Wednesday, May 20, 2015

If This Is Your Parish

St. Blasé’s welcomes you!: a diverse, inclusive, and dynamic congregation in the heart of the suburbs. Their mission is to “care for all God’s children through service, justice, and intentional community-building.”

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Presiding Bishop Slate, 2015

So, we have a slate of four nominees for the next presiding bishop, all men, all from eastern dioceses, one black. There is some predictable creeching about this, particularly in the lack of a female candidate. It appears that there is only one woman who could have been nominated, and that she declined to be considered. I note that of late women have tended to be elected as suffragans rather coadjutors or diocesans, and you can argue back and forth as to the degree this represents some sort of lingering sexism.

At any rate, it's a decent slate, in spite of grexxing from someone at the E-Cafe about one candidate's "lack of prophetic voice on marriage equality in the church." OK, any place where people are hearing "prophetic voices" is a place to flee from, lest a real prophet make an appearance. I'm somewhat more concerned about tales that another candidate has been hard on traditionalist parishes in his diocese.

So, what do we need? Well, Scott Gunn has his list of qualities, and I have mine, which is shorter but largely consonant with his, to whit:

  • Orthodox. No finger-crossing on the creed, no hedging on the resurrection. A bishop must represent the church's teaching, and all the more so for the church's chief clerical spokesman.
  • Articulate. We need someone who can face the press and not sound confused or obscure.
  • Inspiring. I am not necessarily convinced that we need a visionary leader; vision is too often connected with wild deviancy. But we need someone who leads others to say, "I want to be part of their church."
  • Conciliatory. The battle against the marriage traditionalists has been destructive and has been literally costly, to no good end that I see. The combat must end.
  • Prayerful. Above all else, we need a presiding bishop who is engaged in their religion.

OK, so it sounds like a letter for hiring the Rt. Rev. Mary Poppins. But I think there is the potential for this in our slate.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Diocesan Convention: The Aftermath

I confess to my bishop and my parish that I didn't stay to the bitter end of diocesan convention. I had planned from the start to skip the workshops, seeing as how they were more directed toward clergypersons and others with pastoral duties, and the second day was already interfering with another appointment. I bailed out in the middle of the discussion of the "death with dignity" resolution (about which more later).

The convention eucharist was in fact fairly Anglo-Catholicized, to the point of "big six", smoke, and dropping the RC prayer for the acceptance of the sacrifice in at the offertory; we also dropped the Prayer of Humble Access. It was a bit fussy for my taste, but then A-C often is. The singing (all warhorses from the 1982) was strong and enthusiastic, except that for some reason we did the Meerbecke service, which apparently is unfamiliar enough now (and especially with the 1982 hymnal's musicologist-friendly rhythms) to dampen singing somewhat.

The sermon was more an address than a homily on the text, and I must give credit to Bishop Sutton credit for walking right up to the elephants and acknowledging them all. Indeed, one might think he was reading this blog, although I think if he were reading it he might not have commended Dean Markham's preposterous address on church statistics. Nonetheless the fact of our decline was noted, and moreover seen as something to be addressed.

The main speaker, Becca Stevens of the Magdalene Communities and Thistle Farms, was quite stirring, and if it feels a bit churlish to have to say this, nothing she said had me gnashing my anti-heretical teeth.

As for resolutions, we had an extra slipped into the very back of our convention journals, to authorize appointment of an assistant bishop. This passed readily, allowing Bp. Sutton to announce in his Saturday address that Chilton Knudsen, former bishop of Maine and since assistant in several other dioceses, had been asked to take the position had convention passed the resolution. It's hard to imagine that there is anyone left for whom Bp. Knudsen's gender represents a stumbling block, but her position as one of the official consecrators of Gene Robinson represents either some impressive tone-deafness, or more likely, a calculated statement that theological discussion of sexuality and gender is closed. As to core theological matters, I haven't managed to find significant documentation, but historically, clerics who are aggressive on gender and sexuality have had a bad track record. I suppose I shall just have to see.

Compensation was passed as a matter of routine; regions were rearranged (and taken out of the budget process, not that they had real input before) with one tweak to put all of Baltimore City in a single region. These resolutions and those that follow were put through a preliminary by-table discussion phase which produced cards asking questions and giving comments to be sent back to the resolution proposers. This was supposed to reduce "wordsmithing on the floor"; I think it sort of worked part of the time, but I don't know how well Robert would have countenanced such a thing.

