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.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sex and the Single Encounter

Internet thinkers have been chattering about the tale from an anonymous woman about her unpleasantly sexual evening with a reasonably well-known comedian, starting with wine and dinner and ending with sexual acts which she apparently did not desire to perform, all on the first, um, date. At The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan basically got things right and James Hamblin largely missed the point, and it seems to me that the fact that he is twenty years younger than her (and she is only a year younger than I) explains a lot of the difference in perspective: Flanagan, and I, were raised in the old mores, and got to see everything come apart as teenagers and young adults, just before Hamblin was born.

The details of the encounter do not need to be repeated, but suffice it to say, "Grace" sought the comedian, and after some arranging that had an evening in which she went to his pad for a glass of wine, they went out to dinner, and then they returned to his apartment, and shortly thereafter were engaged in a sex act which she, apparently, wasn't really hot on, and it went on from there until she broke down in tears and left. Finally, she got to shame him by getting someone to recount her tale, naming him but not her. He, by old-school standards, comes across as a cad; her participation is more complex, not only because we hear her emotional side, but because of the obvious emotional conflict within her. As Flanagan says, what they did was "was hardly the first move in the 'one-night stands' of yesteryear," which itself reduces the prolapsed morality of my early adulthood to antique propriety. But then, the point after all is that there are no longer any rules. The whole talk of consent one hears among the liberated righteous comes across, in the scenario of this "date" and for that matter of dating in the large, as wholly inadequate to the matter of real male-to-female interaction. In the story, she consents, and consents, and feels bad about consenting, but she keeps at it until, apparently, he asks for something she is unwilling to give, and then her "no" really comes as a teary abrogation of every "OK" said heretofore. Conversely, "consent" is simply not up to the task of justifying the assertion that he shouldn't have been asking in the first place. After all, she could have been a sexually aggressive and adventurous woman, or even a prostitute who was up for anything he was willing to pay for outright. But in this case the negotiations broke down in mid-encounter.

Meanwhile various women writing on the matter talk about how men are conditioned by society to chase after sex, and how women are conditioned to yield. This fails to deal with human difference in both respects: on the one hand it attributes too much to culture, and on the other whitewashes over the extreme range of human temperament. The woman in this comes across with a neediness that certainly no woman I ever dated expressed; the man's drive is is less clear, because we do not hear his side, but it's not hard to interpret him as having a sexual drive which she (from his perspective) volunteered over and over to satisfy, but which one may not assert of every man. And while she says that she offered lots of nonverbal cues, anyone reading on the history of this had surely heard the male side: that women send out signals that men are meant not the catch, so they can be docked points for missing them.

Really, anyone should have the sense to see that this business of male-to-female interaction is actually difficult, which is perhaps one reason why all prior societies mediated them with rituals and norms, often of great elaboration. Just sixty years ago, there's no way a nice girl like her would have been in the man's kitchen in the first place, and never mind the sex. None of this was perfect, of course, and a lot of it functioned to the disadvantage of women, no doubt. But having no structures at all hasn't fixed the problems; it has simply meant that the thing is a complete crapshoot for anyone who isn't either a complete prude or utterly promiscuous.

I lived at the prudish end, not that I was stupid enough to make an issue of it in the licentious late '70s and early '80s. To illustrate: I spent part of one summer school at UMCP with a roommate in the dorms who had sex with his girlfriend every night. I simply arranged, on my own, to delay my return to the room until I expected them to be completed, and walked in on them in mid-coitus twice. The breaking point was when he expected me to vacate my bed for a weekend so that she could occupy the room with him for several days of fun: I put up with his inconvenient fornicating, but depriving me of the bed I had paid for. When I took the matter to the resident director, she essentially backed him up, and I was fortunate to find someone else who grudgingly let me move in with them for the remaining days of the term. For my own part, I found chastity much less complicated and fraught. I did not join my flesh to another, and thus avoided all the attachments spoken of by Paul; and in an earlier generation, I would have found my choice buttressed by a social order that at least paid lip service to Christian mores.

But not any longer. Blessed are they, it appears, who are not driven by sexual desire; but the rest play upon an uncertain field, torn between play and battle.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Blessings of Our Peculiar God

We are blessed with a peculiar God.

