Bishop John Shelby Spong
June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021

Bishop Spong provided a much needed place for those of us who did not connect with traditional theology.
We love you Bishop Spong. You will be missed!

Traditions, Dead or Alive: Ruminations & Remembrances

 

A pdf copy of this commentary can be read and/or printed here.

A Moribund Tradition?

Recently I happened to catch the closing moments of the television news coverage of the funeral service for the late-Prince Philip. The Archbishop of Canterbury was delivering the closing blessing to the royal family who’d assembled in what was an otherwise empty St. George’s Chapel. With his arm raised to make the sign of the cross in a familiar swinging gesture, he declared:

“God grant to the living grace, to the departed rest, to the Church, the Queen and the Commonwealth and all people unity, peace and concord. And to us and all God’s servants, life everlasting. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be with you all, and remain with you always. Amen.”

The whole affair seemed quite lovely and terribly quaint. The benediction to conclude the observance of a centenarian who was now dead and gone seemed like the pronouncement of a former bygone era, as well. And, in addition, it was hauntingly reminiscent of the innumerable times in the past I’d delivered just such a blessing myself to so many former congregants; albeit in much more modest circumstances.

As one expression of Christian faith, the Anglican church tradition is ripe with pomp and ceremony, liturgical ritual, adornments and costume, signs and symbols that can all seem quite passé in the post-modern world we inhabit. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes,” the cleric declares at the graveside committal. “Yet even at the grave, we make our song Alleluia.” It all begs the question for the living, what remains?

Our word ‘tradition’ comes from the Latin word traditio, meaning to pass down, pass along something. When it comes to the question of a religious tradition, what is worth passing along? What is still alive and life-giving? What is dead and gone?

A Personal Story

In the Summer of 1965, I was a junior at Cranbrook School for Boys, located in the affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. The school was affiliated with the Episcopal Church, and my father was the Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Western Michigan; enabling me to attend Cranbrook on a clergy kid’s scholarship.

That Summer, our parents took my older brother, sister and me on a 2-week family holiday to England. I remember Shakespeare’s home and Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-on-Avon, the ancient columns of Stonehenge, eating fish and chips on the seaside near Scarborough, the folksingers in Trafalgar Square I would seek to emulate, and — in the London theater district – seeing the play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” on stage (which my mother thought was far too racy for her children).

But more than anything else, I remember being dragged around to dozens of nearly-empty cathedrals and country churches; where the most noticeable activity was the museum shops that typically adjoined them. Perhaps the most vivid memory I have is that of the former cathedral at Coventry, which had been bombed by the Germans in WWII. Only the perimeter walls remained standing; along with a charred cross where the altar once stood, with the inscription, “Father forgive them.” (Thinking back these many years later, there’s a broader metaphor to be found there.)

And then there was the pilgrimage to Canterbury, where my father had arranged for us to have afternoon tea with Archbishop Michael Ramsey and his wife. Twelve years before, in 1953, the Archbishop in full regalia had escorted the Queen in the recessional following her coronation in Westminster Abbey. But on a balmy August afternoon in 1965, a casual purple cassock and cordial smile in the backyard of his residence alongside an ancient edifice would suffice.


[Left to right: myself, my sister, the Archbishop’s wife, my mother, the Archbishop, my father and brother.]

From such a thoroughly-Anglophile immersion of childhood I would go on to pursue my undergraduate studies, majoring in philosophy and religion. And then in 1970, with a low draft number, I figured the best way to wait out the American War in Southeast Asia was a grad school deferment. I got my home diocese to pay the tuition so I could spend the next five years getting my Doctor of Religion degree at the Claremont School of Theology. There I became a bona-fide theologian.

When asked in later years how I received my calling to ordained ministry, I used to joke that the burning bush for me was an incinerated draft card.  But with a last name like ‘Bennison,’ (an old English word for ‘blessing,’ or ‘benediction)’ and the first name John (from the Greek, Ἰωάννης or Hebrew Yôḥānān meaning ‘graced by God)’ what else was I to do with my life?

And so, I proceeded to spend the next several decades perpetuating the religious tradition in which I was born and raised; seeking to discern and sort out what was worth passing along, and what was dead and gone. Along the way, I would continue to reenact certain long-held liturgical acts and attempt to live out in mortal flesh those great mythic tales spun in the gospel teachings of a long-gone Galilean peasant sage.

In a recent essay, David Galston wrote,

“A theologian normally holds the training needed to understand critical thinking in religion. A theologian knows the reasons why traditional beliefs in God are dysfunctional. The critical study of the Bible and history demonstrate over and over again that God is a human creation. The Bible does not have a consistent picture of God, and God in history never fails to take up the flag of one nation or another …

What then is a theologian? … Atheism, in theology, is the outside element that arouses doubt. Doubt makes the question of meaning in life possible because it’s a question conceived in doubt. Doubt also allows for the admission that our life is both significant and meaningless at the same time. The significance is the moral element of religion that theology calls ethics. It is important to live an ethical life and to be part of the social good, but meaninglessness is also part of religion that theology calls grace.”

This quote first reminded me of that benediction recently uttered by the current Archbishop of Canterbury; which included the “Queen and Commonwealth” and “God Almighty” all in the same sentence.  And, as a self-described post-theist at this point in my personal journey, I’d concur with the proposition that any theologian worth their salt is at the very least an a-theist that simply questions and explores what is most meaningful in our mortal lives.

It is the reason why I still embrace and follow as my earthly ‘lord’ the life and teachings of an historical figure; as best we can discern it. He is the one I of often refer to as the Galilean peasant sage, who once embodied the heart of the gospel message. It is that part of an old tradition that is still alive, and worth passing down through the ages.

Which brings to mind another personal memory:

Jesus is Lord

Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. Mark 10:16

At the end of that family trip to England in 1965, my parents put their three children on a plane for Michigan, and our home in Kalamazoo. My father and mother then headed to Kimberly and Kuruman, South Africa, where my father had established a reciprocal relationship with a companion diocese; in order to provide assistance aid to people who were otherwise total strangers in that remote part of the world.

Upon his return, and for years afterwards, my father delighted in telling an amusing story that occurred early one morning; when he was sleeping in a grass hut, and awakened by a young, uneducated servant boy.

In the Anglican tradition with all its proper protocols, bishops are not only seen as symbolic shepherds of the flock, but are also meant to be addressed as “My Lord.”  Of course, the title is meant to indicate the one whom one might choose to follow and bear one’s fealty.

On this occasion, however, having received this instruction, the servant knocked on the door of the grass hut that morning so many years ago now, and in a hushed voice called out, “Master Jesus, Master Jesus, it’s time to get up.”

My late-father is dead and gone; along with much of the tradition he embodied. The dust and ash of his mortal remains are interred in a garden that’s situated alongside a soaring cathedral he once envisioned and built when I was that boarding school student back in the sixties. But with declining attendance and support that grand edifice was subsequently sold off in later years to a non-denominational mega-church. But of that old tradition my father (and I) once lead, what might still be alive and worth passing down?

On my father’s visit to Kimberly and Kuruman so many years ago, a photo was taken of him in his purple cassock, with a happy smile on his face. He is seated on a donkey cart, and warmly embracing some peasant children, as if they were his own.

I like to believe that young servant boy might have witnessed that scene the day before he woke my father. And, in the most profound sense possible, he was not mistaken; but had indeed seen the face of Jesus.

© 2021 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

You can read more Words & Ways commentaries here.

Review & Commentary