Sunday, August 19, 2018

Bread and Word

Preached for Proper 15, Year B. The lessons read were Proverbs 9:1-6, Ephesians 5:15-20, and John 6:51-58.

Jesus is talking about bread again this week, and, well, we had bread in the gospel last week, and the week before that, and the week before that, and it looks like we're going to have bread again next week. Why so much bread? The reason is this: at the end of July we started a series of readings from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, and there are seventeen mentions of bread in that chapter, beginning with the feeding of the five thousand and ending with the verse which ended this week's reading and which will appear again in next week's text.

This week Jesus is talking about communion, which is curious since the narrative of its institution in the last supper does not appear in John, but only in the three synoptic gospels, and in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. But the words are are plain: we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, and the bread he provides is that flesh, and those words are consonant with the institution narrative which we repeat, week after week: “this is my body” shall be said of the bread, “and this is my Blood of the New Covenant” of the wine, as Jesus said that holy night. Paul says that we do this to remember, but we understand from the words here that it it is not just a memorial, but that we are fed in the Eucharist, not materially, but spiritually.

Now bread in the gospels, it signifies feeding, all right, and more specifically feeding as something we need in order to live. In recounting the last days, there is not a single mention of bread: perhaps it may be part of the marriage supper of the Lamb, but that feast is about something other than base nourishment. Bread, in the gospels, is connected to hunger, and thus it is that the very first mention of bread in the bible comes not out of the mouth of Jesus, but from Satan: “command these stones to become loaves of bread.” And Jesus' reply is interesting in light of his words in this week's lesson, for he says to Satan, “it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” The passage he is quoting is from Deuteronomy, wherein Moses says, “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Jesus also refers to the manna, the bread which came down from heaven, the bread of angels as the psalmist says, but Jesus says that the new bread, his bread, is not like that old manna, which nourished the body, and yet, the Israelites grew old and died.

But in the end, we are promised, we shall not die. Oh, in the short run, in the passing of the years, we shall age or shall succumb to accident or violence or disease, but in the end, the end of days, we shall be raised: that is Jesus' promise. And while we work this earth, we are fed by him: his flesh and his blood. I do not think it profitable to choose from among the various theories about how the elements of communion can be said to be Jesus, but one thing is plain: in some sense, He is becoming part of us as we eat and drink, week by week. We, as the church, are the body of Christ, but we see in Jesus' words that this is not merely a way of talking about how we carry out His will, but also, in a way, a statement of literal truth.

And in this, I want to go back to another point which comes from Jesus' rejoinder to Satan. He says that man, that is, the people of God, is nourished by the divine word. One's first impulse here is to understand this as meaning the word of scripture, but we know also that Jesus is that Word as well; we have that in the first chapter of John. Thus we can say that truly are nourished by word and sacrament, for in a sense, they are the same thing: we of the new creation are fed, literally and spiritually, by what we partake, both in our eyes and ears, and in our mouths: Jesus, the bread of heaven, the word of God.

But enough of bread: I would like to turn from mere bread, to the feast of our first lesson. The proverbs do not appear often in the Sunday lessons, and each of the three times is an address by Holy Wisdom, calling all people to heed her. But in this case, the cry is a summons to a feast. There is bread here, but beyond that, meat and wine. This is not just to satisfy the hungry, but to feed richly and abundantly; not just to live, but to grow and be strong.

And thus, with wisdom, we are back to the Word. Wisdom in the Hebrew carries a different sense than it does in English, and the same with foolishness. The “simple” who are invited are to become wise not only in judgement but in plain learning; here it is the eyes and ears which are the conduits by which God enters in. But it is still the Word; it is still Jesus, and scripture again uses the idea of feeding to convey its effects upon us. We hear the word of scripture, and if I and other preachers and spiritual writers minister effectively in the Spirit, we and you are all instructed so as to be graced with the fruits of the Spirit. Therefore Paul, preaching to the Ephesians, counsels them, and us, to live wisely, that is, to heed scripture and to understand it, and to live it out—for it is in such a life that we have life, we the members, the limbs and organs of the body of Christ, working in the world. And we do so not just in repeating what we have been taught, but in every loving act me make in the world, for it is by that love that we show the Jesus in us: it is in that love that we show what we are made of: Jesus, the bread of the world, come down from heaven, the Son of God, whom with the Father and the Spirit we worship and adore with every feeding from his flesh and blood, the holy food and drink of new and unending life.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Prayer Book Revision Happened, and the Result Was Not Pretty

It was apparent within the first few days of General Convention that revision of some sort was going to be pushed through. And though the bishops balked to a degree, we not only got revision, but we got revision now. First, the permission to use Enriching Our Worship was not only extended, and not only given no end date, but regulation by the ordinary of the diocese was removed. Any rector may now use it and their discretion, without having to consult with their bishop.