In the case of the anti-fracking resolution the process produced a substitute resolution asking us to tell the governor to sign the moratorium bill that the legislature had already passed, the earlier version of the resolution having been overcome by political events. I sent in a card expressing my opposition to this sort of resolution, but did not rise to express my opposition on the floor. It could also be argued that, as this asked us personally to act, this version passes Scott Gunn's political resolution test. At any rate, it passed. Expect Gov. Hogan's mailbox to explode.

The resolution on, well, something having to do with the Sandtown mess was also heavily reworked, but the resulting resolution now read (freely interpreted) "the situation with the police in Baltimore City is atrocious difficult but we still don't have any idea of what do about it but mouth somewhat revised platitudes." (my alterations in italics) This also passed, though again without my vote.

I left as the deliberations on the "death with dignity" resolution debate got started, with the tone (as I expected) set by one of the first contrary speakers noting that the phrase "is a euphemism for physician-assisted suicide." Instead of getting a resolution to think about the matter, however, I'm told that the matter was tabled, effectively turning it into a resolution not to talk about the matter. The rector told me that he voted against this, because he wished the debate be worked through; I'm guessing that the desire of others beside my self to be elsewhere triumphed over moral debate. I would feel better about it if I had been prepared to offer a thought-out position, but I was not.

And thus we rolled over the diocesan odometer. And if the direction be positive, the indication of this was more a lack of some common negatives. No liturgy was emasculated (though Rite I makes this moot in any case); other than a couple of Romanisms, the liturgical texts were straight from the BCP. Hymns were sung with far more gusto than were praise songs, though unfamiliarity and some definite confusion on the part of the projection squad undoubtedly contributed to that. Bp. Sutton expressed the hope, not entirely explicitly, that the homosexuality controversies were dropping into the past. And yet at the national level I see that the latest round of the same-sex rites hew to the Enriching Our Worship pattern of 1970s radfem deviations and heresies. There was also a strong sense that the diocese was well rid of the dissenters on these issues, which is surely not a positive message for those who hold on. Bp. Knudsen's appointment is a rebuke to any conservative as well. But still, Bp. Sutton radiates a sense of vitality, which may serve the diocese well.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Love, as Christ Teaches It

This sermon had its genesis in a remark from the rector during diocesan convention when he remarked that since his usual sermon-prep day was Friday, he had nothing ready for Sunday. I offered to take over, which he readily accepted. Not that I had as much time as he did: I took off from convention Saturday at noon to drive to Delaware for the christening of a rowing shell at my high school, named in honor of one of my classmates who has been a strong support of the crew program.

So Sunday morning I am still getting it all worked out, and at 8:45 my wife remarks: "you aren't preaching at 9?" I flew to church in record time and pull into a space waiting for me right in front of the side door, and pop into the sanctuary just as the rector was trying to explain his way through my absence. What follows is (more or less what the 11 o'clock service heard, since at 9 I still didn't have anything printed out and had to wing it.

This should be a simple, short sermon, easy to preach. Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Is there any more to be said? We all know what love is, right? We can rise from our pews to go forth in the name of Christ, and— Thanks be to God!— we then look upon each person we encounter and love them. Isn't that so? Our law is love: “love God with all our heart and soul and mind;” “love our neighbors as ourselves.” We know what the means, don't we?

Well, apparently we do not. It is our nature to be born taking love and returning it only in our infant neediness, and as we grow into maturity often enough we consume love and give nothing back at all, or that we “love” others back by rendering them evil for their good. We return the love of the one, true, loving God by ignoring him, denying him, and defying him. Willful rebellion bubbles up within the heart from our early years, and thoughtlessness is ever revealed in our youth. And thus a child must be raised, to learn to love others, and to know and love God.

Then we attain our maturity, and do we then know how to love? I look around, and it seems to be that at best we do so imperfectly, and that often enough we forget love, or we cloak the lovelessness of our hearts in the costume of words and deeds which pretend love while speaking and doing ill.

Much of this we know better than to do, if we but hear the Spirit as it conveys that Father's judgement upon our thoughts and acts. But even in our benevolence, we do not know what it is to love. I mean, we know in a general sense, right? But when it comes to where we are now, we must be taught. And how are we taught? The people of Israel had the old law, all spelled out, and if you had a question, there was always a rabbi to come up with an answer for you. And we see how well that worked out: the Pharisees were scrupulous followers of the law and every elaboration put upon it by the rabbis, and yet Jesus decries the way they love from beginning to end. No, we are taught love best by example, not in word, but in deed. Our parents teach us love, not by talking about it, but by doing it; that infant, consuming love, is also learning love. And in scripture, we learn love not through abstract philosophy, but through the story of love.

