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By Philip M. Carr-Harris


The Montréal Review, July 2023


Theory and Practice by Gerry Bergstein
Oil on Paper


The bishop-elect stands before the archbishop, and the people sit. The archbishop says Bishops are called to lead in serving and caring for the people of God and to work with them in the oversight of the Church. As chief pastors they share with their fellow bishops a special responsibility to maintain and further the unity of the Church, to uphold its discipline, to guard its faith and to promote its mission throughout the world. It is their duty to watch over and pray for all those committed to their charge, and to teach and govern them after the example of the apostles, speaking in the name of God and interpreting the gospel of Christ. They are to know their people and be known by them. They are to ordain and to send new ministers, guiding those who serve with them and enabling them to fulfil their ministry. 1



Let me begin by hanging a life-size grey African elephant with long ivory tusks from this grand vaulted ceiling so that it will dangle over the cross aisle—here, adjacent to nave, transepts, and chancel. Not low enough to touch but close enough that we feel its presence and recognize this elephant in the room.

If such a large hanging beast is affrontive—perhaps we could exchange it for the sound of the Pentecostal wind. In the story from Acts, closer attention is often paid to the cloven tongues of fire—of how the disciples miraculously understood foreign languages (and apparently not because they had consumed too much new wine)—and less to the actual sound of a rushing violent wind. A callow and expansive spirit is now streaming through our sanctuaries and sacred traditions; our ears are filled with plugs, pods, or covered with headphones.

It is my job today to speak—not preach—about the responsibility of episcopos, overseer, of this ecclesia, church, in the tradition of Anglicanism and of its expression in our branch of the same. Your Bishop-elect has asked that I help open some windows on these things for her and for you. Like Moses, I protested (I am not eloquent. . .slow of speech and tongue.2) 

This spiritual turbulence arises because our identity and purpose as Christians—expressed in a unique way today—is endangered. Is it about life behind buttressed stone walls and mostly unopenable windows or is it a sacred interaction with the world? Can it be both? These are the animating questions for today.

According to the ‘Examination’3 in the liturgy, the bishop is to, 

. . . guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant; ordain priests and deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things the faithful, pastor, and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ.

In short, to be the capital ‘H’, householder, Earl of the estate, parent of the family—managers of the (mostly) internal affairs of the firm. I cannot stop myself from quoting from Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, when Marlow, the protagonist, describes the Manager of the Middle Station (along the Congo River) where he docks on his way to ‘Kurtz’ and the Inner Station for the climax of this short novel.

He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. . . . He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts—nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a . . . a . . . faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. . .. His position had come to him—why? . . . He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. He was great.  He was great by this little thing, that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away.4

Is a bishop the one who keeps the routine going?

Shortly, the new bishop will be dressed in new clothing. . .you will give her a new uniform. In the lovely thirty-two-page booklet (printed on FSC® certified paper) and referring to the Book of Common Prayer5, it reads:

The new Bishop is vested with
The stole
The chasuble
The pectoral cross
The Episcopal ring

The new Bishop is presented with
A rochet and black chimere
A purple set of vestments
A green set of vestments
A rochet and red chimere
A festive set of vestments

The new bishop is vested with a miter

Yes, I know that this costume has historic connections; such ceremonial vesting takes place in all parts of Christendom—I’m told there is a very elaborate two-hour liturgy around the vesting of an Orthodox prelate! But what exactly does this signal? Is it like stripes and medals on a soldier’s arm and chest, the white coat of a physician, a monarch’s regalia?  She will now have the tallest hat, a most precious pectoral cross, the gold ring, and an ornate silver staff that is more like the scepter than shepherd’s crook.  Is this about authority? What sort? A place in the procession? Veto-power? Box seats in the heavenly realm?  Then. . . the Presiding Bishop presents the Scriptures, charging her, to guard and defend them in his (Christ’s) truth.  In other words, to interpret this canonical collection of sixty-four separate books written over 1500 years, not as they might be understood by a twenty-first century educated mind and heart, but as they have already been interpreted—canonized—within the confines of a mostly musty tradition.  It is not surprising that immediately before the act of consecration (the laying on of hands), and as a part of the examination of the bishop-elect, a fourth century creedal confession from the Council of Nicaea is recited.  Oh, the creedal lens!