On top of that, we were given a revised Rite II, reworded to reduce usage of "Father", "Lord", "kingdom", and of course supressing any use of the male personal pronoun for God. Again, this thing has no expiration date and no regulation by the bishop. And it has the exactly the same issue that both Matthew Olver and I remarked upon in EOW: the avoidance of "Father" makes for a rather lopsided trinity.

It's all the more obvious here given that one has the 1979 rite as a standard against which to measure the changes. The biggest is that the eucharistic prayer proper is no longer addressed to the Father, but to "God" as a whole. This breaks the preface "of the Father" because they changed not a word of that, but since it is said in the context of speaking to the Father in the first place, it is no longer of the Father at all. Now, I do not know why eucharistic prayers are address to the Father, but older examples all are. Thus we have a potentially substantial change sprung on us, with little discussion. Indeed, the hasty nature of this was evident as two changes had to be backpedaled, and Prayer C was taken out of consideration entirely. Never minding my problems with the whole project: I would have objected to the substitution of "reign" for "kingdom", if only because Elizabeth II reigns over the United Kingdom. To me the substitution is too alienating from scripture, a problem which also besets the many suppressions of the word "Lord", which after all means specifically the Name of God.

But then, it seems that I don't get to object, the convenient grounds being that I am male and old enough to be dismissed if I'm not with the program. On one level one cannot object to an all-female committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation, but their report has some major problems, not the least of which is that their resolution pushing "expansive" language essentially puts it in opposition to theological consideration. I don't believe their problems are something that can be fixed that way anyway, but they persist in a narrative of theological history that has some serious faults, not to say untruths. For example, they say that "In the 1928 BCP and Hymnal 1940, the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns to encompass all human beings established a concept of maleness as normative and femaleness as the exception or “other.” Decisions at the 1970 and 1973 General Conventions made clear that such generic use was not actually inclusive: the masculine-gender nouns in the canons were interpreted to exclude women from ordination to the priesthood." I doubt that anyone on the committee was actually there in those years to relate the discussion that ensued on the floor, but it is a very safe bet that nobody relied on the legalism of the wording of the canons, and that they went straight to the traditional arguments from Paul and from the symbolism of representing the person of Christ. And the further reality was that in '74 there were enough men on their side to defy the canons. While one may argue how much the use of the male as the default 3rd person singular pronoun creates a bias, this attempt at mind-reading is flatly unconvincing to me.

Beyond that, the pushback against trying to erase the maleness of Jesus has been strong enough to protect "Son"; moreover, attempts to push "Mother" have largely failed, again perhaps because the theological problems are too severe for a younger generation to swallow. Thus it is conspicuous that we see here, in the end, a rejection of the divine parental in general. And that's a really huge problem, because it is there, after all, that we find the locus of sin. At any rate, as Benjamin Guyer points out, the aim of a purified liturgy is unachievable. The tension between the language of scripture and the language of feminist activism tends to be resolved by abandoning not only the scriptural text, but by substituting the old Enlightenment illusion of a liberalized humanity redeemed through right thinking. And it doesn't matter, it seems to me, how much that thinking turns out to be wrong; it doesn't matter how likely it is that the theories of the present will fail the test of time. The point, after all, of scripture is that we cannot achieve such redemption, not in that way.

But meanwhile, we have a serious problem here: revision has already happened, and even if the 1979 book is not rejected or replaced, it is pretty likely right-thinking rectors and deans will largely suppress its use.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Communing the Unbaptized Tries Again

So once again we have another run at GC towards normalization of communing the unbaptized, this time in the form of a study resolution. So the meat of the explanation begins with the observation that "many parishes in the Episcopal Church are currently practicing open communion," by which they mean opening it not just to the baptized who are not members of this denomination, but to anyone, baptized or not. Well, yes, that statement is true, but it is also utterly against the discipline of the church and against statements made each time this has come up and the voices of orthodoxy have prevailed in the end.

