The Mission of a Cathedral

The following is an excerpt from my Dean’s Address to the annual meeting of the Cathedral congregation.

In the remainder of this report I want to focus on responding to the immense missionary challenges that are facing the Christian Church in general and the Cathedral in particular. In November I gave a set of talks in the Diocese of Dallas on this problem entitled Modernity and Mission. The topic was the focus of my study and prayer for the Summer and Fall. I believe I have a better understanding of what is distinctive about the missionary environment in which we find ourselves and greater clarity about what an authentic missionary engagement with modernity looks like. I have been trying to share some of these thoughts in the Dean’s Forum. As a result of this study I believe strongly that The Cathedral of All Saints is uniquely positioned to be especially effective in reaching contemporary people for the sake of Jesus Christ. 

 There are many blessings of modernity for which to give thanks, modern medicine and a remarkable rise in the standard of living right across the world. Modernity is also characterized by what the old preachers called worldliness, a mentality which is preoccupied with the things of this world in which God is not so much denied as forgotten. The experience of transcendence, of holiness and otherness is rare. The experience of awe which leads to worship is rare and so modern people are in jeopardy of losing their souls and of losing that which is essential to our humanity: the worship of the one true and living God. It requires something powerful to break out of the captivity to this worldliness and the diminution and constriction of the human heart that must be its consequence. It requires something like a Gothic Cathedral. Pope Benedict XVI has a wonderful reflection on the significance of Gothic Cathedrals in an audience address that he gave on November 18, 2009. I encourage you to read the whole thing. Here is a quote, In the 12th and 13th centuries another kind of architecture for sacred buildings spread from the north of France: the Gothic. It had two new characteristics in comparison with the Romanesque, a soaring upward movement and luminosity. Gothic cathedrals show a synthesis of faith and art harmoniously expressed in the fascinating universal language of beauty which still elicits wonder today. By the introduction of vaults with pointed arches supported by robust pillars, it was possible to increase their height considerably. The upward thrust was intended as an invitation to prayer and at the same time was itself a prayer. Thus the Gothic cathedral intended to express in its architectural lines the soul’s longing for God.”

To maintain this beautiful sacred space as well as we are able and to invite in every winsome way possible the public to come and see, places our congregation on the cutting edge of the mission to modernity. Simply getting people into the building challenges what the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, calls the imminent frame of modernity, the lowered horizon of the modern person. When people enter the Cathedral for worship or for a concert or for The Cathedral in Bloom they are taken up in a great act of prayer simply by being in the space. The experience of being in the Cathedral humbles and dignifies at the same time and causes people to awaken to “the soul’s longing for God.” The daunting sums of money that are required to maintain this building are not an impediment to mission but a form of mission that is particularly needed in the time in which we live. Of course we need to be thoughtful and creative about how to help people take a next step in faith once their hearts have been awakened from the this-worldly trance of modernity but stirring up the hunger of the heart for the one who is all beauty, all truth, all goodness is no small thing.  

Another way in which The Cathedral of All Saints is uniquely positioned for an authentic missionary engagement with modernity is through liturgy and worship which aims by God’s grace for the transcendent. I was privileged to know the great Lutheran pastor and theologian, Robert Jenson. Dr. Jenson was a friend of Fr. Edge who is a member of our congregation. Jenson believed that modernity was characterized by a loss of meaning. Years ago, he wrote a very important article called, “How the World Lost Its Story.” He believed the essential missionary response to modernity was for the church to regain the power of her liturgy. “One of many analogies between postmodernity and dying antiquity—in which the church lived for her most creative period—is that the late antique world also insisted on being a meaningless chaos, and that the church had to save her converts by offering herself as the narratable world within which life could be lived with dramatic coherence. . . The church so constituted herself in her liturgy. . . The classic liturgical action of the church was not about anything else at all; it was itself the reality about which truth could be told. . . In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to be “relevant,” here is the first step: It must recover the classic liturgy of the church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life. In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decoration and more likely distraction” You can find the whole article on the website of the journal, First Things. It is well worth a read.

With our tradition of liturgical and musical excellence, we are able to recover the classic liturgy of the church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality and brutal realism in a setting carefully designed for just this purpose. Worship is central to the mission of the church and especially a Cathedral church and the liturgical experience that we can by God’s grace provide here is just the medicine that is the antidote to the modern sleeping sickness. The care, attention and money that we spend on music and liturgy are not a distraction from mission but an investment in a form of mission which is especially pertinent to the time in which we live.

For our liturgy to be authentic and to have both the form of Godliness and the power thereof challenges us to serious preparation by prayer and study of the scriptures and by the cultivation of the holiness of the Christian life. We must also be thoughtful and creative about how we make it possible for people to enter more deeply into the power of the liturgy. What we do on Sunday morning is central but services such as Evensong and Lessons and Carols offer an opportunity for people to come out of the chaos of modernity into the reality ordered by God’s love which is the Christian cosmos. In England there are signs of life in the great Cathedrals and the services of Evensong there are drawing new people to the faith. We can do that here as well. I want to close by saying the obvious which is that at the center of a congregation that aims to be effective in mission is an absolute consecration to Jesus Christ. It must be clear that what we are all about is that He should live in us and we in Him. A living encounter with Him is all that we have to offer our time. It is all that the church when true to itself has ever had to offer. If it is clear that our care for the building is an expression of our care about Him, and that our care about the music and the liturgy is an expression of care about Him, then His light will shine here and as the prophet Isaiah said in chapter 60, “The nations will come to your light.” The word nations in the Bible means all the different kinds of people drawn by the light of Christ into the one flock of the one Shepherd.

