Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Bishops And Their Blessings


I don't know why, but bishops seem to like to pronounce their own version of a blessing at the end of the service. Instead of something simple like, "The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you forever," or even an updated form of the traditional blessing like, "The peace of God, which passes all understanding...," they like to make up their own. Usually it's as much exhortative as something that conveys a blessing. Often it pulls from something vaguely scriptural like, "...tend the sick, visit those in prison, lift up the downtrodden, etc.."

When he came for parish visitations, Henry Parsley used to say the blessing offered in the burial rite: "The God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep..." Kee Sloan, his successor, has spoken about his own form of the blessing, having borrowed from another bishop (probably from Mississippi) but wanting to add his own a line about "sing a new song." Occasionally someone in our parish will ask me why I only say the form of the blessing in the prayer book, and I usually say something like, "Because I'm not a bishop..." and then finish under my breath with "...who thinks he can come up with something better than what's written in the prayer book."

In the Rite One Eucharist, the presider may choose between two forms, but she or he is not permitted to offer anything else or to offer nothing for that matter. It's either "The peace of God..." or "The blessing of Almighty God..." In the Rite Two Eucharist, the presider "may bless the people," which means that she or he may pronounce whatever form of the blessing she or he chooses or may choose not to say one at all. This has become the pattern at the School of Theology's Chapel of the Apostles in Sewanee, TN, where it is understood that the principle blessing is received when one receives Holy Communion and that no additional (subordinate and diluting) blessing is needed. Honestly, I can't imagine finishing the Sunday-morning Eucharist in the parish without pronouncing a blessing. Even with careful instruction beforehand, the people would be confused.

Still, despite my aversion to episcopally crafted blessings, when I read Sunday's epistle lesson from Romans 12, I can't help but imagine a bishop standing up in a congregation and saying these words as the concluding blessing:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all...[N]ever avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God..."[I]f your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
And the blessing of God Almighty... 
The problem is figuring out where to stop. Paul gets on an exhortative roll that continues through Romans 13, Romans 14, and the first half of Romans 15 before he even stops to offer some background explanation for writing so boldly. This long and largely uninterrupted section of instruction is unusual in that there isn't much theological justification for it. It's just Paul telling the Roman Christians how to be Christians.

Perhaps that means this is the kind of lesson that, if read carefully and powerfully, does not need much explication by a preacher. Maybe the congregation can "get it" without being told anything else. And maybe that's why these episcopal blessings are so popular. Like the apostle Paul, it's the bishop's chance to tell the congregation how to be Christians. We'd do well to listen to these words like that.

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