Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Last Chrism Mass

This is a time of “lasts” for the Diocese of Pittsburgh: the last Christmas celebration; the last Lent; the last Holy Week; the last Trinity Sunday. That mixture of sober realism and nostalgia was visibly on display at today’s Chrism Mass, where the Bishop of Pittsburgh took for his text the third verse of Psalm Eleven: “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

In Pittsburgh, we have all had occasion to watch Bob Duncan over the past few years; at Trinity Cathedral we see him more than most. While his offices are next door, from time to time one will encounter a perambulating bishop wandering the corridors of the parish house, lost in thought. It is hard, though, to imagine the full impact of those years of struggle when, as the psalmist declares “the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart.”

The poignancy of that moment in the service when the Bishop joined his clergy in reaffirming the promises that he made at ordination was all the more striking when one considers last week’s decision in the House of Bishops. At such a moment, it seemed peculiarly ironic that a denomination cannot distinguish between termination of the right to function in an ordained capacity within a particular national church (which all parties would seem to acknowledge as legitimate) and the declaration that a priest or bishop no longer holds valid orders for the exercise of ministry within the Anglican tradition (which, at the least, would seem to demand a trial with the same degree of rigor as that accorded Walter Righter thirteen years ago).

For all that, the homily was a much more pastoral offering that we have tended to hear from Bob Duncan in recent years, with but a single personal allusion. All the care poured into this sermon was for the priests and deacons who have borne the heat and strife of the day, those who, in the words of the assigned Epistle (2 Corinthians 4:1-12), do not lose heart since they have their ministry through God’s mercy. And perhaps it is not just “loyal” presbyters who need the assurance that “though hard pressed on every side, they will not be crushed; though perplexed, not in despair; though persecuted, not abandoned; though struck down, not destroyed,” but also the Pittsburgh Twelve and even those who stand apart from that cause to which a majority of Pittsburgh’s Episcopalians have dedicated themselves.

In the final analysis, Bishop Duncan stated, a priest’s calling is that declared by the Apostle Paul: “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.” (v.2) By the end of the year these clergy will no longer be able to gather as one and fellowship, perhaps even friendships, will be ended. Yet if secrecy, deception and distortion are eschewed and the truth is plainly set forth, then perhaps there can be victory even in defeat. Since we are all representative of fallen humanity, naturally this may be easier said than done

At several points in his sermon, the Bishop drew attention to the last days of St. Augustine in a Carthage then under siege by the Vandals. Within a short space of Augustine’s death, he remarked, the great North African Church had ceased to exist. Sitting amid the columns of Trinity Cathedral, itself testament to the rise and fall of institutional Anglicanism in North America, one wondered if another final epitaph was being pronounced.


Dan Crawford said...

Thanks, Jeremy. The service was a powerfully sobering event, yet at Communion I felt a great deal of joy and gratitude for the past six years I have had Duncan as my Bishop and the clergy of the diocese as my colleagues. And throughout this morning's Mass, I could not help reflecting how a person who has faithfully and consistently preached the Good News of Jesus Christ has been threatened with deposition by a person whose understanding of "new life in Christ" encompasses bovine flatulence.

Jeremy Bonner said...


I'm glad that I appear to have captured the mood of the service. I would still urge that we keep in mind the spirit that Kendall invited us to adopt for Holy Week, even if what we feel can only be expressed along the lines of "Father forgive them . . ."

After all, +Bob himself would not - and did not today - claim perfection of word and deed. What we feel for those on the other sides (deliberate use of the plural) is in part a function of our own frustration. At least, I know that is the case with me.

A blessed Triduum to you.

Anonymous said...

I was particulary struck by the statement that clergy won't be able to have fellowship. As things have progressed I have seen the relationship between my former rector and myself grow horribly cold. Old friends pass by trying to eek out a hello but always worried that the subject of church will come up. It seems for so long my personal faith was that personal. My relationship to God was something nurtured by those around me but never dictated. Now, after growing up in front of some of these peoples very eyes, I'm now someone different, someone to be shunned or at best ackenowledged albeit with much reserve.

The real sadness is many lay people are victims of what I believe is a clergy generated fight. I feel for Bishop Bob but his is not the only life in distress.

Let me conclude by reiterating that not just clergy are lossing friends/colleagues, so are the laity (even inter family battles).
maybe thats something the clergy needs to be more pastoral about.

My prayer for this holy week is for tolerance, openess, reconcillation and love, In Christ Name.

Peace, Bob

Jeremy Bonner said...


I quite agree that we the laity are suffering and will suffer quite as much as the clergy.

I'm not sure, in Pittsburgh at least, that one can view recent developments as the fault of clergy alone. There are clergy here who are dubious (or worse) about the way forward and laypeople that are committed heart and soul (try visiting Ascension, Oakland, or St. Stephen's, Sewickley).

I would agree that the clergy need to be watching those worsening relations between and within families and offering appropriate pastoral care. I'm sure this was one of the factors at work in the decisions of the Pittsburgh Twelve (though by no means the only one).

Anonymous said...


From what little I hear, facturing congregations/families was a major concern for conservative clergy in their decision to no join the realignment movement. As for Acsension and St. Stephens, both rectors are on record for leaving. I wonder if someone more concillatory were leading them if they'd be so millitant?
(and I'm not saying there are those who wouldn't want to leave even if a less "we have to go" rector/leadership were in place. I'm just posing a question).

What will happen to those people in parishes who don't wish to leave? (there are some at St. Stephen's, albeit not many :) ) How will the clergy of those people meet the needs of those not wishing to leave?
I've watched my parents agonize over their parish. They are not liberals but wish to stay with remain Episcopalian. There isn't a parish within miles for them to receive the sacraments providing a split does come.

As I've said, I pray for Bishop Bob but he must minister to all in this flock, not just those who find separation the only solution.

What a mess, but these are some of the things I think will be important in the near future and will be concerns for all sides.

Ps. It's nice to have a good dialogue with the other side, Thanks. Peace