Getting Beyond Darwin

There are numerous scientific challenges to Darwin’s theory. The Roman Catholic public intellectual and biographer of John Paul II, George Weigel has an essay in First Things on an article by the distinguished scientist, David Gelernter on Giving Up Darwin. Some years ago I wrote a review of Etienne Gilson’s book From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again which included a reflection by Gilson on the dispute between French biologists and French mathematicians about the improbable probability statistics that would be necessary to make Darwin’s theory work. Gilson’s main critique was philosophical, with Aristotle he thought you couldn’t explain animals without teleology. It is becoming increasingly clear that Darwin’s theory works well for relatively small adaptive changes but fails as an explanation of the origin of species. Gilson said that natural selection was not an explanation but a placeholder for a lack of explanation. Below is my review of Gilson’s book.

Etienne Gilson, Translated by John Lyon. From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1984. (Originally published in 1971 as D’Aristote a Darwin et retour. Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin) XX and 209 pages.

In order to help its readership make wise decisions about the allocation of precious reading time, a theological journal should alert its readers not only to promising new books but to existing books which are of enduring value, particularly if these books might otherwise escape notice. I have known the name Gilson for many years but have only recently become aware of his work on Darwin. Gilson was a distinguished French Thomist philosopher of the twentieth century who was a central figure in the renaissance of Catholic thought and culture in the years following World War II. He was invited to give both the Gifford lectures and the William James Lectures. He founded a famous center of Medieval Studies in Toronto which in turn produced a generation of scholars dedicated to retrieving the treasures of the Christian centuries. He lived into his nineties and wrote more than 600 titles. In his middle eighties, he decided to take on a philosophical analysis of Darwin’s Origin of Species, thus the title of this volume. The book is a magisterial treatment of the history of the interplay between the discipline of biology and the philosophy of science from Aristotle to Darwin and back again. Gilson carefully sorts out the dividing line between science and the philosophy of nature and the places where Darwin and others promote questionable philosophical conclusions that cannot properly be established by the scientific method as though they were the results of that method. If you look among the footnotes of contemporary critiques of the Darwinism of such writers as Richard Dawkins you will find numerous mentions of this book.

The hero of Gilson’s book is Aristotle. According to Gilson, in The History of Animals Aristotle identified the issues that have to be addressed in order to comprehend the existence of living things. In Gilson’s eyes, Darwin’s book is full of precise observations and shrewd generalizations but is not as adequate an analysis of the fundamental questions of biology as Aristotle. For Gilson Darwin describes many things and explains very little. To the extent that Darwin’s theory is frustrated in its explanatory power it is because Darwin resists Aristotle’s way of stating the problem.

For Aristotle living beings present a unique challenge to understanding. There are things that are made up of homogeneous parts and there are things that are made up of heterogeneous parts. Aristotle described four causes of things. These were the material, formal, the efficient and final. The material and efficient causes answer the questions of immediate causality, of how the thing works. The formal and final causes tell you what sort of thing it is and answer the question of why and what for. Homogeneous things, stones for instance, can be understood in terms of material and efficient causes but living things are different, says Aristotle; they can be understood only in light of their final cause. This is because really different sorts of things are in an organism organized in proportion and in favor of a principle and that principle is what the thing is for or its final cause. So for instance all the varied parts of the eye are organized to the purpose or end of seeing, which is the eye’s final cause, its telos. When we come to living things, Aristotle says, we come to the inescapable fact of the operation of final causes in nature. The end is present in the beginning. There is in nature teleology or the final causality in the title of the book. For Aristotle the perception of the proportion between an organism and its final cause was a source of contemplative joy.

Gilson relates the story of the mounting war against “finality” or teleology in the natural sciences. It takes a decisive turn with Descartes and Bacon. Both want to bracket the consideration of teleology and focus on the material and efficient cause because of the practical usefulness of this type of investigation. Focusing on the material and efficient cause, the how does it work questions, gives modern science its explanatory power and helps drive research toward technology. The desire to bracket the final cause turns in modernity into a campaign to develop a science which disproves the existence of teleology in nature. Darwin’s book is the decisive chapter in that campaign. His special interest was to disprove teleology in nature and especially that version of teleology based on the belief that God had created at the beginning of the creation all the species as they exist.

Gilson points out that Darwin does not actually undertake to explain the origin of species in his book. His book is really about how some species transform themselves into others over time. Darwin says that the process by which this happens is analogous to the process by which a breeder of livestock improves the breed or develops new varieties by selecting desired traits over time. The difference is that in what Darwin calls “natural selection” there is no final cause or teleology at work. The selection process is unconscious and advances by chance mutations which fit particular individuals to succeed especially well in the struggle for survival and who are thus able to reproduce in disproportionate numbers. By the accumulation of these very small changes brought about entirely by chance over very long times, new varieties or species emerge.

