Category Archives: Ecclesiastical History

Martyrs Topic: “Jesus and Mary sitting in a tree . . .”

This little piece of papyrus, which is about the size of a business card, has been causing quite a stir over the last couple weeks. That’s partially due to the words that are written on it and partially due to sensational headlines in the media.

You can see pictures of it, a transcription of the Coptic text, and a translation of that text at this link on the website of Harvard Divinity School. There you’ll find twelve questions about this papyrus fragment (simply click on each one to read the answer to it). There you will also read the few words that have generated lots of controversy and speculation among both Christians and non-Christians:

Jesus said to them, “My wife . . .”

Here’s an article about this papyrus fragment in Harvard Magazine that was written on the same day that its existence was revealed at a conference of Coptic scholars in Rome: “A New Gospel Revealed.” It clearly states that even if this is a genuine text from the fourth century that is a translation of another text from an earlier century, “this new discovery does not prove that the historical Jesus was married.” Yet such a discovery would certainly provide a counterpoint to other apocryphal gospels that definitively claim that Jesus was celibate. So it would be the other side of an argument about which the canonical gospels are silent.

A more recent article by the national religion reporter for The Huffington Post is noteworthy because it quotes Helmut Koester, a professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School and former editor of Harvard Theological Review, who says he is “absolutely convinced that this is a modern forgery.” Others believe that too.

One of the most interesting — and entertaining — perspectives on this brouhaha can be read in a post by Tom Ferguson, who is an Episcopal priest, the head of a seminary, and a blogger known affectionately as The Crusty Old Dean. Seriously, click on that link and read his post if you don’t read anything else about this. You will learn something about archaeology, fragmentary texts, ancient Christianity, and contemporary culture. Those insights are true whether this intriguing text is genuine or, as seems increasingly likely, a hoax. Either way, the words on that papyrus scrap don’t necessarily mean what headlines are shouting about them.

Learn more about the St. Stephen’s Martyrs and how to find them here.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Who am I?”

As I mentioned last week, today is the sixty-seventh anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Nazi Germany and of his words that were intended as a final message to his dear friend Bishop George Bell: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”

Here is Bonhoeffer’s poem “Who am I?” that was written from prison in 1944 (the translation in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8, by Fortress Press):

Who am I? They often tell me
I step out from my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
Fleeing in disarray from victory already won?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!

Martyrs Topic: The Witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As most of you have now heard, the 20th-century pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer failed to get past the 19th-century saint and queen Emma of Hawaii  to face Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles, in today’s championship round to win the Golden Halo of Lent Madness. My prediction is that Mary Magdalene will most likely win this final round. Then she’ll be famous with her Golden Halo, and, next thing you know, preachers around the world will be talking about her in their sermons on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Mark my words . . .

That doesn’t mean, however, that the St. Stephen’s Martyrs – a men’s group – can’t continue to honor Pastor Bonhoeffer on this day. His life and witness, and especially his struggles in relation to his faith and Nazi Germany, will provide the framework for our conversation at tonight’s meeting. What would we have done if we faced the same life and death situations and decisions that he faced?

You can read a short biography of Bonhoeffer, a few quotes from him, and a reflection about him on the Lent Madness website. I’m linking to that website so you can read the comments there. You’ll be able to see the different ways that people struggle with Bonhoeffer just as he struggled with the difficult issues of his own time. Those wide-ranging reactions to him are something that make Bonhoeffer even more interesting to me than he already is on his own.

Learn more about the St. Stephen’s Martyrs and how to find them here.

Lent Madness: Bonhoeffer’s in the Faithful Four!

Today in Lent Madness, the 20th-century martyr and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer goes against the 19th-century saint and queen Emma of Hawaii in the last match of the Faithful Four. Whoever wins this vote will face the Apostle to the Apostles, Mary Magdalene, in the final round on Wednesday for this year’s Golden Halo.