But let's keep going:

They believe that welcoming all people to the table allows us to be instruments of that grace. Many of those who come to our churches have no previous experience in a faith community but are responding to our promise that “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” They come hungry for that sense of welcome and belonging. Denying them a place at the Lord’s Table denies the very desire that drew them through our doors, denies the “radical welcome” that Jesus extended to everyone. If they feel welcomed into our worshiping congregations, newcomers to the faith will be more likely to seek Holy Baptism.
It's the usual romantic picture, which flies in the face of the reality that outsiders are probably more likely to run into communion at a wedding or a funeral, not necessarily seeking anything. And it infantilizes such as do come, for surely it is possible still to recognize that participation in religious acts is for religious believers. We've been through this all before, six years ago, and yet we go around again.

As far as such a study is concerned, nothing has changed there either. Last time, I said,

[W]e have a resolution from North Carolina which, having been amended, is now proposing a committee to study the issue and make a report. If such a committee is formed, what's most likely to happen is one of two outcomes: either those in control will make sure there are enough heretics on the committee to guarantee a less than orthodox report; or when a less adequately packed committee delivers an insufficiently licentious report, it will be thanked and ignored, and the heretics on the issue will simply press the issue again and again until they've driven off enough orthodox to prevail.

I have to think the same dynamics would apply this time, but why bother? The only point to a change would be, once again, to put before the church yet another heterodoxy to drive people away. People who are breaking the rules now aren't going to stop simply because a report, or even GC as a whole, repudiates the innovation; and their bishops won't so much look the other way as they will all but cheer them on. Indeed, they get points among their own for the transgression.

This shouldn't be a point of discussion. No study should be approved.

Late word has come that this proposal has died in committee, as it should.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Contractive Language

So, it appears that my church is about to have "expansive language" thrust upon it. This, for those of you who are behind the liturgical times, is the successor to "inclusive language", and as it is appearing in the current General Convention motions, it means specially trying to get away from the male language about God that is part and parcel of scripture. Anyone who has read much of this blog can probably guess that I am not a big supporter of this. But to be clear on that, let me list a few issues:
  • It is alienating from scripture. There are, to be sure, passages where God is talked about in feminine terms, but too many crucial passages use conspicuously male words— and I specifically abjured the use of the word "imagery" there, as I will make clear in the next point.
  • It is inconsistent with its own principles. I am dubious that current dogma on "gender" and "sex" is going to survive in the long run, but at any rate the rule that a person gets to determine how that are to be talked about is, I would argue, being violated in this program. Of course, you can always go ahead and deny the inspiration of scripture (by calling people who do take it seriously "inerrantists") enough to ignore the language it uses, but if Jesus is using "Father" and "he", it's going to take some serious exegesis to worm out of taking this as a divine preference.
  • It is paternalistic. they know better than you do. Really.
  • It is churchy. We're setting up yet another way that church people don't talk like normal people, but use instead their own special language.
  • It is wedded to theories of human psychology and sociology which are also unlikely to hold up. The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is pretty much dead at this point, and while linguistic relativism is to some degree inarguable, the notion that we can reframe thinking about sexual/gender roles simply through word choice is extremely dubious. After all, it has failed to help with race; what has happened instead is that use of the "right" words has tended to function as an in-group marker more than anything else, and hasn't made inroads in getting rid of the most deliberately offensive words. In the case of my church, we act as if we have a moral/religious authority which everyone is expected to heed, when it is plainly obvious that we lost whatever power and prestige we had years ago. Heck, for the first time in our country's history there is no Episcopalian on the Supreme Court, if you want an objective marker of our decline.

A resolution has been presented to permit an expansive language version of Rite II to be used immediately. From a procedural point of view, this is essentially an end run around the whole revision process: the rite proposed is not something that people have had a chance to review, and GC is (almost by design) not the place where such review can reasonably take place. It has at least one obvious liturgical novelty which has nothing to do with god-language: eliminating the filioque from the creed is simply not something we should be doing without explicit discussion of the matter in its own right, but it just slides right in alongside all the other changes.

And some of those specific changes also need discussion on their own. Eucharistic prayers we have invariably addressed to the Father, but these prayers equally invariably address them simply to "God", implying address to the godhead as a whole. What is the meaning of this? Why was it done the other way before? there is a lot that needs to be said about this, pro and almost certainly con, but it hasn't happened. Likewise, the suppression of the word "Lord" has to deal with the issue that it is generally used as a placeholder for the Divine Name. Is that erasure justifiable?