The problem is that it is very hard to see how this process can account for the complexity of organisms. Darwin himself was worried about how his theory could account for the complexity of the eye. The eye is made up, as Aristotle would say, of heterogeneous parts. The parts need to be organized to the end of seeing and it is very hard to imagine the small random steps that would lead suddenly to the emergence of a new organ. Gilson says some sort of final cause must be at work. In order to imagine a selection which is not driven by teleology Darwin invoked the “unconscious” selection made by a group of livestock breeders who do not set out to consciously develop a new breed but who do so unconsciously by simply preferring as a group the same sort of animals. Gilson points out that this is none the less an example of teleology and is an example of organization toward an end. Gilson argues that Darwin needs to make the selection process of the mythical livestock breeders unconscious so that he can make the same process in nature unconscious, the blind watchmaker of Richard Dawkins. So Gilson finds that Darwin cannot dispense with the final cause and in his attempt to evade the issue uses a metaphor that is simply a sort of crypto-teleology. Gilson believes that what drives this move in Darwin is not science but an attempt to discredit any kind of creationism by developing a biology without recourse to the consideration of teleology.  Gilson says that chance functions in Darwin’s system not as an explanation but as the place marker for the absence of explanation, an explanation that will not be forthcoming as long as teleology is deprived of its due weight. In addition Gilson finds Darwin giving himself over to the same kind of teleological contemplative joy that was known by Aristotle. Darwin is in awe of the fittingness of the adaptation of organisms to their environment. “Adaptation” is, according to Gilson, the word whose chief virtue is that it allows Darwin to enjoy the proportion between an organism and its final cause, all the while denying the existence of the thing he is enjoying.

 Reviewing theorists in contemporary theoretical biology that are grappling with the inadequacies of a purely mechanistic approach to biology, Gilson says “it brings to our attention the disturbing fact that the very existence of the biological is not susceptible of a mechanist explanation, and that, of course, not only insofar as it exists but insofar as it implies the existence of organized beings. . . . The facts that Aristotle’s biology wished to explain are still there. He is reproached, sometimes bitterly, with having explained them poorly, but to the present no one has explained them any better. Mechanist interpretations of these facts, which Aristotle formerly said had failed, have not ever been satisfactory; they have only displayed more and more the inevitability of the notions of organization and teleology invoked by Aristotle in order to explain the existence of mechanistic structures of which science is the study. Contemporary science itself attests to the unavoidable necessity of notions of this sort.” (p.119).

A little further on Gilson says, “We could say that, scientifically speaking, we ignore the question of why birds have wings, but to say that the conjunction of conditions necessary to the flight of birds was accidental is to say nothing. To add to chance the astronomical extent of billions of years during which it has been at work is still to say nothing, for whether the absence of a cause lasts a year or billions of years, it remains forever an absence of cause, which as such, can neither produce nor explain anything.” And finally from Gilson this coup de grace, “scientifically as well as philosophically, the mechanism of natural selection is simply a nonexplanation.” (131).

Gilson makes only modest and properly philosophical claims for teleology. The effects of final causality are observable in nature. The cause itself is not observable in the nature of the case. We observe the end at the end but we cannot make sense of other observations without postulating this final cause.  The final cause is, as Aristotle first observed, that which makes an organism an organism. The observation of these effects begs the question of the nature of the final cause. Proponents of intelligent design give one set of answers to this question which stands or falls on both the scientific and philosophical issues involved. Affirming final causality or teleology in nature does not automatically endorse any one philosophical or theological proposal about the true nature of the final cause. Gilson says that teleology is analogous to intelligence but that is all that can be said on the basis of observation itself. We cannot say without making further philosophical and theological moves that the final cause is an intelligence. The various sorts of creationism from young earth creationism to the episodic interventionism of intelligent design to theories which conceive of God directing the evolutionary process from within are all possible versions of final causality. Adjudicating between these claimants and other non-theological possibilities includes reference to the scientific record but requires philosophical and theological reflection as well.  Gilson makes the modest point that science cannot exclude the category of purpose from the explanation of reality a priori because science itself, especially as it attempts the comprehension of living things, bears testimony to the enduring necessity of final causality.    In this masterful book a philosopher in the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas with a sure grasp of contemporary biology rings the front doorbell of an over-reaching, reductionist and mechanistic Darwinism and gives a better account of both the successes and the persistent failures of this hugely influential theory than the Darwinists themselves are able to give, and in the process deconstructs the myth of the blind watchmaker and sets the question of purpose in the universe as a kind of stumbling block that can’t be avoided or easily dismissed. The book is a hard read but foundational to the conversation between science and theology and profoundly significant for the apologetic and evangelistic task in these Darwinian times.

Why Beauty Matters

The English Philosopher Sir Roger Scruton explains in this visually beautiful documentary why beauty is important and how it relates to the true and the good. Beauty calls to us from beyond. Beauty opens our hearts and minds to the eternal and the transcendent. Sometimes beauty and art can be a substitute for religion but for Roger Scruton they share a joint witness to that reality that calls to us from beyond and offers the experience of homecoming.

