egypt to find work in Libya. There are thousands of others who have done the same. The Egyptian government is telling all Egyptians to return home. No Egyptian can now enter Libya.

Matthew 5:11 is running through the minds of many Christians: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

“The purpose of the video [showing the beheading] was to foment sectarian strife in Egypt between Christians and Muslims,” says Ramaz Attalah, general director of PC(USA) ministry partner the Bible Society of Egypt, in a recent letter. “Islamic extremists clearly intended to provoke the 10 million Christians in Egypt to rise up violently against their Muslim neighbors. But the loving and caring response of Muslims all over the nation softened the blow which many Christians felt. All this sends a clear message that Christians are considered an integral part of the fabric of Egyptian society.”

The mother of Tawadros Yousif, one of the men beheaded, says: “I can’t wish them evil. I pray for them that God may open their hearts and give them his light.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi went on television to condemn the brutal slayings and to offer his condolences to the families and to the entire Coptic Orthodox Church. He also visited Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria to personally offer condolences. He reportedly even traveled to a small village where most of the men are from, sitting on the floor with their relatives to express his concern.

Bishop Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, has released a statement expressing his “deep feelings of sorrow and pain.” In it he asks for prayers for the families of the victims but also pauses to remember others who have suffered at the hands of the militants.

“We cannot remember our Coptic brothers,” he writes, “without also remembering those who have lost their lives in equally brutal circumstances: journalists, aid workers, medical staff, religious leaders, a young pilot and communities that are considered incompatible with a fringe and intolerant element.”

Cinda Gorman, PC(USA) mission co-worker serving at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, says there is a somber feeling on the campus. “One of our quietest staff members, Eman, from the accounting office, lead staff chapel Monday and spoke very candidly about how she just wanted to stay in her office and not speak to anyone because she was so sad. But she came to lead chapel so we could pray and sing together and lift up our Christian brothers and sisters in their pain.”

The PC(USA) liaison in Egypt, Steve Gorman, says a “national week of mourning” has been declared for all Egypt. He also reports that there is an obvious step-up in the number of visible police and soldiers in the streets of Cairo.

Gorman says PC(USA) co-workers in Egypt thus far do not feel threatened. But they remain cautious and vigilant.

Amgad Beblawi, coordinator for World Mission’s Middle East and European programs, says World Mission staff will remain in close contact with PC(USA) personnel in Egypt.

Gorman asks for prayers. “Please keep Egypt, the Coptic Church and the Sisi government in your prayers. This is a major event of terrorism for this nation. There will be acts of retaliation, and there is mourning.”

I received an email this afternoon concerning the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS/L)–a terrorist group committed to the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. The author concluded that ISIS/L’s literal interpretation of the Qu’ran was necessarily connected to their violent–even barbarous–methodology. Implied in the comment was a value judgment about people who take religious texts “literally.”

It put me to mind of an exchange between Rev. Canon Sam Wells and a UCC campus minister at a meeting I attended. Wells put forward a definition of Christian–for the purpose of religious life at Duke University–that connected to affirming the ecumenical creeds of the church, especially the Apostles’ Creed. The immediate reply from the UCC minister was to inquire whether a “literal” interpretation was required. After all, he argued, is it not still an affirmation of the creed to hold that Jesus was raised metaphorically. Well’s rejoinder was beautiful: “I would hate to think that after you die, you’d be raised as a metaphor.”

A critique of Biblical literalism is, at times, appropriate. However, progressives who universally condemn a literal reading of the Scripture show themselves to be as lacking in nuance as their fundamentalist friends.

The Scripture has to be interpreted in light of its genre. To read Genesis as modern history ignores the intellectual and cognitive chasm that exists between modern scientific description and ancient creation mythology. It is only a mistake to read something ‘literally’ when such a reading is unwarranted by the biblical evidence. Liberals often assume that the details in the Bible are simply an appendage to the spiritual reality that is testified to and that shifts and changes over time. Conservatives look to the Bible as an evidentiary record that establishes and buttresses their theological conclusions. The reality is somewhere in between.

Jeff Gissing:

Lent is about acknowledging our limitations–we are finite, we sin, we will die. It is also about acknowledging God’s limitlessness–God is all-powerful, God is all-loving, God is all-forgiving. At the imposition of ashes last night at FPCB we affirmed, “Ashes, the sign of your need. The cross, the sign of God’s love.”

Originally posted on Jeff Gissing:

Yesterday morning I took some time to walk down the hall to the small chapel in the church building where my office is located. It’s a special place for me since I was ordained as a teaching elder there several years ago. Going there helps me both to connect to God and also to remain connected to the vows I took when I became a minister. 

In my prayer time I used the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer. Some consider this prayer book to be outdated and prefer the 1979 version that contains more modern English. Others find that the language of the later prayer book is too common and others claim that alterations in the liturgy there reflect alterations in the church’s theology.