Good people, does this aged ritual have any significance beyond itself? 

So now the emperor walked under his high canopy in the midst of the procession, through the streets of his capital; and all the people standing by, and those at the windows, cried out, “Oh! How beautiful are our Emperor’s new clothes! What a magnificent train there is to the mantle; and how gracefully the scarf hangs!”

No one would allow that the emperor could not see these much-admired clothes; because in doing so, he would have declared himself either a simpleton or unfit for his office. Certainly, none of the emperor's various suits, had ever made so great an impression, as these invisible ones.

“But the Emperor has nothing at all on!”, said a little child.

“Listen to the voice of innocence!” exclaimed his father; and what the child had said was whispered from one to another.

“But he has nothing at all on!”, at last cried out all the people.

The emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on. And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, even though there was no train to hold.6

Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale is a prophetic word about authority. Is a ruler only about optics—cuff links and silk tie, handbag and hat? Sadly, it is not the child’s proclamation, echoed immediately by the crowd—and illustrated versions of this tale make much of this moment—that ends and interprets the tale.  If it were, perhaps the ruler might have been overthrown, the clothing given to the poor, an alternative society born, or…so many ways to speculate about what would have happened had an innocent truth landed, but no, though they all heard it, they refused to listen and the procession continued and the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains that ever7….to continue the illusion, the lie. Nothing changed.

Lord Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, in a recent lecture in New York, seemed to echo this idea when he said: the gift and grace that comes through Christ’s body, the church, is not mysteriously that here is an institution which gets this stuff right but a much deeper miracle that knows it get things wrong.  And think of the potential transforming energy in a world where every institution thinks it gets things right of there being one institution that knows it gets things wrong. . .. The church is exemplary—not because it has the right answer—but because it knows its failings and faces them without panic, terror or lying.8

How so?  With all due respect to an accomplished thinker and theologian, is a personal or corporate confession of sin enough to enable us continue the procession? True repentance involves turning away from certain ways and embracing others. Sure, this idea can be enshrined in liturgy, but liturgy alone is like the emperor’s new clothes, isn’t it? What does the ‘teshuva’ or ‘turning’ look like in the non-ceremonial life—the other six days of the week?  Asking this question about the nature of the church and its authority might lead beyond the management of established routines to the creation of some innovative entity where new routines will be ever-incubating in the lab!  More on this in a few moments.

By now, I suspect you can see the elephant and feel the wind.

The Temple

They came to Philip who was from Bethsaida in Galilee and asked him, ‘Sir, we would see Jesus’.9  Time now for Jesus.

Will you obey Christ, have the mind of Christ, boldly proclaim, and interpret the Gospel of Christ?10

Continuing with the metaphor of clothing—like Paul in the Epistle to the Romans—this ceremony might be described as a ‘putting on’ of Christ.  Kwok Pui Lan, a contemporary Anglican theologian, in a recent work, ‘Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology’, helps us think on these things.  She writes,

The most hybridized concept in the Christian tradition is that of Jesus/Christ.  The space between Jesus and Christ is unsettling and fluid, resisting easy categorization and closure.  It is the ‘contact zone’ or ‘borderland’ between the human and the divine, the one and the many, the historical and the cosmological, the Jewish and the Hellenistic, the prophetic and the sacramental, the God of the conquerors and the God of the meek and the lowly.  Jesus’ question ‘Who do you say that I am?’ is an invitation for every Christian and local faith community to infuse that contact zone with new meanings, insights, and possibilities.  The richness and vibrancy of the Christian community is diminished whenever the space between Jesus and Christ is fixed . . .11

To explore this liminal space, this contact zone, I want to remember the story of Jesus in the Temple at the time of the Passover.

The grand white limestone edifice on Mt. Moriah had been restored and rebuilt during Jesus’s lifetime by Herod the Great, client King of the Roman Empire. One writer described it—and its Solomonic predecessor— as, navel of the earth, the umbilical cord connecting this world to the world that gave birth to it ... the symbolic and cosmological center of the Jewish universe…12 not only was this the religious center, it was also the seat of the Jewish aristocracy and the high priestly families—all of whom collaborated in governance with the ruling Roman officials—and it was the central bank of Jewish Palestine, the depository for all taxes (tithes). There would have been Roman soldiers everywhere.