The Crisis of Modernity

I have been reading the work of the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. Recently two of his major works have been translated into English, The Crisis of Modernity and The Age of Secularization. Del Noce devoted his scholarly life to understanding the rise of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. He had a unique understanding of the emergence of both Communism and Fascism. The standard narrative is that the massive brutality of both of these regimes represents a reaction to the progressive forces of modernity. Demagogues are able to rally people afraid of the progress and liberation of the modern world and are able to usurp power with the rhetoric of scapegoat and security. The descent into barbarism is a parenthesis in history, an interruption in the inevitable forward progress of history in which reason, science and technology will bring in a more just and equitable society.

Del Noce who was a young man when Mussolini came to power and who briefly embraced Marxism but was ultimately unable to reconcile himself to revolutionary violence. Del Noce came to believe that the rise of totalitarianism was not a parenthesis in the march of modernity but that totalitarianism is quintessentially modern. He came to believe that what makes the modern age modern is atheism. Del Noce’s study of the early philosophical writing of Karl Marx convinced him that atheism is foundational for Marxism. In order for man to be free he must be liberated from all dependencies. The greatest of all dependencies is the dependency on God. God must not exist or else man cannot be free. Marx insists that we make ourselves by our own labor or engagement with the world. This absolutely autonomous self is the idol of the modern world and millions have been slaughtered on its altar.

This radical atheism of Marx has profoundly influenced the intellectual culture on both sides of the Atlantic in the Twentieth Century. It is a radical atheism because it is not only faith in God that is attacked but the reality of any transcendent point of reference for humanity. One of the consequences is a change in the nature of philosophy. Philosophy ceases to be a search for the truth and becomes merely instrumental. The question is no longer is it true but does it advance the cause of the revolution, or progress or sexual liberation or whatever the cause may. The worth of ideas is judged by who proposes them and not by any inherent quality. Philosophy is collapsed into politics and politics is collapsed into war. The war can be cold or hot but all that is left is raw power when any sense of universals or moral absolutes is gone.

Del Noce predicted the collapse of Soviet Communism. He thought there were two elements in Marxism, the destructive atheism and relativism, and the romantic, revolutionary impulse which functioned like an atheistic religion. He thought it inevitable that the relativism would consume the romantic, revolutionary and religious side of Marxism and history has born him out. Del Noce said that Marxism failed in the East because it won in the West. But what comes as the result of the triumph of the negative pole of Marxism is not the revolution but the nihilism of the technocratic society. Rather than overturning the bourgeoisie, the atheistic and relativistic side of Marxism has produced a hyper bourgeois society in which any transcendent restraints on capitalism have been rendered impotent. People are controlled by a new totalitarianism that oppresses chiefly by restricting and managing desire. The desire for the transcendent must be anesthetized at all costs.

In the same way the hyper individualism that comes with the radical atheism and the loss of the transcendent must, because of the logic of ideas, lead not to greater and greater individual freedom but to a new kind of totalitarianism where dissenters to the anti-religious and anti-metaphysical mode of the technocratic society will be exiled to “moral concentration camps.” Modernism is not the tide of history running against totalitarianism but the tide running toward it. But also Del Noce said it does not have to be so and religious and metaphysical reality can be rediscovered and indeed cannot be forever suppressed.

Carlo Lancellotti, the translator of Del Noce can explain his work far better than I can. I recommend this YouTube video from Notre Dame and this video from Biola. I think the implications of Del Noce’s work for Christian mission are significant. Among other things opening the religious and metaphysical dimension through beauty and art and serious philosophical discussion become important for reawakening the deepest desires of the human heart so that contemporary people can recover their hunger for the true, the good and the beautiful and the hunger for God.

Burial Homily for Gay Hadden Watson.

Below is the homily I preached at the funeral of the widow of the priest that sponsored me for ordination.

Burial Homily for Gay Hadden Watson

St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bangor, Maine, July 25, 2015

By The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding

Jesus says a remarkable thing to his disciples. (John 14:12). He says to them, greater things than I have done you shall do. He has healed the sick. He has fed the multitudes in the desert. He has driven out the evil spirit and set the captives free. He has raised the dead.

Yet he says to his disciples – greater things than I have done you shall do. And this prophecy has come true. Think of the millions that have been helped through the ministry of Christian hospitals. People forget that hospitals are a Christian invention. Millions also have been helped and healed by the ministry of Christian prayer often working hand in glove with the practitioners of the healing arts. Think of the millions of poor that have been fed and people of all sorts who have been liberated from addictions and depression and other oppressions of the spirit. Think of the worldwide effort to eliminate slavery – heroically led by Christian disciples such as William Wilberforce and John Newton – the author of the hymn Amazing Grace. Literally millions upon millions of captives have been set free.