This is what I wrote for the Lent Madness website on behalf of Bonhoeffer for the semi-final round (and you can vote for him by clicking on the link at the end):

Easter Monday will mark the sixty-seventh anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Nazi Germany and of his last words: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.” Those words, it seems to me, testify to the Easter faith that will be proclaimed this weekend throughout the world. In proximity to human suffering on a scale that is unimaginable to most of us, Bonhoeffer was able to declare that the ultimate word, a word of life, belongs to God.

The St. Stephen’s Martyrs – a group of men at my church – gather weekly for an hour or so of theology and a pint or so of beer. About a year ago we talked about the Holocaust. While having that discussion, there were related artifacts, Nazi and otherwise, in the middle of the table. It’s one thing to see those objects in old black and white news reels and quite another to see them in living color as we wrestled with suffering, revenge, justice, doubt, and – yes – faith, too. I can’t imagine how much harder it must have been for Bonhoeffer and others as they together wrestled not with relics but with realities. These were imperfect people, including Bonhoeffer, making imperfect decisions that they would have to live with for the rest of their lives.

Would we have returned home to Germany rather than stay in the United States? Would we have supported an underground seminary for the Confessing Church? Would we have chosen to jam the wheel of injustice by helping the conspiracy to assassinate the Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler?

Bonhoeffer made a decision, as a result of his faith in Christ, to stand with his own people and with the innocent in the midst of their experience of Good Friday. That, I think, was his most important and courageous decision.

Here’s a final endorsement from a higher authority in the Anglican Communion. Soon after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, announced that he would be resigning his position at the end of this year, he was interviewed about his various roles and secularism and faith by a parish priest in the Church of England. Archbishop Williams was asked, as the final question, with whom he would like to have dinner if he could sit down with anyone who has lived over the last hundred years. He answered,

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury has cast his vote. Now it’s your turn.

Lent Madness: Thomas Cranmer Goes Negative

As soon as I walked away from the Lent Madness campaign for Thomas Cranmer, architect of the English Reformation, to devote myself wholeheartedly to the cause of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor and martyr in Nazi Germany, the political action committees sprang into action with their negative ads.

On Friday, March 30, Thomas Cranmer will face Emma of Hawaii in the so-called “Elate Eight” round of Lent Madness. Be forewarned that the current round has a focus on saintly kitsch, so keep a sense of humor and remember that there have already been serious biographies and quotes from each saint in earlier rounds.

That’s the background for these “political” ads. However, I do have to admit that, regardless of my own personal feelings about the influence of political action committees, the third one is pretty good. It does make me think about the goodly heritage that some of us enjoy as Anglican/Episcopalian Christians.

Pentecost: What Language Shall I Borrow?

Today is the Day of Pentecost, which most Christians throughout the world recognize as the birthday of the Church. It’s a celebration of the disciples of Jesus – then and now – receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit and taking the universal language of love into the streets and into the public square.

Here is how the second chapter of the Book of Acts tells the story of that love:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. . . .

You can read the rest of it here.

The Royal Wedding: Silly and Serious Highlights

The first highlight is a reflection on the theological presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who solemnized the marriage. The second one is another reflection that also tackles the cynicism and snarkiness of so many about this event and that includes this memorable photograph from Buckingham Palace of a three-year-old bridesmaid on the balcony as the newlyweds kissed.

There were what-some-have-described-as-hats adorning the heads of dozens of the invited guests, who heard a thoughtful sermon by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres. His remarks included these words that were addressed not merely to the bride and groom or those seated in Westminster Abbey but also to everyone watching the royal wedding far beyond London or the British Isles:

As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive, we need mutual forgiveness, to thrive.

As we move towards our partner in love, following the example of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is quickened within us and can increasingly fill our lives with light. This leads to a family life which offers the best conditions in which the next generation can practise and exchange those gifts which can overcome fear and division and incubate the coming world of the Spirit, whose fruits are love and joy and peace.