When Jesus was taken to the Temple as a child forty days after birth and when he went as a young man shortly before he was put to death, the sounds of stonecutters, carpenters, carvers, and architects would have been mixed with daily commercial enterprises—changing money, buying and selling animals, conferences, and the general hubbub of a large civic center—especially during the Passover when Jews came up to Jerusalem to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt (even as they were under the colonial rule of Caesar).

The so-called ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ is recorded with similar details in all four of the Gospels. Even John gives a factual description of it. The word cleansing is not in any of the texts—Temple Disturbance would be a more factual and less interpretive title. Since Mark is the earliest record, and an influence on the others, let me read it.  For me, this is the appropriate Gospel reading for the consecration and ordination of a bishop.

And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves, and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.
But you have made it a den of robbers.”

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him, for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.13

Let’s come back to the church’s word, ‘cleansing’, why this?  On the surface it suggests that commerce, or any of what might be called ‘secular’ business, had no place in the ‘house of prayer’.  Scholars of Early Christianity, however, have stated that there was nothing wrong with any of the buying, selling, or money-changing operations conducted in the outer courts of the Temple. Nobody was stealing from, defrauding, or contaminating the sacred precincts. Overturning tables, then, would have been highly irregular and cause for some sort of intervention. Perhaps it is why Jesus and his disciples left the city when evening came.

So, what was this about, why is it something that all the earliest biographers did not want forgotten?  As I see it there are two main interpretative strands. The first concerns the people’s piety. Jesus was troubled with the clutter of the spiritual tradition. Folks needed to get back to prayer, Torah reading, study, ritual practices, sacrifices, and songs. The corporate spiritual life of the people was contaminated and needed a good bleaching. This is the Jesus of the Temple, the monk-Jesus feeding on vibes from the kadosh ha-kadoshah (holy of holies). This strand centers on the temple and negates the world. It may have inspired early Christian monastics who fled from city to desert to mountain-top to sustain and protect the purity of the Christian revelation.

There is a lovely sixteenth century Anglican echo of this that comes from William Dugdale, a 17th century English historian and publisher, who described St. Paul's Cathedral when John Donne was Dean in 1613.

The place stank with the living and the dead. The burial grounds outside were overpacked; within, rubbish piled up in the aisles, dung hills proved impossible to clear, and calls for civic mindedness went unheeded through successive generations. Drunks would stumble in and collapse ‘aboute the quire dores . . . where they do verie often tymes, leave all that is within them very loathesome to behold. 14

Inside this vast wooden cathedral (burned in the great fire of London,1666), the incredible clutter and stench forced worshipers outdoors to the Northeast corner of the Old Cathedral Churchyard, where sermons were delivered from Saint Paul's Cross preaching station—a small, covered, ornamental, open air, octagonal edifice six feet from the ground and with space for a handful of people. The lone and forceful voice of a white-robed cleric expounding upon the newly translated English Bible, surrounded by sounds of devotion and the clacking and clopping of horse’s hoofs, seems an apt symbol for reformation. The Book, the uniform, the preacher, the hearers, the daylight—all things necessary.

In this first strand, the temple disturbance concerns the stuff of the cultic practice—wonderous (preferably stone) edifices that are impeccably decorated inside and out—all sorts of hand carving and stained glass (and make sure the light shades on the choir desks are clean and straight—no dust, certainly no dung hills). And elegant well-rehearsed protocols (stand, sit, kneel, only baptized Christians may receive communion and, naturally, glorious music), and finally, governance, meaning it all belongs to the most holy overseer, for whom there is a special throne-like chair in the wondrous place with the elegant protocols because, after all, this is where heaven and earth meet.

A second interpretive strand of the temple disturbance says that Jesus was not concerned about place, practice, or prelates, but justice in the world.

His beef was with the ruling elites—governing classes, including the Jewish high priests—because of the sharp social and economic inequities of a two-class system where ninety percent of the population were rural peasants.  To reform religion in this big world was to challenge the social, political, and economic structures that allowed one percent of the population to receive fifty percent of the resources by enforcing land rents and taxes (for protection?). Pre-industrial agrarian or peasant societies were economically exploitive and oppressive. Jesus was popular with the masses (spellbound by his teaching15) because he stirred up good trouble—spoke truth to power.   

