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By The Rev. Mark Stanley
For the first time in my life, I am presenting a resolution to the Diocesan Convention–a resolution on the topic of the early church theologian, Origen of Alexandria. I realize that it is pretty nerdy, but it has been bothering me that such a brilliant man was never canonized as a saint. Many early church scholars, including Henri Crouzel, SJ (Professor of Patristics at the Catholic Institute of Toulouse and the Gregorian University in Rome), have asserted that Origen has been “unjustly branded a heretic” (Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, pg 503). Trying to correct this wrong, I am presenting a Resolution at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland’s Convention on May 13, 2016 for Origen of Alexandria to be included in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of “saints.”
Born to Christian parents in 185 AD, Origen spent the first part of his career as a teacher in Alexandria, Egypt. During the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Septimius Serverus in Alexandria in 202, in which his father was killed, teenage Origen desired martyrdom but his mother prevented him from leaving the house by hiding his clothes. Because of his Christian faith, Origen chose to lead a strict ascetic life of fasting, prayer, and voluntary poverty. According to the historian Eusebius, Origen supposedly even castrated himself because of his misinterpretation of Matthew 19:12. (Recent scholars have questioned the truth of this story, however, speculating that this may have been just a rumor circulated by his detractors.) In 250 AD, during a later persecution, Origen was imprisoned for being a Christian and cruelly tortured, after which he survived only a few years.
Refusing to deny his beliefs, Origen’s willingness to undergo personal suffering gave witness to his dedication to Christ. Origen, who was renowned for the breadth and depth of his scholarship, wrote influential works in the fields of theology, textual criticism, biblical commentary, preaching, and spirituality.
Hundred of years after the death of Origen, the Emperor Justinian instigated Origen’s condemnation and had many of his works burned. In 553 AD, the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople seems to have condemned Origin as a heretic. That this council actually condemned him is both “enigmatic and problematic” (Philip Esler, The Early Christian World, Volume 2, pg 262). The Catholic Encyclopedia (volume 11, pg 308) even states that Origen “does not deserve to be ranked among the promoters of heresy.”
Scholars today call Origen “the church’s first systematic theologian” and “the foremost biblical scholar of the early church.” Saint Jerome proclaimed Origen the “greatest teacher of wisdom and knowledge after the apostles.” Yet many of Origen’s works did not survive due to his condemnation several centuries after his death. This needs to be corrected. Some of this later criticism comes from Origen’s wide ranging philosophical speculation at a time when Christian orthodoxy was still forming. It is problematic to label as heresy Origen’s theories about the pre-existence of souls or the Son being inferior to the Father (which he may not have actually claimed) since the church at that time did not yet have official teachings on these matters.
Unfortunately some of the accusations against Origen were actually due to misunderstandings of his writings as well as the attribution of later speculations by his followers to him. Another point of controversy is Origen’s concept of Apokatastasis, that all creatures (even the Devil) could ultimately be reconciled with God. While scholars today debate whether Origen truly taught a version of Universal Salvation, Origen’s emphasis on the patience and enduring mercy of God, rather than on Divine punishment, might be seen in our own day as not heresy but as Good News. The great Anglican historian Henry Chadwick puts it this way, “If orthodoxy were a matter of intention, no theologian could be more orthodox than Origen, none more devoted to the cause of Christian faith.”
Origen is deserving of a place on our liturgical calendar with his rare combination of scholarly genius and a saintly life dedicated to Christ. The next step is a Resolution recommending Origen be included in the next edition of A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations. Then, on to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2018 to work for final approval from the national church.
Origen scholar, The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Lyman, states, “if anyone represented Anglican rationality, love of scripture, and holiness of life, it is Origen.”
Several years ago we started having a baby boom in our church, so we decided we wanted to create a “Soft Space” for families where they would feel comfortable and safe worshiping in our sanctuary. We saw the need to provide childproofed space for babies to roll around and play on the floor while their parents were in worship. We proposed to remove just one pew so that an enlarged space could be equipped with a super soft carpet, stuffed animals, and a pew door.
The initial proposal was well received in general, but a member of our vestry became upset at the thought of us doing anything to change our historic building. To address this person’s concerns, an architect was consulted, and a variety of locations were considered for the new Soft Space so that it might be low profile while offering easy access to exits and bathrooms. After a great deal of discussion, vestry members were polled. In the end, there was overwhelming support to move forward with the creation of a Soft Space that would provide for the practical needs of families, and also serve as a symbol of our church’s welcome of young children. Soon after it was completed, a parishioner gifted the Church with an enormous teddy bear to welcome families into the new Soft Space.
Fast forward five years, and we now have added a second Soft Space and dozens more children to our membership. In fact, we are already thinking of adding one or two more Soft Spaces to accommodate the many new families who have joined our Church. At a recent newcomer event, we asked people to share their first impressions of our Church. One young woman said, “At my wedding a few months ago, my guests were delighted to see the space for children with the huge teddy bear. My first impression was that this Church was trying to be an inclusive community.”
It’s true that, for the past decade, we have been working to build the kind of Christian community where people can come and feel accepted for who they are, nurtured through friendship, and loved unconditionally by God. We set out to create a Soft Space for families, and, in the process, we have created a whole Christian community that is one big soft space for everyone who enters our doors. Through Forums and workshops, we have worked on ourselves, asking, “How can we relate to people in ways that are open, civil, kind, and compassionate?” I could not be more proud of the members of our Christian community for their efforts at following in the footsteps of Jesus.
I wonder what more we could do to have our Church serve as a soft space for the people of downtown Baltimore, where we are surrounded by hardscape. How could we provide a soft space during the week for those who are bustling to and from their jobs downtown? What ministries might we develop to provide more of a soft space for the homeless people who sleep on our front portico most nights? Our Church community seeks to offer holy hospitality, and we do a great job of that on Sundays, but still, I wonder what more we could do for folks on weekdays.
—The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley
(Photo credit: Laurie DeWitt)
“We’ve always done it this way.”
We hear that said in the church from time to time. On the one hand, this statement captures some of the truth of the church’s connection with history and the past. Christians have always celebrated the Eucharist and always tried to follow Jesus. The church tries to communicate what can be described as eternal truths. On the other hand, a term like “always” frequently gets you in trouble. As you start to delve into Christian history it becomes stunningly clear how much things have changed over time. The liturgy in the year 100 and the year 1000 and the year 2000 are all drastically different. The role of bishops has changed. The church has made changes in the way it views slavery and more recently women and gay people in the ordained ministry.
Change in the church is often a painful and difficult process. I remember working in a parish when it was decided to move the reading lectern because it was blocking the view of the altar. The conflict and raw emotion churned up was really quite amazing. I think that one of the dynamics was that if you made the change (moving the lectern) you seemed to be saying that it was wrong or dumb to have had it where it was positioned originally. A change can feel like a put down or insult to the way things used to be.
“The Church has authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another time it may abolish, and in both may do well.” (Laws, Book 5.8.2)
He seems to be saying that, guided by reason and the Holy Spirit, the Church should make changes. And that this is not an insult to the past. It just is that, in the past, they did things differently.
Unfortunately, some branches of the Christian Church still don’t get this 400 years after Hooker was writing. We pray for the church to continue to make changes faithfully and for the right reasons.
This post is also a plug for my upcoming forum on Anglican History this Sunday, February 15 at 9:30 am :
Our English roots and experience in colonial America helped form our branch of the church. Join The Rev. Mark Stanley as we look at the crucial events and key people that created The Episcopal Church of today.
—The Rev. Mark Stanley