We use the word “peculiar” to mean two things: that something is strange or odd, or that something belongs to or is characteristic of some particular thing. It could be said that our God is both, from our earthly perspective.

But it's not for our lack of trying to see Him otherwise. Thomas Aquinas, in the middle ages, attempted various proofs of God's existence, and while there is a certain pleasing symmetry in his arguments from natural law on the one hand and philosophical superlatives on the other, the end point, as it were, of these formulas is the three circles of the trinity as spoken of by Dante in the last lines of the Divine Comedy: a mathematical but unilluminating perfection. And what if there is a god? It is as Robert Farrar Capon once wrote in his introduction to systematic theology:

The important question is not “does God exist?” but “what is he like?” Is he nasty or nice? Does he wear overpowering aftershave? Does he force Chinese food on all his friends?

I cannot offer an opinion on the question of aftershave, but I am reasonably certain about the Chinese food, and I am utterly confident that He is nice— or rather, not nice, but good, loving beyond our powers of comprehension. And why? Well, because this is what scripture testifies.

And why scripture? Because it is only the revelation of God which truly brings us to know Him, and it is in scripture, that sacred history, that he shows Himself in the world. So, let us move half a century after Aquinas in the 13th century, to the philosophers of the Enlightenment in the 18th. In their faith in human reason, they took the superlative, perfectly spherical God of medieval theology and did it one better, and so we got the irrelevant God of deism, who can be counted on never to insert Himself into the world and disturb it; they took the bible and edited the miracles from it and reduced it to a source of moral tales which they did not in any case read—unless they already agreed with them.

What was their problem with those scriptural tales? Well, it's what they tell of what God is like: for all the philosophical perfections we attribute to God, the story scripture tells of his action in the world is so, well, skewed. The story it tells of God is that He chooses to work through particular people, and he does not reward heroes: he makes them out of the unlikely. Thus he picks Abram, and Joseph, and Moses, and David, and the many prophets; and while they in faith prove God's choice, it is clear in every case that it is not through their own merit that they have grace thrust upon them. Abram's only qualification appears to be negative: that he is childless. Moses is set apart at birth and is reduced to watching his father-in-law's herds in the wilderness when God calls to him. Joseph and David are boys, the tail ends of their families.

And now, today, the angel Gabriel from heaven comes to speak the word to Mary, who, of all women, is chosen to bear the Word of God incarnate. What is special about Mary? Luke and Matthew say only that she was virgin, as Abram's wife Sarai and Zachariah's wife Elizabeth were barren, so that the life-giving power of God might be fully shown in these children of the promise: Isaac, John, and last and finally, Jesus. And these promises are another characteristic of our God. The irresistible grace laid upon them by the Spirit is in every case accompanied by promises: to Abraham, to be the founder of a nation; to Joseph and Moses, to save the Hebrew people in Egypt; to David, to complete the founding of the nation; to Zachariah, the salvation of his people; and finally, to Mary, to bear the Messiah, the Son of the Most High.

Thus Mary, as with her forerunners, was a hearer of the Word, and also its bearer. And she is also its speaker: in her visit to Elizabeth, she prophesies the words we sang in place of the psalm today, praising God for his blessing, acknowledging his mercies, and foretelling the kingdom. Is there something special about her? Well, yes, of course: only one woman is the Godbearer, the Theotokos as the Greeks call her. “Blessed are you among women”: that was Elizabeth's greeting. And yet, in a way we are all made special as she is, for in this hall we are all God-hearers, and through baptism we are all made incorporate in Christ's body which is the church, even this child which is brought before us today. And in each communion we partake of that holy body and blood, so that God is in us in the most literal way, made part of our very matter, as Jesus's humanity was taken from his mother.

It is all so very unreasonable. Why should a bit of bread and a sip of wine put God in us? Why should a splash of water bind us to Christ? Rational humanity scoffs. Why should God be manifested in three men at Mamre, or a burning bush? Who can believe that elderly women or virgins can bear children? Rational, scientific mankind knows better, because it does not know God. We say, piously and superlatively, that God is beyond human comprehension, but it is so very hard to take this seriously. Humans want explanations, and if they are not forthcoming from God, then, well, our theologians can supply them if we do not, and eventually we explain God away entirely. Rationalism demands a God who can be examined at humanity's whim and leisure, but that is not what God is like. God is uncooperative and does not submit to such probing; God speaks, and it is for us to hear—to hear, and to repeat. At the end of Luke's narrative of Jesus's birth and childhood, he says that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart,” and it can be guessed that she is the ultimate source of the scriptural account we have. God reveals himself in the word, but it is we, his people, who must carry it forward. We must, like Mary, like men and women of faith through the ages, be speakers of the word, for how else will the grain of faith be scattered, that the angels may harvest at the end of days?

