Anglicanism

Bright bonfires to mark end of the 12 days of Christmas season

Bright bonfires to mark end of the 12 days of Christmas season

The same thing happens to Father Kendall Harmon every year during the 12 days after the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

It happens with newcomers at his home parish, Christ-St. Paul's in Yonges Island, S.C., near Charleston. It often happens when, as Canon Theologian, he visits other parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.

"I greet people and say 'Merry Christmas!' all the way through the 12 days" of the season, he said, laughing. "They look at me like I'm a Martian or I'm someone who is lost. … So many people just don't know there's more Christmas after Christmas Day."

To shine a light on this problem, some churches have embraced an tradition -- primarily among Anglicans and other Protestants -- that provides a spectacular answer to an old question: When do you take down that Christmas tree? The answer: The faithful take their Christmas trees to church and build a bonfire as part of the "Epiphany Service of Lights" on January 6th.

As always, in a rite framed by liturgy, there is a special prayer: "Almighty God our Heavenly Father, whose only Son came down at Christmas to be the light of the world, grant as we burn these trees this Epiphany night, that we, inspired by your Holy Spirit, would follow his example and bear witness to His light throughout the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, live and reign in glory everlasting. Amen."

The struggle to observe the 12 days of Christmas is similar to other trials for those who strive to follow the teachings of their faith during the crush of daily life, said Harmon.

Concerning those British battles about 'Star Wars' and the Lord's Prayer

Imagine this scene in a London movie theater, moments before the archetypal fanfare signaling the Dec. 18 arrival of the new "Star Wars" epic.

Imagine a beautiful, dignified advertisement appearing onscreen in which Muslims -- workers, refugees, artists and imams -- each recite one of the opening phrases of the Quran.

"In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds. Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek."

How would this be received in modern England, a tense land rocked by decades of debate about multiculturalism and whether it remains "Christian," in any meaningful sense of the word?

That's an intriguing question, after the decision by the dominant managers of British theaters to reject a Church of England advertisement -- targeting throngs at "Star Wars" rites -- in which Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and others recite phrases from The Lord's Prayer. It's important to ponder this comparison, argued theologian Andrew Perriman of London, at a website called "An Evangelical Theology for the Post-Christendom Age."

"Context is everything. It seems to me that the assumption that the Lord's Prayer is culturally and religiously innocuous points to some complacency on the part of the church," wrote Perriman, author of "The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church."

The decision to use this symbolic New Testament prayer in this public-square context, he argued, suggests that, "we have not let go of the Christendom mentality that expects everyone in this country to be, deep-down, innately, whether-they-like-it-or-not Christian."

'Amazing Grace' tests faith in the modern Broadway marketplace

NEW YORK -- During his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pickney, one of nine worshipers killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., a visibly moved President Barack Obama paused as he pondered mysteries of grief and forgiveness.

"Blinded by hatred," he said, the gunman could not comprehend the "power of God's grace. … Amazing grace. Amazing grace." The president then began singing: "Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see."

The congregation joined in during that June 26 service, which was not a surprise since researchers say believers worldwide sing the Rev. John Newton's classic at least 10 million times a year.

But the president's solo had an unexpected impact in New York, where the cast of the Broadway musical "Amazing Grace" was doing preview performances before its July 16 opening in a tough town for a show about sin, repentance and salvation.

Some theater insiders, for example, had suggested changing the show's name.

"When Obama sang the song it was like heaven for us. If the president knew this song, that meant it was acceptable, that it wasn't just something for church people," said veteran playwright Arthur Giron, who wrote the musical's book -- dialogue and many lyrics -- along with self-taught composer Christopher Smith.

"You see, many Broadway people didn't know 'Amazing Grace,' let alone what the song was about. They obviously didn't know the story of the song and that was the whole point of our show."

C.S. Lewis on stage: Working to bring the DNA of life and faith to off-Broadway

NEW YORK -- To get to The Pearl Theatre, drama lovers visit the bright lights of Broadway and then turn West and head deep into Hell's Kitchen, where the off-Broadway marquees are smaller and the offerings more daring.

For the team behind "C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce," the road to The Pearl ran through halls in Chattanooga, Tenn., Tampa, Fla., San Diego, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere before reaching New York for a Dec. 3 opening night in the intimate 162-seat venue.

Theater's highest hurdle is still New York City, explained Max McLean, founder and director of the Fellowship for Performing Arts team and co-writer of this version of "The Great Divorce."

Living and working in the neighborhood defined by Broadway and off-Broadway, he said, means "being surrounded by hundreds of artists of every kind. They may not be as well known as people in Hollywood, but they are producing art that's exported to the whole world. This community in New York City still has tremendous influence. …

"The goal is for our work to be taken seriously. We want to tell stories that engage the moral imagination and push people to take faith seriously -- right here."

Ironically, one way for a modern company dedicated to faith and the arts to find cultural credibility is to look to the past, focusing on the work of legendary writers who are not part of the modern evangelical subculture.

Lewis remains one of the world's most popular writers and the Oxford University don was an articulate atheist before his turn to Christianity, a conversion that took place with the help of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. In addition to "The Great Divorce," McLean has produced, directed and starred in the four-year national, and off-Broadway, run of another Lewis classic, "The Screwtape Letters."

"Lewis called himself a dinosaur" in the 1950s, said McLean. "But for me, he remains the model for how to bring the Christian imagination into the mainstream. He remains a relevant dinosaur -- along with Tolkien -- and he points us to the work of G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers and others."