I’m not competent to judge the merit of either of those claims. I do, however, find the older English of the 1928…

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Peter Leithart has an interesting essay asking whether “high liturgy” and a “high sacramentality” always go together. You can read it here. He’s responding to yet another essay that intones about the religious desire of, you guessed it, the millennial generation. In the American Conservative Gracy Olmstead argues that many millennials are experiencing, “a search for meaning that goes to the heart of our postmodern age.” In the end, many of them turn to some form of Christianity they believe to be connected with the ancient church and that evince both a high liturgy and a high view of the sacraments.

Most protestant churches, by contrast, tend to be low church. What does that really mean? After all, an informal liturgy is still a liturgy. And even those churches who are seen as low church may still be formal. As you can see, the distinctions make this an interesting conversation. And does having an low (or informal) liturgy mean that such a church doesn’t take the sacraments seriously?

So, what is the difference between high and low liturgy? Leithart observes that one of the things that differentiates high liturgy from low liturgy is the presence of preparatory rites:

High liturgies include preparatory rites, sometimes complicated and numerous; low liturgies do not. Orthodox priests perform the prothesis before the Divine Liturgy begins. In a high Anglican liturgy, Scripture readings are preceded by gestures and processions. In a low liturgy, the minster announces a text and reads it. In a high Eucharist, the minister or priest is vested, his hands washed, the elements blessed before the Eucharistic ordo itself. In a low Eucharist, the minister takes bread and wine, gives thanks, and distributes.

As a Presbyterian I most definitely have a dog in this fight, as does Leithart, who argues:

The low-church Reformers (all of them, by my definition) stripped away preparatory rites because they believed that the power of sacraments rests on God’s word, and that alone. If a minister is ordained to a ministry of word and sacrament, why does he need to go through what looks like re-ordination every time he leads the Eucharist? He doesn’t need to wash his hands, because Jesus has already set him apart by the laying on of hands; he was vested at ordination. If Jesus promises to wash us at the font, we don’t need to bless the water. We only have to believe him. Jesus promises to give himself to us at his table. We should trust him, take, and eat. To the Reformers, the Latin Mass didn’t take God at his word. Surrounding the sacraments with elaborate preparatory rites manifested distrust in God’s promise, which means distrust in the potency of sacraments.

The important element in this paragraph is the final sentence: “Surrounding the sacraments with elaborate preparatory rites manifested distrust in God’s promise, which means distrust in the potency of sacraments.” Why the connection? For this reason: the sacraments are visible signs that point to the truth of God’s covenant promises.

Further, according to Leithart, high church liturgy also denigrates the creation. When I preside at the Lord’s Supper, I am not facilitating or causing the bread and wine to become something other than it was an hour ago, at least not ontologically. Rather, God is choosing to deliver his grace via the conduit of the bread and wine as bread and wine that enable communion with Christ. Any change in the bread and the wine is a change in purpose rather than in being just as when I was ordained as a Teaching Elder I was not changed ontologically but rather my role among the people of God was altered.

At the end of the day, I have no problem with ex non-denominational Christians choosing to become Anglicans, Catholics, or Orthodox. I do, however, get the sense that occasionally these Christians depart from their tradition to another without truly experiencing the former in its truest or most full sense. After all, in an age that doesn’t value dogma it’s convenient and easily accepted to claim “we do our theology in our liturgy” or “to pray is to do theology.” If I had to choose between dogma and prayer it’s a no-brainer: I’d choose prayer every time. However, in reality these aren’t mutually-exclusive things.

Leithart concludes–and I’d love him to unpack this sentence–“Low liturgy can manifest a “higher” view of sacraments than high liturgy. Protestant Puritanism doesn’t undermine sacraments. Perhaps only Puritans can give sacraments their due.”

This video of Diane Butler-Bass and Ross Douthat interacting over their respective books on the state of religion in contemporary America is worthy of your time and attention. Butler-Bass is a progressive episcopalian who researches and writes (largely) about renewal (not in the sense of becoming orthodox, but in the sense of flourishing) within mainline Christianity. Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times and a practicing Catholic.

In short, Douthat claims that Christianity in North America can be saved by rooting itself in the “little o” Orthodoxy of the Canonical Scriptures, Ecumenical councils, and the received tradition of interpretation (the deposit of faith) handed on by the church. Bass, on the other hand, argues that there are pocket of life and renewal (around 10% of mainline congregations) within the mainline churches–especially in congregations that have come to understand themselves as localized communities of practice.

The central disagreement between the two seems to be on the matter of dogma. For Douthat dogma informs and shapes the life of Christian communities and provides a center around which the community orients itself. For Butler-Bass dogma is the result of practice such that it is more accurate to say that Christians perform their faith before their live their faith (in an experiential sense). Douthat, of course, wouldn’t dispute the performance of one’s faith since the Roman Catholic tradition has a highly developed liturgical theology.

The interesting question this interview poses is whether and how “traditionalists” and “progressives” can co-exist in the same community? In some sense this interview suggests that such a shared existence is possible. YOu’ll note that the two agree on 90% of the topics of conversation. However, the 10% they disagree on is pretty essential stuff: the nature of dogma, etc.

What do you think? Can traditionalists and progressives coexist? Or, alternately, are we seeing the coexistence of neo-orthodox and post-liberals in most mainline traditions since most traditionalists have already left?