His message—expressed in words, acts of healing, and open table fellowship with outcasts and sinners—was as much about health care and food insecurity as it was the hypocrisy and injustice of those whose authoritarian greed had caused it.  Jesus’s version of God’s—not Caesar’s—kingdom, was a right balance—righteousness—between peoples based on the sharing of resources. This was his notion of abundant life.

These two strands may sound like the classic description of Jesus as priest and prophet—that they belong together. Really?  How can they? I suggest we reject this.  There is no evidence that Jesus ever thought of himself as a cultic fonctionnaire.  Like the Hebrew prophets before him, who had been formed in the cultus—by the study of Israel’s sacred texts, history, and way of life—he was disturbed by what he saw.  Even in the eschatological worldview of the first century (that the world was coming to an end), Jesus’s orientation was to the world here not hereafter.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream16the words of Amos, sheepherder and prophet, were on his lips because he was disturbed by what he saw.

Were this an actual sermon on the Ordination and Consecration of a bishop, the rotten tomatoes might have started, the Verger would certainly be at the pulpit steps waving his staff, the choir would be rustling their sheets, the Dean anxiously looking at his watch—it would be way past time to wrap it up. . .but this is an essay set in the literary framework of such a sermon on such an occasion. . . So, where are we? What is it, soon-to-be-newly-clothed and consecrated dear bishop, and the rest of us, to carry the mantle of Jesus?

Kwok Pui Lan’s poetic attempt to keep us within the classical creedal understanding of Jesus as ‘fully God and fully man’, by the notion of a liminal space between the person and the Messiah (Jesus and Christ), doesn’t work for me. I want to put forth Jesus as the one who challenges the norm for what it means to be human—of how we ought to live our lives—to be motivated by what disturbs us.  And if I must, I would interpret the notion of a messiah as a person with extraordinary charisma—one whose memory is often evoked and whose tale is still being told (we all have them), and not one with superhuman power or supernatural authority.  Could not the Jesus of the appearances after his death be understood as this way?

What must I do to inherit eternal life?17 the respected lawyer asks, and Jesus responds by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.  If I have to listen to one more sermon that does not take seriously the indictment of the religious authorities—that the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side of the road as a person lay dying—I’m going to. . ., well, not here, and sure, when has it not been important to respond to human need, but the painful contrast between an outcast Samaritan and the established and observant temple authorities is what Jesus wants the lawyer to hear. Go and do likewise18 means to put the formalities of your religion, including its conceptual framework (purity laws, etc.), behind the response to obvious human need (and by the way, did you notice who had mercy?). It’s about your humanity not your status! Unfortunately, few preachers want to feel the sting of this story. And this is what the violent Pentecostal wind sounds like.  The elephant in the room is that the church—ecclesiastical Christianity—hides behind its lovely physical and metaphysical trappings to avoid being disturbed (by the one it confesses to worship).

Thermonuclear Weapons

Do you remember the story about a young Roman Catholic Officer, stationed at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, deep within one of the ballistic missile silos, who wrote a letter to the Archbishop of New York telling him of the torture of his impure thoughts because he was working in very close quarters with female colleagues?  He asked the Cardinal if he could get him transferred.  The officer was hailed as a faithful Catholic in the Diocesan newspaper and within weeks he was stationed elsewhere.  He had resisted temptation, was rewarded by the Cardinal, and held up as an example for others.  What is wrong with this picture? 

Over the past fifty years many Christian theologians, including one of my teachers, Gordon D. Kaufman, have answered this question. In 1946, distinguished philosopher and theologian, Henry Nelson Wieman wrote:

The bomb that fell on Hiroshima cut history in two like a knife. Before and after are two different worlds.  That cut is more abrupt, decisive, and revolutionary than the cut made by the star over Bethlehem . . .more swiftly transformative of human existence than anything else that has ever happened.  The economic and political order fitted to the age before the parachute fell becomes suicidal in the age coming after.  The same breach extends into education and religion.19