Our peculiar God has, in his inscrutable wisdom, entrusted his church with speaking his word, a strategy which one theologian described as appearing to be an act of supreme folly. But that is the God that is, and thus we have it that salvation is not something one can find, but something that one is given, given right here, through word and sacrament, but first of all through the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus, the son of Mary and son of God, the Messiah born of the line of David, as promised of old—for although the prophecy made to Nathan foretold the glory of Solomon, it also spoke, out of time, of the greater son of David, who is Jesus. Tonight we remember his first advent, singing with the shepherds; and through grace, we wait in hope for his second advent, when the Father's purpose is brought to its close, and we are united with him in the life which has no end, in his everlasting glory, the Father who with the Son and the Spirit lives and reigns unto ages of ages. AMEN.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Numbers: 2016

Well, when you get past the spin, the news about the 2016 numbers is that the news isn't as bad as usual. Domestic attendance dropped by 1.6% instead of the typical 3%; given the impending Christmas year, if these kind of numbers become the baseline, then they might manage some slight growth that year.

Lots of dioceses showed growth this year, with the largest absolute increase coming in the diocese of Washington. Half of that increase, it appears, came at the cathedral, where the new dean seems to be working out: attendance is up over 20% from its 2014 low. This has to be evaluated, though, against the decline of over 500 from the most recent peak, in 2007: on that basis we're looking at a 30% loss still to be undone. Several other larger parishes appear to have contributed most of the rest of the increase; of course the prevailing pattern is still decline.

Maryland, as I mentioned earlier, also posted a small gain, again, it appears, mostly based on gains at a few of the largest parishes. Besides the two mentioned, twenty-four other domestic dioceses posted gains, with the largest percentages in Navaholand (12.3%) and Northwest Texas, whose 7.0% gain was the second largest absolute increase (Washington is 7.6 times larger, so it only increased by 1.8%).

No province gained attendance overall, but the geography of dioceses with increases is striking. While there was at least one gaining diocese in each province, the gainers were concentrated in Province 3 (the mid-Atlantic) and even more so in Province 7 (Texas and the southern plains), where seven of twelve dioceses showed gains. The five dioceses with losses, however, tended to lose big. In Province 3 the gaining dioceses lie in a strip running from Erie to Richmond, with Philadelphia tacked on the northeast corner; again it's big losses in a few dioceses which make the difference, as losses in Bethlehem and Southern Virginia together account almost exactly for the 525 net loss for the province. Curiously, of the four surviving split dioceses, all but South Carolina recorded gains; unfortunately the schismatic diocese hasn't posted numbers yet, so I can't see how they compare.

The situation for the foreign dioceses has shifted markedly. Province 9 is dominated by huge losses in Honduras, but sampling of the parish charts suggests that there are still severe record-keeping problems, as the numbers since the 2013 "correction" tend either to grind along as very small values, or jump about erratically. Suffice to say that the diocese accounts for most of the loss in the province, and 55% of all the foreign loss. Haiti also posted a large loss, and since it accounts for half of foreign attendance, well, between it and Honduras the foreign dioceses as a whole lost 10.6% of their attendance, and it could be worse: it appears that Venezuela didn't report data this year. On the other hand, omitting the foreign dioceses from Province 2 reduces its loss from 3.3% to 2.4%.