Last but certainly not least comes this video of a verger, taken after the ceremony had ended, showing a kind of joy and delight that’s too often lacking in the world:

The Royal Wedding: Silly and Serious Business

Earlier this month I posted exclusive footage of the royal wedding rehearsal that was leaked to the BBC by an unnamed source inside Buckingham Palace. On the eve of the “big day,” however, its seems appropriate to share a couple of serious reflections, one the marriage itself by the Archbishop of Canterbury and another on it’s setting by the Dean of Westminster Abbey. Also, the Official Programme, including the full Order of Service, can be downloaded here as a PDF document.

Speaking of Eamon Duffy and English History . . .

Sometimes the renewal of faith is ignited like a fire at the grassroots level and brings warmth to the institutions that surround it like a fireplace. There are also examples, however, of leaders and organizations that have charted a course for such a renewal by channeling the direction of popular piety. That’s what happened during the English Reformation, a top-down movement to bring the liturgy and the scriptures into the language of the people and, through the Book of Common Prayer, to refocus theologically on the work of God’s grace. Whether viewed as a violent disruption of traditional faith or a necessary correction to enliven faith, that’s the transformation that took place in the English Church during the 16th century.

Those who are interested in this shift from traditional to reformed worship in England might want to explore these books by Cambridge Professor Eamon Duffy:

The Stripping of the Altars



This is Eamon Duffy’s award-winning history of traditional religion in England from 1400-1580. He demonstrates that popular Christian piety was robust throughout the 15th century and that the English Reformation that would follow was very much an imperial, top-down reshaping of the theological and ecclesiastical landscape.



The Voices of Morebath



In this award-winning book, Eamon Duffy takes a closer look at how the English Reformation affected the real lives of people in the small village of Morebath from 1530-1580. During those years, England was transformed into a Protestant nation. Throughout most of the drama, the same priest served this village and recorded the events.



Don’t Know Much About [Church] History?

During my time at Yale Divinity School, it was my great privilege to take courses in Historical Theology and English Church History with Patristics scholar – and Episcopal priest – Rowan Greer. I was also honored to study Biblical Theology with Brevard Childs, a legendary scholar of the Old Testament who had a remarkable command of the history of biblical interpretation and theological reflection. These were the professors who taught me to look at biblical studies, church history, and theology in an integrated way, to see how those streams flow into the river of Christian faith. Both of them were connected, in different ways, to the rich tradition of Anglican Christianity. Both followed in, and encouraged others along, the way of Jesus.

Another voice that can be heard from the outside edge of Anglican Christianity, a “candid friend” raised on the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, is Oxford Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch. Although he now stands outside the circle of Christian faith, he has stood within that circle and writes about its history neither as an enemy nor as a neutral party but as someone who genuinely cares about it. Eamon Duffy, an esteemed church historian and devout Roman Catholic, recently called Diarmaid MacCulloch “one of the best historians writing in English.” Those who want to explore the history of Christian faith and/or certain facets of Anglican Christianity might be interested in one or more of the following three books:

Thomas Cranmer.


Here is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s award-winning biography of Thomas Cranmer, who was Archbishop of Canterbury, architect of the 16th-century English Reformation, and principal author of the Book of Common Prayer. This thorough and long narrative honors the life of a complex, imperfect, and inspiring witness to the Christian faith.



The Reformation



This wonderful tome is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s award-winning history of the Reformation. It will appeal to those who want to learn about the entire scope of the 16th-century reshaping of Western Christianity – Protestant and Roman Catholic – and to many others who might want to keep it on hand as a reference work.



Christianity- The First Three Thousand Years.


Diarmaid MacCulloch’s yet-to-receive-an-award history of Christianity was recently published in the United Kingdom and will be released in the United States next spring. It has received glowing reviews from Eamon Duffy in The Telegraph and from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in The Guardian. Those are impressive fans.