As with other genocides in the twentieth century—Jews in Germany, Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the U.S., Armenians in Istanbul—Japan is recovering.  The Peace Park in Hiroshima, built near the center of the explosion (with two museums of documentary evidence telling the story), attracts over a million visitors a year, and stands both as a symbol for what happened (twice) seventy-seven years ago, and for what might be coming this year or the next.  The cryptic comment by Albert Einstein, when asked to describe what sort of weapons would be used in a third world war, I am not sure, but I do know what weapons will be used in a fourth world war—sticks and stones,20 goes to the tragic possibility that if there is a nuclear war, it will likely not be remembered or memorialized.  A potential nuclear holocaust and the extinction of much of life on Earth—the horror of such a present possibility—is what Wieman means by comparing Hiroshima with the star of Bethlehem.

We are numbed by statistics about this.  Here is a brief summary of the world’s known nuclear arsenals: there are 12,700 nuclear warheads in the world in 2023.  Nine countries have these weapons (others are developing them), and five other countries host American warheads.  The combined arsenals of the United States and Russia numbers 11,415. Russia has 500 more than the United States.  The good news, I suppose, is that even as countries of the world continue to construct these implements of destruction, so far, we have learned to live with them.  The faithful Airforce officer in the Wyoming silo, and his Cardinal Archbishop, seemed less bothered that the missile on stand-by alert on the other side of the glass could wipe out a generation of humans and plants and fish and animals—than they were about libido.

If the overwhelming poverty of those living under Roman rule at the far eastern end of the Mediterranean was the context for Jesus’s life and ministry—from which his gospel was born and towards which it was directed—it is the overwhelming capacity for annihilation and an astounding acceptance that we are on the verge of murdering that which sustains our lives—a gargantuan matricide—that defines the context of the Jesus Movement in our time.  Are we just going to keep digging missile silos and passing on the nuclear codes?

And if thousands of thermonuclear weapons (ten to fifty times more lethal than those of 1946), stored and on alert in nations around the globe isn’t enough, now, we are aware of and are witnessing the breakdown of our planetary life systems. No, this is not based on some sort of mysterious supernatural or eschatological fear (as in the time of Jesus), no, it is based in solid and verifiable science.  Carbon and methane emissions and a callous disregard for many of the fragilities of the natural world, are destroying our great garden habitat formed over billions of years of bio-geological evolution. Why?  What the f***? Sorry, need to hit pause. 

Other Consecration Sermons
Kingdom of God
Mark Twain

As preparation for this address today, I went around the Anglican Communion to watch and listen to sermons given at Episcopal Consecrations over the past five years.  What have others said about what we are doing here today?  Thanks to the internet, I went to South Africa, Australia, The United Kingdom, and the Eastern and Midwestern United States. The preachers were of different genders and races, as were the bishop-elects.  Here are some summary statements followed by two interpretive comments. 

  • She (the bishop-elect) loves Jesus, and she knows Jesus loves her and she loves you and Jesus.
  • He (bishop-elect) will love you with his whole heart and being.  He will always tell you the truth. Jesus wants us to be joyful.
  • Though there are many social and economic challenges in our world (followed by a list of eight examples), what matters most is the apostolic priority—to preach Christ crucified.  To know God by our philosophy or speculation is fruitless. The only wisdom and power is Christ and him crucified.
  • Go out into the chaos of the world. Come to the church to meet God—to come face to face with the living God.
  • Dance on the water of baptism with our lord and savior who eggs us on.
  • Glorify God with a faith that transcends all limitations—beyond the despair and messiness of the cross all the way to heaven.

Most sermons were under fifteen minutes, one was twenty-five minutes, all were much shorter than the one you are reading.  The tone of the sermons went from happy and upbeat—clapping and laughing—to quiet, serious, and somber. 

In these six sermons two big ideas surfaced for me.  The most pervasive one was the assumption that everyone knew who Jesus was and what he was about.  There was no attempt to define or ruminate about this, it was simply taken for granted that this was known.  Is this institutional arrogance—of course this is who Jesus is and what he wants because I am telling you this because I have been told this—or is it something we are afraid to touch—a taboo?  Do we have a way of understanding who or what Jesus is apart from the traditional formulas excerpted from Scripture and tradition—the so-called authoritarian principle?  Here, I suggest, is a large part of the hanging elephant (the other part would be to ask the same questions about the notion of God). To state this simply: theology is (and has been) a curated handing on of an historic tradition and not the creative and imaginative engagement of the heart and mind—a deconstruction and reconstruction of inherited traditions in the context of our present time. Can these large theological assumptions live in some bubble of eternal truth(s) that exist anywhere at any time? Is historical context irrelevant?  Historic Christological assumptions sound too much like a kind of religious colonialism. This brings me to point number two.