The lame walk and the blind see not only literally but figuratively. People who have been limping through life – they find Christ or better Christ finds them – the church enfolds them – embraces them – they become part of the community of the Holy Spirit – of Christ’s body the church where the lifeblood of his sacrificial love comes through the whole body –and people who have been limping through life begin to walk and run. The prophet Isaiah says that they who wait upon the Lord will rise up as on eagle wings. They shall walk and not tire. They shall run and not faint. People who have been blind to the reality of God – to the significance of eternal and holy things – now see a whole dimension to life they could not see before. Their eyes are opened to see who God is, who Jesus is and to recognize the Lord in the stranger at the door.

And the dead are raised by the millions, as people who are dead in their sins without the knowledge of God and without hope for this life or the life of the world to come discover new real and abundant life – a new life with God and with their neighbors that begins now and which the grave cannot hold.

We are here today to give thanks for the life of Gay Watson and to renew our hope in Jesus Christ the Lord and our faith in the resurrection of the dead in the life of the world to come.

One of the things that we can give thanks for is that Gay completely identified herself with this great work of Christ that he does through his disciples.

Given her family background and the schooling and the social circles with which she was well acquainted, Gay could have married someone with tremendous prospects by the world’s standards. She fell in love with and married a seminarian soon to be a mission priest and spent the best part of her life supporting his ministry and making a home for her husband and sons – a home with enough love and welcome to extend to include the people in the parishes they served. Many, many people were blessed by that warmth and welcome and genuine Christian hospitality and I am one. I shall always be grateful for it and for the many kindnesses that Father Watson and Gay showed to me.

I run into a lot of people who been very successful and around midlife they are looking for a change. They are looking now for significance rather than success. I think Gay chose significance right from the start. She knew she was choosing a sacrificial life. She had clergy in her family. One of her relatives was a Bishop. She knew it would be a life of real sacrifice. There was of course financial sacrifice. Clergy salaries are a bit better now – though still modest by worldly standards.

I remember being in Aroostook County with Father Watson and going to hear a talk on eligibility for food stamps with a view to helping our parishioners and realizing that we were probably qualified.

There are other sacrifices the rectory family makes. If you live in a rectory you have 100 landlords – some of whom think it is their personal mission to keep an eye on the rectory family. You live in a fishbowl. While the parish can be a wonderful support and web of Christian friends for the rectory family – nevertheless, original sin strikes everywhere – and the rectory family can be the victim of great unkindness and of an unfair judgmentalism. It is part of the cost of the ministry. Nobody I think would volunteer for this scrutiny. Some flee from it – unwilling to stick it out and take the good with the bad and soldier on and do their duty. Gay stayed the course.

Some of the sacrifices that the clergy make are quite visible. Some are invisible. The same is true – especially true for rectory families. There are many invisible sacrifices the rectory family makes that make the ministry go and today is a good day to feel the weight of those sacrifices and to give thanks for them – to ask the good Lord for forgiveness and healing for what has been endured that should not have had to be endured and to look at the fruit of that sacrifice.

To be part of what Christ is doing – the greater things that he is doing through his disciples – is to make an investment of Christian love in others not knowing the fruit – not knowing the ultimate significance.

Monica was a widow, and strong Christian. Her son was not. He was a brilliant academic with a playboy lifestyle. She prayed for him every day. She showered him with motherly affection. She prayed for decades. He became St. Augustine, perhaps the greatest Christian thinker of all times.

To be a Christian and to practice the Christian faith and live the Christian faith is to be involved in a ripple effect and you don’t know where the ripples will end. We do know this – St. Paul in the course of talking about the resurrection says – that nothing done in the name of Christ is ever done in vain. We will not know until we get to heaven the full effect of our efforts that look so small and seem so defeated in this life. Our sacrifices are not in vain. God uses them in his plan to accomplish more than we can ask or imagine.

I don’t like it when preachers talk about themselves but I am going to talk about myself for a moment as a way of talking about the impact of the witness of Gay and Father Watson.

It was through Gay that my wife and I were introduced to Father Watson. I had a lot of trouble getting ordained. I was stopped one time. Another time a rector forgot to turn in my paperwork. I had a seminary degree but no strong advocate for my ordination. During the summer after I graduated from seminary my wife and I were shearing sheep in Nova Scotia. We sheared sheep for a woman named Ann Priest. She was a well-known New York actress who owned Blue Island in Nova Scotia. We went out to Blue Island and sheared her wild island sheep. With the door to ordination closed, my wife and I had decided to go back to farming and had bought a farm in Presque Isle, Maine. When Ann Priest asked us what we were going to do after the summer shearing, we said we were going to Presque Isle. Oh, she said. The wife of the rector there was my roommate in prep school. I will give you an introduction.

Ann and Gay talked. Gay and Father talked and before I ever arrived in Presque Isle Father Watson had talked the Bishop of Maine into not closing St. Anne’s mission in Mars Hill because he had the vision to place me there. So let me give you a progress report on one life that was touched by the warmth of the rectory in Presque Isle.