One year is not a trend, and while the Living Church made a fairly cautious and minimal report, headlined "Declines Soften a Bit". The Episcopal Cafe, on the other hand, went for "Signs of hope in 2016 TEC stats", ending with "The clear takeaway from this report should be that terminal decline is not our future, but certainly consolidation is." Well, even if the 3% per annum losses had continued, it would be a long time, I suspect, before we would see wholesale consolidation of dioceses, but really, this is trying to put a good face on things. And their analysis tends to concentrate on the less reliable membership numbers, so when they say that "There do not appear to be large regional variations in ASA or membership changes domestically, though the southern provinces (IV and VII) had smaller percentage declines than average," well, that's not what I see in the ASA numbers, where Province 4 is not among the worst, but where few diocese recorded gains, and those gains were small. But it will be at least three years before we can see whether this represents an interruption in decline, or a slackening, or the beginning of a real turnaround.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Reshaping Away the Creed

Matthew S.C. Olver's assessment of Ruth A. Meyers's "revised edition" of Leonel Mitchell's seminal Praying Shapes Believing heads right into the issues which make me an opponent of the push to "revise" the prayer book. Now, Mitchell having been dead this past half-decade, and thus not in a position to take exception to this, there is a serious problem with this notion of a "revision" of his work in the first place. It's not too much to say that Meyers has, in reality, co-opted Mitchell's voice in pushing a program which, at least in the passages which Olver highlights, is quite at odds with what Mitchell said the first time around. I have to say that she needed to have published her own book and left his well enough alone.

But those passages: the changes that raise my hackles the most are those which address the place of the creeds, both in worship and in the doctrine of the church. Consider this:

In her other books, Meyers cites other issues that might be addressed Meyers in a future prayer-book revision. One of those is the Nicene Creed. Meyers replaces a sentence of Mitchell’s that acclaims the creed as sign of unity and renewal of the Baptismal Covenant with a clause noting that it “provides material for both an historical and a systematic theology.”

It is not an essential part of the liturgy,” she adds. “It was introduced into Eastern liturgies in the early sixth century and was only added to the liturgy at Rome in the eleventh century. The core beliefs of the church are expressed in the eucharistic prayers, which carries much of the theological weight of the liturgy on weekdays when the creed is not proclaimed” (pp. 158-59). The complicating issue, of course, is that in Enriching Our Worship, any gendered proper names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and their subsisting relations disappear. This disappearance is only exacerbated if the Creed is not used, as Meyers seems to favor and as Enriching our Worship appears to allow.

One is moved to ask why the creed was added, but then it's easy enough to guess why there is such pressure to take it back out: not because it is unnecessary, but because it is offensive. In the rhythm of the first half of our eucharistic liturgy (the "Liturgy of the Word") it is the high point of a sequence in which we praise God, we hear his word, we have it interpreted and elaborated for us, and we respond with an act of anamnesis: the ancient statement of our church's faith, as we have it from the church fathers. In this wise the Eastern name for it, the Symbol of Faith, is entirely apropos. And it is entirely reasonable to come at Enriching Our Worship with the observation that it wishes to permit, and perhaps even to establish, deviation from that ancient faith. Beyond the in my opinion misbegotten gender issues, the direction taken is away from anything definite and towards a liturgy that eliminates acknowledgement of our subordination to the godhead and especially to what that the Lord has already said. This is particular evident in her attitude towards the general confession:

When Meyers discusses the frequency of the general confessions, she adds the clarification that “there is no ancient precedent for a general confession of sin at any point in the eucharistic liturgy” (p. 152). This is a bit misleading, since there is precedence for preparatory prayers of penitence by clergy of both Eastern and Western churches, the use of the Confiteor from at least the 11th century in the West, and most importantly the requirement that a Christian confess all serious sins sacramentally before receiving Communion. The rejection of the necessity of auricular confession at the reformations leads to the appearance of general confessions. Without this background, one is left with the impression that confessions are simply an incursion into the eucharistic liturgy. This perspective is furthered because Meyers deletes a sentence by Mitchell that notes, “The confession of sin is an integral part of our common prayers and an important preparation for worship.”

Well, yeah. Her bland remarks are utterly at variance with pre-reformation practice, about as far back as we are aware of. But simply erasing Mitchell's position on this: that is really beyond the pale.

It is increasingly apparent that the 1979 book, far from being the liberation from old Anglican tradition that the progressive party wants, somehow managed to re-embody that tradition in corpus of the newly written rites. Even Prayer C, that last minute and entirely novel construction, spends too much time on our sinful rebellion to go down easy in the new revision. And those patriarchs: what an embarrassing gaffe! So now we have to start over again, and make the liturgy safe for the unrepentant and the apostate. You can guess my assessment that: ANATHEMA!