It seemed as if there was a confusion about whether the locus of the church’s ministry is within the ecclesiae or beyond it. Though Christ sends and accompanies his people into the chaos of the world, he is not of the world but of heaven and is mostly found within an otherworldly and superstitious religious tradition and, specifically, in its rich ritualistic and sacramental place and practice—where the bishop is in charge.

I guess that the confusion over this is a good thing.  As I read the life of Jesus—from texts written by his followers—wasn’t the locus for him the street?  He saw poverty and oppression and created an imperative using scriptural language to name it.  As a constructivist, his movement was built on the lives of outcasts, peasants, and those who walked by on the other side—he named it the Kingdom of God. Eminent scholar of the New Testament and Early Christianity, J.D. Crossan, describes this kingdom, in the following way. 

We tend to hear this as if Jesus was talking, not about earth but about heaven; Not about this life, but about the next life. Nothing could be further from the truth. And to understand Jesus's meaning we must not separate religion and politics, ethics and economics in that first century world. “Kingdom of God” means what this world would look like if God, not Caesar, sat on its imperial throne; If God, not Caesar, was openly, clearly, and completely in charge. It is, at the same time, an absolutely religious and absolutely political concept. It is absolutely moral and absolutely economic at the same time. How would God run the world? How does God want this world run? It is not about heaven, but about Earth.21

The capture and domestication of the Christian Way by the ecclesiae, reminds me of some of Mark Twain’s reflections—a series of letters written while he was travelling the world in the late 1860’s—first published in 1869, titled, ‘The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrim’s Progress.  Being Some Account of the Steamship Quaker City’s Pleasure Excursion to Europe and The Holy Land.’  

But why should not the truth be spoken of this region? Is the truth harmful? Has it ever needed to hide its face? God made the Sea of Galilee and its surroundings as they are. Is it the province of Mr. Grimes to improve upon the work?22 (Mr. Grimes was Mr. William C. Prime, a New York lawyer, devotional writer, and journalist, who published, ‘Tent Life in the Holy Land’ (1857).  Twain changed (and sullied) his name.

I am sure, from the tenor of books I have read, that many who have visited this land in years gone by, were Presbyterians, and came seeking evidence in support of their particular creed; They found a Presbyterian Palestine, and they had already made-up their minds to find no other, though possibly they did not know it, being blinded by their zeal. Others were Baptists, seeking Baptist evidences and a Baptist Palestine. Others were Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, seeking evidences endorsing their several creeds, and a Catholic, a Methodist, and Episcopalian Palestine. Honest as these men's intentions may have been, they were full of particular partialities and prejudices, They entered the country with their verdicts already prepared, and they could no more write dispassionately and impartially about it than they could about their own wives and children. Our pilgrims (those travelling with him) have brought their verdicts with them. They have shown it in their conversation ever since we left Beirut. I can almost tell, in set phrase, what they will say when they see Tabor, Nazareth, Jericho, and Jerusalem—because I have the books they will smooch their ideas from. These authors write pictures and frame rhapsodies, and lesser men follow and see with the author's eyes instead of their own and speak with his tongue.23

I would love to read you more.  His reflections on the Tomb of Adam and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are classic (and hilarious)! Twain’s subtle and biting irony articulates the importance of seeing with our own eyes.  This, I am suggesting, is an important lesson for today.  Back to what disturbs.

Chance Meetings by Gerry Bergstein
collage and installation
floor to ceiling installation


Here’s a poem by Margaret Atwood from her latest collection.

Oh Children 24

Oh children, will you grow up in a world without birds?
Will there be crickets where you are?
Will there be asters?
Clams, at a minimum?
Maybe not clams.

We know there will be waves.
Not much needed for those.
A breeze, a blow, a cyclone.
Ripples as well. Stones.
Stones are consoling.