I am now 34 years ordained. I have served 8 churches including a cathedral. I have preached well over 1000 sermons – celebrated the Eucharist more times than that – presided over countless baptisms marriages and funerals. I have obtained a PhD in pastoral theology from Boston College. I have authored four books. I have been a seminary professor with direct teaching of over 500 students. Several of my students are now bishops in Africa. One of my students has started a seminary in Brazil and another teaches at a seminary in Africa. One of my students is leading the renewal and turnaround of a major historic New York City parish. Many of the students that I taught are serving the kinds of places the Watsons served their whole life, places clergy are not standing in line to serve. Who can know where it will end? None of it would’ve happened without Father Watson. Father Watson would not have happened without Gay Watson. And this is just one life they touched. There are many more. Gay’s life was in many ways humble and quiet but it was a life of great significance.

We give thanks to God for all of it.

We did not pretend that Gay was a perfect person. One of the great consolations of the faith is that our hope ultimately does not rest on our accomplishments or our virtues.

Our hope is in the mercy and love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ the Lord. We cling to that and rest our hope in Him and we commend our sister to that never failing love and mercy, knowing that he will bring to perfection the good work begun in her. Amen

Holy Order

Holy Order

A Sermon Preached at the Ordination of Aidan Everett Smith to the Sacred Order of Deacons in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Catskill, NY by the Rector, The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, March 28, 2015

We have come here today to witness and participate in the celebration of the sacrament of holy orders.

So what is the sacrament? Sacrament is the Latin word; mysterion, the Greek word. The sacrament is a sign, a holy mystery. It is a sign that really and truly participates in the reality to which it points. And the reality to which it points is Christ. In a sacrament there is a real and true presence of Christ, a sacramental presence. Christ is really and truly present in the mystery of the water baptism, in the bread and the wine, when the man and the woman make promises to each other and to God in the face of the congregation, when a penitent makes a confession and the priest utters the words of Christ’s forgiveness, and there is a real and sacramental presence of Christ in this mystery of holy order.

God is bigger than the sacrament, infinitely more, utterly above and beyond. But in and with and through the sacrament Christ is, as Martin Luther says, havable. In the sacrament we can lay hold of Him. He is present and active to accomplish His purposes – to complete the work the Father has given Him to do, to bring many sons and daughters to glory and perfect all things in Himself and offer them to the Father in the power of the Spirit in a cosmic act of Eucharist.

Christ will be present here today in a unique way through this sacrament of holy order. There are three forms of this sacrament of ordering, of ordination: bishop, priest, and deacon. Today the church is gathered here to receive from Christ Himself, present through the Holy Spirit, working in and through the prayers of the whole church, laying His hands on the ordinand through the hands of the Bishop—a new deacon. There is a unique presence of Christ to the person being ordained. Christ is present granting the grace, power and authority for the ordinand to accomplish the work to which they are being called. Christ is also present in and through the ordinand gifting the church with the gift of holy order. The holy order of the church is today being strengthened and amplified so that the work of Christ may go forward both in the church and in the world. In this ordination it is also clear that a share of the order in the church is being placed in the hands of a new generation.

So what is the gift of Holy Order? In what way is it a participation in Christ and an effectual sign of His presence in and through His Church? All the sacraments are about salvation, about God fixing us, healing us, blessing us, making us whole and holy and not only us but also about God healing and making new the whole creation, the whole cosmos. Doesn’t St. Paul say, in Chapter 8 of Romans that the whole creation is groaning in travail like a woman in childbirth waiting for the appearing of sons of God? God’s purpose in Jesus Christ the Lord is to remake the human race as the first stage of remaking and renewing the whole creation.

In the beginning the Father brought out of nothingness the good creation. He spoke it into existence through a Word of eternal Love–the Word who is the eternal Son of God and who became incarnate in Jesus Christ the Lord. It is the will of God that the whole cosmos should be a harmony of love—such that the whole creation is a song of praise and adoration to the Father, each and every creature rightly related to each and every other creature, all bound together by the Holy Spirit of Love through whom the Father and the Son delight themselves in each other.

At the pinnacle of this creation, at the top of this creation of love God creates the man and the woman. They are to know God’s love and to return it freely and to delight in and care for the good creation and lead creation’s praises to the Father through the Son and in the power of the Spirit.

Out of the chaos of nothingness God has created a cosmos. The cosmos is the ordered creation that has been spoken into existence through the eternal Word of God’s love. The cosmos is a hierarchy, a holy order of love. The creation, the cosmos is itself a sacrament of the Creator. The creation does not contain God. We are not pantheists but the creation does participate in the divine order of God’s love, in God’s holy order, in God’s hierarchy.

Since God’s holy order is a holy order of love, there must be freedom. Where there is freedom there is the possibility of rebellion. The Bible points in a mysterious way to a rebellion that precedes the rebellion of Adam and Eve. A rebellion against God’s loving order has already taken place. The poet Milton imagines that Satan says, “better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven,” and so the hierarchy of God’s love is rejected. The man and the woman reject God’s order and they become profoundly disordered. They have a disordered relationship with God and with each other and with the rest of the creation. The question of salvation is a question of hierarchy, of holy order and how holy order is to be restored.

Hierarchy has become a suspect word in our time. But it is a perfectly good church word. It means literally holy order, hieros arche, holy order. The sacrament we come to celebrate today is the sacrament of hierarchy, of holy order and one of the things that is happening is that someone is being made a member of the hierarchy of the church. The hierarchy of the church exists by God’s providence so that there may be in the church and through the church in the world, a sacramental presence, a real presence of the havable Christ reordering us, recreating us, delivering us from chaos into cosmos and from disorder into holy order.