A quick scan through this rite shows that it at least lacks some of the more egregious faults of Enriching Our Worship; for example, it fails to repeat the "pro omnis" error in the institution narrative. But the changes leave us with a trinity which is out of balance. We can talk about the Spirit as much as we want, without any changes other than avoiding "he"; we are forced by the nature of Jesus to use "son" perhaps more than some would like; but "Father" appears only where it absolutely must. The language is thus not expanded; it is contracted. The changes are marked not by what we can now also say, but almost entirely by what we now cannot say.

It's strongly reminiscent of the problems with the readings in the same-sex union proposed rite, namely, that a lot of the marriage readings were plainly unwelcome in that context. That problem is being solved in the proposed changes to the marriage rite by suppressing the more blatantly marriage-is-a-man-and-woman-thing readings, but nothing is to be added that's specifically relevant to same-sex marriages. I think the situation isn't as difficult for expansive language, but still, what we see when nothing is added, is that something is definitely lost.

And for all those women with domineering if not outright abusive fathers, there is some percentage of both sexes who had to deal with mothers who exhibited the same "faults". There is a subtext, particularly apparent when words about kingship and the like are dealt with, that the stumbling block isn't the maleness of God so much as it is the power and authority of God, and therefore the problem becomes not fatherliness, but the divine parent of whatever gender. And in a religion where the origin of human alienation from God is found in human disobedience, this is a hugely problematic stance to take. And thus it is hugely ironic that the whole thing is so paternalistic on the one hand at the same time it is rebelling against church tradition.

And in a religion where the central act of worship is anamnesis, the willful attempt at amnesia here is problematic. How do we know what to forget?

Assuming that this diminished Rite II doesn't make it, and assuming we are saddled with the revision Process, we need to take time on this. As it stands, we don't have much of a path towards a language that isn't actually a diminishing of the language we have through tradition while avoiding expanding out into heresies we already ought to know to avoid.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Selling the Alabaster Jar

So, I was led through some link to where someone styling himself "Archbishop Cranmer" is making a typical sort of denial of divine presence in the church:
Except He’s not: His Spirit might be brooding in the chocolate-box parishes of England, but the Lord is actually in Calais; walking the streets with the homeless, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, comforting the destitute and dying.
Sorry, but I don't buy this. Charitable works are not all there is to Christian life, and while I don't have experience with the Church of England parish scene, my impression is that except for a few flagships, they rather often are chocolate boxes that have been left out in the sun or sat upon, after someone has already been through and picked out the good pieces. And it's very comfortable to say that
If the Lord were to visit the Vatican, He’d tear down the papal portraits and smash the marble statues, barking something about idols and dens of thieves. If He were to enter Westminster Abbey, He’d refuse point blank to pay a £20.00 admission fee, daring to remonstrate with the Dean about the righteousness of royal peculiars and the hollowness of the dead curating the dead. He’d attend no banquet at Lambeth Palace, nor feast on a state dinner at Windsor Castle. He’d decline invitations from princes to chat about the need for benevolence; and from prime ministers to pore over political policy.
...but he didn't toss Nicodemus out on his ear, so I'm thinking "not" on that last claim. And while it would be a good thing to get rid of the admission fee to Westminster Abbey or Washington National Cathedral, the money for building upkeep needs to come from somewhere. Oh, sure, the paintings in the Vatican could all be sold off and the building sold to the Muslims (hey, it worked for Hagia Sophia, right?). And then what?

People like to think that the old churches are swimming in wealth, but a major reason why these cathedrals and palaces have an admission fee is that they otherwise cannot afford the upkeep. Look, closing the cathedral parish is getting to be a trend in the Episcopal Church, and while frequently you can sell a closed church to an evangelical megacongregation, those guys aren't entirely made out of money, and about the only other thing that one can use such a big church for is a nightclub; really most such buildings are passed down the ecclesiastical food chain or are demolished. The Vatican palaces perhaps could be sold to a mafioso, but that's it, and in the irony department, there's the conversion of the "Crystal Cathedral" to the cathedral of the Catholic Diocese of Orange because Schuller's family business couldn't meet the mortgage.

At any rate, the first thing about this sort of "prophecy" is that it's cheap, because there's no risk of it ever being voluntarily carried out. But the second thing is that it's only half of the Christian life. "Love your neighbor," yes: that is the second great commandment; but the first is "Love God." And that's the part that progressive Christianity seems to have trouble with.