There will be sunsets as long as there is dust.
There will be dust.

Oh children, will you grow up in a world without songs?
Without pines, without mosses?

Will you spend your life in a cave?
A sealed cave with an oxygen line,
until there’s a failure?
Will your eyes blank out like the white eyes
of sunless fish?
In there, what will you wish for?
Oh children, will you grow up in a world without ice?
Without mice, without lichens?
Oh children, will you grow up?

It is one thing to sit and pray with the dying and evoke the tranquil atmosphere of the fourteenth century hermit Mother Julian of Norwich, who wrote: All will be well and all will be well and every manner of thing will be well 25, by reciting prayers offering divine comfort and a blessed assurance that paradise awaits—a familiar forever place—and quite another to realize that Mother Earth is not well, and may—if we listen to scientists and geo-engineers who both evaluate and treat planetary and climate chaos—be terminally ill with little hope of recovery unless political will and scientific breakthroughs coalesce—now.  Again, to imagine our planet on life support is beyond the far side of language.  We just don’t have words.  Disturbing?  Ah—yah.

Here are some terms that have emerged from this labyrinth.  Perhaps you know them: Anthropocene and Sixth Extinction.  Musing on these, my dear friend, will take us home and to your Examination and Consecration, and thank you for allowing me these remarks on such a happy occasion.

Anthropocene, meaning ‘human epoch’, is the term now used by most scientists to describe the current phase of planetary history. Humans now have more control and authority over the Earth than all natural planetary processes combined.  Should I repeat this?  We have fulfilled an interpretation of the Biblical description of the creation of humans on the sixth day of creation, Then God said, ‘let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 26 This ‘dominion’, unfortunately, is now measured by aspects and stages of the deterioration of Earth’s life systems. In Yahweh’s likeness? 

The term extinction characterizes our Anthropocene epoch.  Elizabeth Kolbert, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, author of ‘The Sixth Extinction’, sets our epoch in the context of the five other mass extinctions over the past 440 million years.  Two hundred and fifty-two million years ago, for example, during the Permian-Triassic Extinction, more than 95% of marine species and upward of 70% of land-dwelling vertebrates died.  Sixty-six million years ago, the Fifth Extinction (an asteroid collision with Earth), caused 75% of living species to be wiped out. Kolbert’s thesis is that over the past 10,000 years, human activity has tipped the natural life systems beyond their natural limits. The ecosystem is breaking apart: climate change and unsustainable land use is interfering with the harmonious interaction of the many parts of the planetary ecosystem.

Here are some general statistical characteristics. Currently, the species extinction rate is estimated to be between 1000 and 10,000 times higher than natural rates (if humans weren’t around). Populations of most major animal groups have declined by an average of sixty-nine percent in the last half-century. Such perishing creatures are coal mine canaries. Ten billion metric tons of CO2 (33% of total emissions) goes into the oceans creating carbonic acid that is killing marine plant and animal life. The Indonesian coral reefs, home to 25% of all marine life, is turning to stone.  Eighty-five percent of Earth’s forests have been cleared, fragmented, or degraded for human use and these forests are home to 80% of terrestrial biodiversity and absorb 30% of anthropogenic carbon emissions. 

The ecosystem—our home—has cancer. Scientific interventions such as electric fish barriers, concrete crevasses, synthetic clouds, and many others, are characterized by the Director of the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (that works to expand the global conversation around geoengineering) as chemotherapy. We live in a world where deliberately dimming the effing sun might be less risky than not doing it. 27      

The Mantle

Some years ago, I placed a color picture of Earthrise—that amazing photograph taken by our astronauts from the moon in 1968—in a prominent position in the chancel of the church where I was the minister.  I referred to it as a paradigm shifting spiritual image.  Keith Cox told me that I was really a closet science teacher and queried me about what this had to do with religion.  Scientia, science, means knowledge, awareness, cognizance, and isn’t this the aim of what we have called theology?  Has it not been a cherished goal of religionists to want to see and understand the world from a divine perspective?  How did God-Talk become so fantastical, functioning in a closed system— more about the supernatural (we have an entire language around this)—than the natural, than what is happening outside our windows? Keith, wasn’t Jesus’s ministry about what he saw and, specifically, what disturbed him?