Here is what is happening in this ordination. The crucified and risen Lord comes to the apostles in the upper room where they are hiding after the crucifixion, appears and shows them his hands and his side. He breathes on them and into them and says, “my Peace – my shalom – I give you.” And what is the shalom of the Lord but the holy order of the Father’s love perfected in the future which the Son has just won for them at the price of the cross– that future as the prophet Isaiah says where there shall be no more disease, no more hurting or killing, where the lion and Lamb will lie down together – where death itself is vanquished, where the knowledge of God covers the earth as the waters cover the sea and where God is all in all. This shalom – this Holy, right ordering Spirit, he breathes into them and then says to them, “as the Father has sent me even so send I you.”

In the sacrament of order the Lord gives the gift of his spirit which makes apostles. He puts forth his crucified and glorified hands in, with and through the hands of the Bishop and gives to the ordinand a share in the apostolic vocation which is to create a people in, with and through whom God will establish his holy order of love. A people completely surrendered and subject to Jesus Christ, living under his hierarchy. A people living under the rule of love and by the law of love and oriented, ordered, taking their bearing, fixing their aim toward the perfection of all things in the love of God himself– Jesus Christ the Lord.

The crucified and risen Lord searches out these frightened and discouraged men utterly sunk in darkness and chaos, and by the gift of his spirit – which is the spirit of the resurrection and which comes at the price of the cross – he re-creates them. He brings them out of chaos and places them in holy order that they might by their life of witness and worship be a sacrament of the new life, the new creation, the new cosmos which he brings up out of the grave– the kingdom which will come on earth as it is in heaven – the kingdom – the holy order of law.

The gathered apostles are a sacrament of the cosmos renewed and re-created in love by the sacrifice the Savior. This community which is born in the encounter with the crucified and risen Lord is a sacrament of Christ himself, victorious over the chaos of sin and evil and death, breathing into the world new life – the holy order of shalom. The church cannot contain Christ. He is too big. But he is really and truly present in the church. He is havable here. He is havable in and through the words of the scripture, and in and through the bread and wine, and in and through the fellowship and service in his name, and he is havable in and through those who are the successors of the apostles who by the power of the Holy Spirit have received the gift of holy order and therefore the vocation to be a sacrament within the church of the crucified and risen Lord breathing his shalom into men and women – restoring them to the holy order for which they were made – so that the church can fulfill itself as the body of Christ – his sacrament in the world of the first fruits of the kingdom of love – the life of the new cosmos – the new creation.

Bishops have the fullness of this gift. Priests and deacons have a share in the bishop’s ministry. They assist him in different ways. The priest is sacramental sign of Christ the priest, the pastor and the teacher. The deacon is an icon and sacramental sign of Christ the servant, who came not to be served but to serve.

The church is a great democracy. It is a great democracy of sinners and a great democracy of the redeemed. The ground at the foot of the cross is flat and before the holiness of the sacrificial love of the Savior, we are all alike lost, all alike saved. In this sense the church is the most egalitarian organization that can be imagined.

But the church is also thoroughly hierarchical. It is an upside down hierarchy where he who would be first of all must be least of all. It is a very strict hierarchy. It is a hierarchy of love and sacrifice.

The Bishop and those who share in his ministry, the priests and the deacons, have by the gift of holy order, authority. They are to be a sacrament of Christ’s rule in his church, of Christ’s very own power and authority. And what might be the character of that authority? It is the character of sacrificial love which bears in itself the gift of new life – a life rightly ordered to God and to our brothers and sisters and to the new order of God’s new creation which is both come and coming.

The clergy must nourish this gift of order by returning again and again to the witness of the Apostles and to the apostolic encounter with the crucified and risen Lord where we know ourselves as sinners redeemed at great cost and as people delivered out of the chaos of a disordered life and into the holy order of God’s love. The clergy must give no other witness than the witness of the Apostles and convey intact their teaching and practice that the prayer which the saviour says over them might come true, “Even as the Father sends me, send I you.”

The clergy will fail, poor and frail human beings are bound to fail. Yet even when they do, in, with and through the sacrament of holy order there is a real presence of Christ in his church showing his people his hands and his side breathing into them new life. After all, the promises of God are irrevocable. Such promises are given in the sacrament of order.

Now Aidan in a few moments this congregation will join the prayers of Angels and archangels bidding the Holy Spirit to come upon you by the laying on of the Bishop’s hands – to the end that you might have the gift, calling and authority to be one of those through whom the crucified and risen Lord is really and truly present to his people – showing them the wounds of his love now glorified by the power of the spirit that he’s breathing into them – the spirit of God’s shalom. You are to be part of the holy order of the church so that the church – the whole people of God – can be the sacrament of Christ’s holy order in the world – so that many people shall be brought out of chaos and death to cosmos and the eternal life of God’s love.