Worship arises out of the recognition and acknowledgement of transcendence. And when I read the theological literature on the progressive God, I find Him not. I constantly come upon a fractured mix of enlightenment deism, reductionism, and Edwardian spiritualism. I am therefore presented with a fixation upon immanence that is constantly tempted into self-worship as the emotional end of finding God only in ourselves. But God both is and is not in us. We are overshadowed by the Spirit; Christ is our food at each communion; and yet we are still caught between the old alienation of sin and the reconciliation which we have in the ecclesiastical union. God is in us, yes, this we believe; but God is even more so outside us, boundlessly greater than all of creation, and eternal as we are finite. And God, being real, has a particular story in this particular world, not a myth which can be restyled to fit the age.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The End of the Great Sabbath

It was a great sabbath, perhaps the greatest sabbath since creation. Jesus lay dead in the tomb, tortured to death by a world which would not know him, and hastily buried before the day of rest. With him, an old world died, the old world beset by sin and faithlessness; the globe turned, oblivious, and Judaea rested, remembering the first Passover, unaware of the second.

The sacrifice of that first Passover marked the children of Abraham as God's own, written in blood upon the dwellings they were about to abandon, the residences of their former life of slavery; and then came the passage through the waters of the sea, in which their deliverance from Egypt was completed and their new life begun. We too have passed through water, the water of baptism, into our new life. And now, in the dark, we look to dawn of that great day. We wait for the LORD; our souls wait for him; in his word is our hope. Our souls wait for the LORD, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.

And lo, he comes! The women expected nothing but a cold, sealed cave that morning; and frightening shock of the angel's appearance: we can only pretend to the same, for the astonishing news he brought them is not news to us. It is ancient, but it is not tired, or withered, or bygone. It is news that, taken in faith, is as powerful as when first spoken: the old life ended, and a new and everlasting life arisen in its place. The old world awoke, and noticed nothing; but those who heard the angel's word knew, then and now, that everything was changed. And then, just as the Hebrews came to Sinai to meet their God and receive His laws, the women were met by Jesus, to send the others to Galilee. The LORD on the mountain was awesome and frightening, whose glory was unbearable, even reflected in Moses's face, but the face of Jesus, God and Man together, was hope and joy to those women, and so should it be to us. Jesus does not walk among us now, but we do see him in the word of scripture, and in the church; in hope and faith, we shall all see him face to face on the last day, when all humanity is assembled before the throne.

But that awful day has yet to befall us, and if the news of the resurrection has circled the world, not all hear it, or hearing, dismiss it. And meanwhile, we who do hear find it difficult to live out the life of the new world, for we are still born out of the old, just as the Hebrews found it difficult to leave behind their old life in Egypt. The year that follows affords us many weeks to learn the way of the new life, the life assured us in the angel's proclamation, but for tonight, it is enough that we remember the news, and proclaim it again:

Christ has died!
Christ is risen!
Christ will come again!

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

It Is a Sign of Something

The nominating committee in Newark has come out with four candidates for the next bishop, of which they asked three questions:
  • Who is Jesus Christ to you and how is your life and ministry influenced and shaped by Christ?
  • What criteria would you use for determining when and how a struggling congregation should be closed? And where might we find signs of resurrection (new life) there?
  • Based on the information you have learned about the Diocese of Newark, what challenges and excites you about your vision for the role of a bishop in the 21st century in this Diocese?

The first is frankly astonishing, coming out of Jack Spong's diocese, and some of the answers given are as jarring, and for the same reason: one candidate calls Jesus "my Savior and Redeemer" and goes on to say that "By his life, suffering, death, and resurrection he enables me to live a life of hope, forgiveness and reconciliation." The next names him as "the Savior and Redeemer of the world." The third says that he is "the human face of God, the Word coming to dwell in and among us, revealing the power of God to heal, love, and redeem." Only the last essentially ducks the question through an account of his own life in the church, but speaking little of Jesus. Now, not all of these I would count as committing to an essentially orthodox answer to "and who do you say that I am?", but they are far closer than I ever would have expected.

If the first is shocking (and a question to which I would hope that bishops as a rule could give a definite and faithful answer), the second is depressing. Newark declined from 117 to 104 parishes from 2004 to 2014; attendance dropped 25% from 2006 to 2016. There is an element of fatalism in asking about how the bishop-to-be would deal with the continuation of this waning.

And yet, there is something hopeful in this. Nobody was asked what they were going to do about social justice, though I'm sure speaking out is expected. Questions were asked about faith, and about the church. God be with them in their search, and may the church be blessed in the final choice.