When did religion become only about religion, God about God, Jesus about Heaven, the body as antagonist of spirit, grace antithetical to nature?  Did this happen in a classroom or six-week seminar—the province of a professional class with degrees and clothing?  If so, isn’t this just another way of passing by on the other side of the road, or worse, of the proverbial frog in the slowly warming water? 28

And how much relevance do these abstractions have in the context of our ailing planetary home afflicted and diseased because too many people are still in a medieval crusader-type colonialist mindset towards each other and because human activity (with no sensitivity to the other-than-human world) continues to lay waste—no exterminate—the life systems that allow all sentient beings to exist (and reproduce).

There is a famous picture of the interior of a shelled church in France during the First World War.  For those reading this, the aging black and white photograph is below, for the present congregation, here is a brief description.  The view is from a loft at the west end and looks down over the nave and towards the altar. There are three large (and slightly damaged) Tuscan columns separating the nave from the side aisle. The side aisle is filled with rubble from artillery fire while the nave itself contains a row of bodies covered in blankets, with soldiers and civilians standing by them. The once stained-glass windows and parts of the walls around them are smashed out. Daylight streams in. In the chancel, next to the altar, a twelve-foot ladder leans up into one of these windows—presumably to get people and supplies in and out. The small stone altar is piled with bandages.  On the wall above it is an unusually large Rembrandt-like painting of a long-haired and bearded Jesus Christ going up into the sky—with outstretched arms, cloak and flowing white robes—beheld by lit faces of four people kneeling on the ground. All the figures are life-size. Overall, it is an astounding scene.

American Army field hospital inside ruins of church. France. 1918. Photo by USASC 

This is not the Church of an established congregation that gathers for Mass or evangelizes a so-called broken world, no, quite the opposite. It is the war-torn world (in which ten million men died)—storming the sanctuary.  It is the Church damaged, wrecked, infiltrated, taken over by a society disturbed while at the same time a sign of hope for new possibility.

Dear bishop-elect, my friend, remember that Elisha, the young prophet who had asked for a double portion of the spirit of Elijah, was not handed or dressed in Elijah’s cloak, no, he picked it up from the ground where Elijah had left it as he ascended in a whirlwind with chariots of fire and draped it on his own shoulders. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. And he took up the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and went back and stood at the bank of the Jordan.29 

Jesus wore this same mantle.  Was it left among the strips of linen 30 lying in the empty tomb?  

Perhaps this life-size grey African elephant with the long ivory tusks dangling over the cross aisle is, in the first instance, an elephant itself—symbol of the legions of lost wildlife.

And perhaps the sound of the violent Pentecostal wind is, in the first instance, wind itself—breath of a choking and wheezing planet gasping for air.


Philip M. Carr-Harris is a Canadian, father and grandfather, retired Episcopal minister and high school teacher, who lives in an 1839 schoolhouse on the side of Haystack Mountain in Norfolk, Connecticut. He can be contacted at philip.carrharris@gmail.com




The Montréal Review, March 2023


4 https://theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/

5 The Book of Common (New York: Church Publishing Inc) p. 521

7 Ibid

12 Borg, Marcus, The Search for Jesus: Modern Scholarship Looks at the Gospels, edited by Hershel Shanks, (Washington: Biblical Archeology Society 1994) p.43

14 Stubbs, J. John Donne: The Reformed Soul. p.372 W.W. Norton 2006

19 Kaufman, Gordon. Jesus and Creativity (Minneapolis:Augsburg Fortress 2006), p.102

20 https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/14977-i-know-not-with-what-weapons-world-war-iii-will

21 Crossan, John Dominic, and Richard G Watts. Who is Jesus? Answers to Your Questions about the Historical Jesus. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 1996) p. 42-3

22 Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrim’s Progress. Being Some Account of the Steamship Quaker City’s Pleasure Excursion to Europe and The Holy Land.  (New York Grosset & Dunlap 1911) p. 363

23 Ibid. p.363-4

24 Atwood, Margaret. Dearly (New York Harper Collins 2020) p. 97

27 Kolbert, Elizabeth. Under a White Sky. The Nature of the Future (New York: Penguin Random House 2021) p.200.


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