Your seminary degree is well-earned. You have studied diligently. The sacrament of holy order which you are about to receive is unearned and undeserved and is yours by the providence of God and by his absolutely gratuitous mercy. It is a particular form and an intensification of the crucified and risen Lord reaching out to you – showing you the wounds of his love and breathing new life into you, bringing you out of chaos into cosmos and giving you a part, a share in His world changing work. He first did this in your baptism – He renews it in every Eucharist. Here He is touching you in, with, and through the hands of the Bishop, breathing into you His holy order, His shalom – so that your servanthood will take this special form and bear much fruit – so that Jesus Christ may be havable in the world in with and through his people. Christ is here today. The Spirit is here today. Breathe deeply. Amen

Monday in Holy Week

“And the Fragrance Filled the Whole House”

A Sermon Preached at St. Stephen the Martyr in Stuebenville, Ohio, Five Lent, March 17, 2013

By the Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding


When we gather for the liturgy of the church, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are remembering what God has done in the past. We are remembering the past in a particular sort of way. By the power of the Holy Spirit as we are obedient to the command that He gave us on the night in which He was betrayed, “do this in remembrance of me.” What God has done in the past, the Father’s costly deed of saving love in sending the Son to save us by the Power the Holy Spirit has been made into a present and living reality – transforming our present existence and opening up a new future – whose horizon is heaven and the coming Kingdom of God. Just as the past is made present, the future is made present and we are given a foretaste of the world to come.


The future that God has in store for us will, until we die or the Lord returns, be already and not yet. But the glimpse – the taste – the down payment – St. Paul calls it arabon, that we get here in the bread and wine that is both the Last Supper and the feast of heaven, gives us hope that goodness and mercy shall follow us all our days and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


This is the power and purpose of liturgy. There is also a liturgical reading reading of the Scripture. The prophet Isaiah is doing that in this passage that we have just read (Isaiah 43:16 – 21). God has rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He made a way out of no way and led them through the Red Sea dry shod and defeated their enemies. He led them to the mountain where He gave them a holy and righteous way of life. 11 for the desert into a promised land. All with the purpose – so they could live toward God and toward their fellow human beings in such a way that all people would recognize that they knew the true and living God and so God’s wayward children would be brought home and reconciled and say. The world then as now is perishing and needs to be saved – the evidence is no further away than the front page of the newspaper. God’s plan to save the world is the formation of the people to be His witnesses. Such were the people to which the prophet Isaiah spoke. Such are we gathered here today.


When the people of God had forgotten their vocation – when they departed from the holy way of life God had given them and had fallen into personal and corporate and social immorality, God sent the prophets to call them back. The prophets warned that if they did not repent disaster would befall them. They didn’t and it did. The nation was conquered and taken into captivity in Babylon, about 600 years before the birth of Christ. The prophet Isaiah, the messenger of God, is telling the people who are defeated – who are captives – who are without hope – the story of the original salvation from Egypt in such a way as to bring the power of this mighty deed of God into the present – changing the meaning of the present and giving hope for the future.


In the same way that God rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt – God is going to rescue the people from bondage in Babylon. They are going home. They’re going to be redeemed and restored. Just as God made a way out of no way before – he’s doing it again – just as he made a way to the desert before – he is doing it again – even the wild animals in the desert cannot fail to see what God is doing – “behold I am doing a new thing, can you not perceive it.”


They were returned to the holy land. But the promise of Isaiah was not completely fulfilled. There was a partial restoration but not a complete restoration. One was yet to come who would complete the work – the ultimate and final Messiah who would cleanse and re-consecrate the people.


When Jesus arrived on the scene the prophecy of Isaiah was being completely fulfilled – but you needed the eyes of faith to see the new thing that God was doing – how once again he was rescuing his people from bondage – this time the bondage of sin and death – cleansing and re-consecrating them as his witness people – as His missionary people.


The way He would do this – the way He would reestablish His Lordship over His wayward subjects is with the sacrifice of Love – this sacrificial love that has the power of the Resurrection hidden within it – it is this suffering love which gives new life and which restores us to the dignity of the witness and work God has given us to do.


It is through this sacrifice that Jesus is anointed to be our King and ruler in our lives and be our priest and reconcile us to God and consecrate us for lives of service.


St. John is showing us how Mary of Bethany’s anointing of the Lord’s feet with costly ointment is the outward sign of the Lord’s anointing as Priest and King in sacrificial Love. She fills the whole house with the odor of a costly devotion. Jesus says she is anointing Him before hand for His burial. Through his death Jesus fills the world with the fragrant odor of His costly sacrifice for the salvation of the world. In and through His death He is anointed our priest and King. Risen from the dead and ascended He reigns from on high.


Whenever we gather to hear the Bible read as the Living Word which makes God’s deeds present to us to transform our present and open our future – whenever we obey His command – “do this in remembrance of me” – this whole House of God is full of the fragrance of the costly seeking, searching. Suffering and saving love of God brought to us by Jesus Christ the Lord. When we leave here this fragrance of God’s grace clings to us—the fragrance of sacrificial love. By God’s grace may we preserve the scent of love among us and not let it be drowned out the bitter odors of this world with its hatred and cruelty. Amen.