Soli Deo gloria -- The true legacy of a church musician

NEW YORK -- When choirmaster John Scott looked into the future he saw a spectacular addition to St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue, a new organ at the heart of worship services, concerts and expanding efforts to train young musicians.

The 100-stop organ would blend past and present, preserving the delicately carved 1913 cabinet and some of it distinctive pipes, but as part of an expanded design that would add both grandeur and gentleness, as well as many new tones.

"We are eager to hear our gallery horizontal trumpet put into first-class condition and just as excited that it will be joined by a new stentorian Tuba Mirabilis of imperial strength. These two stops will allow majestic fanfares to dialogue east and west," said Scott, in an enthusiastic May 31 update about the $11 million project.

"So, to sum up -- 2018 cannot come soon enough."

But Manhattan's famous Anglo-Catholic parish was stunned on August 12 when the 59-year-old Scott died of a heart attack, hours after returning from a European concert tour. Scott and his wife Lily were awaiting the birth of their first child in September.

Church leaders held a requiem Mass -- with no music -- the next day and began planning for a solemn funeral Mass on Sept. 12, allowing more people to travel to New York City for the rites. Many would come to honor an artist hailed by The New York Times and other prestigious publications, a man known for his recordings, compositions and concert-hall performances.

But people in the pews are mourning the loss of a fellow believer whose most cherished duty was to help lead others in worship, while teaching the faith and its musical heritage to their children, said the Rev. Canon Carl Turner.

Triumphant day for the Episcopal Church establishment

When Bishop William White of Philadelphia became a bishop in 1787, he was number two in the Episcopal Church's chain of apostolic succession.

When Bishop V. Gene Robinson was consecrated in 2003 -- the first openly gay, noncelibate Episcopal bishop -- he was number 993. This fact was more than a trivia-game answer during a recent sermon that represented a triumphant moment both for Robinson and his church's liberal establishment.

Standing on White's grave before the altar of historic Christ Church, the former New Hampshire bishop quipped that he did "feel a little rumble" when he referenced the recent Episcopal votes to approve same-sex marriage rites. But Robinson was convinced White was not rolling over in his grave.

"I'd like to think that he who took the really astounding events of his day and turned them into a prophetic ministry would be joining us here today if he could," said the 68-year-old bishop, in an interfaith service marking the 50th anniversary of the July 4th Independence Hall demonstrations that opened America's gay-rights movement.

After a "week of blessings" -- the Supreme Court win for same-sex marriage, as well as the long-awaited shift by Episcopalians -- Robinson said it was now time to seek global change. It's crucial to prove there is more to this cause than "white gay men" struggling to decide "where to have brunch on Sunday," he said.

Robinson had a very personal reason to celebrate. During General Convention meetings in Salt Lake City, Episcopal bishops, clergy and lay leaders approved rites for same-sex couples seeking to be married in church. The convention also edited gender-neutral language into its marriage laws, substituting "couple" for "man and woman."

The sad, sobering sermon of the DUI bishop in Maryland

The bishop was candid with the small flock at All Saint's Episcopal Church, just outside of Baltimore: She had a sobering sermon for them.

"There are things that happen in life that we can't control, that we didn't predict, that perhaps we don't welcome at all," said Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook of the Diocese of Maryland.

Believers must be prepared for the worst, including wrestling with bad habits that can lead to destruction, she said in a Nov. 9 sermon that was posted online.

"If we routinely drive 55 in a 30-mile-an-hour zone, we won't be able to stop on a dime if driving conditions get dangerous or if an animal or, God forbid, a human being should step out in front of us," said Cook. "Things happen suddenly, and we're either prepared in the moment or we're not, and we face the consequences.

"We can't go back. We can't do it over. In real life there are no instant replays."

This sermon was delivered weeks before the accident -- two days after Christmas -- in which police report that Cook's car veered into a wide bike lane and hit a 41-year-old father of two, sending the cyclist crashing onto her hood and windshield. A breath test after she returned to the crash scene, and after she had been taken to a police station, found a blood-alcohol level of 0.22. The legal limit in Maryland is 0.08.

Religion news 2014: The pope, ISIS, persecution and the rest of the Top 10 stories

Soon after his elevation to the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Francis warned that the world was entering a time when Satan would increasingly show his power, especially in lands in which believers were being crushed.

Looking toward a rising storm in the Middle East, he warned that the persecution of religious minorities is a sign of the end times.

"It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world," said Pope Francis. "Religion cannot be spoken of, it is something private, no?"

A year later, the pope was even more specific in a letter to churches in the ancient lands of the Bible.

"I write to you just before Christmas, knowing that for many of you the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs. Nonetheless, the birth of the Son of God in our human flesh is an indescribable mystery of consolation," said Pope Francis.

Two clashing Orthodox takes on doctrine -- past and future

When two global religious leaders embrace one another, someone is sure to turn the encounter into a photo opportunity. 

The photo-op on Nov. 7 was symbolic and for many historic. The elder statesman was the Rev. Billy Graham and, rather than an evangelical superstar, the man who met with him at his North Carolina mountain home was Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. This visit was linked to a Hilarion address to a gathering of Protestant and Orthodox leaders in Charlotte, organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. 

After generations of work organizations such as the Episcopal Church and the World Council of Churches, the archbishop said many Orthodox leaders now realize that -- on issues of sex, marriage, family life and moral theology -- some of their ecumenical partners will be found in evangelical pulpits and pews. 

"In today's pluralistic world, the processes of liberalization have swept over some Christian communities. Many churches have diverted from biblical teaching ... even if this attitude is not endorsed by the majority of these communities' members," said Hilarion, who is the Moscow Patriarchate's chief ecumenical officer.