We see this in our first lesson. It is unfortunate that here we only get the end of a chapter-long story, which begins with Cornelius the centurion being told by an angel that God is answering his prayers, and that he should send for Peter. Meanwhile Peter is waiting for dinner to be served, and he has a vision of a great sheet lowered from heaven, full of all sorts of creatures. And he hears a voice calling to him, three times: “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” Now Peter, being an observant Jew, relies in kind three times that he will not, for he has never eaten anything unclean. And three times the voice replies, “what God has cleansed you must not call profane.” So Peter is wondering what this about when Cornelius's messengers arrive, and Peter, dense though he often is, sees the connection, and goes forth with them.

Now Cornelius is called “a God-fearing man,” which has a particular meaning: it signifies a gentile follower of the Lord GOD of Israel. Yet he is still separate from Israel because of his ancestry, and the disciples at first understand the newly-born church's ministry as only to their fellow Jews. Well, Peter arrives, they each speak of their visions, and Peter delivers the sermon we hear every Easter Sunday, summarizing the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ succinctly. And thus we arrive at today's lesson: the Spirit came upon them, and Peter understood the breadth of God's love: not just the Jewish people, but the Samaritans, the Romans, and all the people of the world.

And thus, if we learn love by example, there is no higher example of love than Jesus himself. To the two ancient rules of love, he adds another: “love one another as I have loved you.” And how far does the example of his life extend? As far as a man lays down his life for his friends. And we are all, as Jesus says, his friends. Thus over the years the church has particularly noted the martyrs, those who have given their life for the faith, and among them we may note those who traded their own lives for the safety of others. We are unlikely to be presented with the same opportunity for sacrifice, but our day-to-day sacrifice has the same merit in heaven, and it is all the more worthy for the difficulty of recalling, each day, how we may love each whom we encounter.

Our bishop said this at convention yesterday: “Suffering, evil, and death will not have the last word as long as love abides.” And love will abide, and reach its perfection on that terrible last day when all that is unloving is cast down forever. But in these latter days, it is given to us to live love toward others, and thus teach the world what love is, and in whom it may be found: Jesus Christ, the love of God incarnate.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Diocesan Convention: In the Elephant Pen

It surprised both the rector and me that the sole mention of the suffragan mess in the diocesan pre-convention journal is the following entry in the list of standing committee actions: "Requested the resignation of bishop suffragan." Well, and perhaps the announcement in the schedule of two local AA meetings on Friday night might count, though it invites a number of other peculiar interpretations. At any rate, there is nothing else recorded on the matter, and nothing on the schedule except possibly the bishop's address to the convention or a resolution from the floor. This diocese has enough parishes that, with a single bishop, it's hard to arrange a visitation to each in the canonical three years, much less the preferable per annum visit. Even with two bishops we have had to press one of the canons into service as a third visitor, and I at least have no idea what arrangements are to be made; nor has there been word one about electing another suffragan.

Leaving that behind (or trying to, at least, with the word that Cook has been deposed and has resigned), we have the report of the Horizons 2015 group/committee/task-force (it's not immediately clear which title applies). As I appear to be among the 99.95% of laypeople in the diocese who have never heard of this, permit me to list the bullet points of this Great Leap Forward:

  • By 2015, in response to the call to proclaim the Good News and make disciples of all nations, the diocese will grow its average worship attendance by 10 percent.
  • By 2015, the diocese will have equipped every member of the diocese to express his or her faith story by words and actions.
  • By 2015, the diocese will be an agent for transformational change in the State of Maryland and local communities and be recognized as such.
  • By 2015, every congregation will have 40 percent of worship attendees of all ages participating in a Christian formation program.
  • By 2015, provide every region in the diocese training and strategies for advocating for the poor in education.
Now, as we say in the testing world, only two of these offer any metric for evaluating success. And in the headline goal, we are, as the representative for this effort admits, abject failures. I can do little better than to quote them: "The diocese not only did not grow by 10%, but we lost 9%." But I would add that the last time the diocese saw increase in ASA was the year Before Gene: ASA in 2013 was 70% what it was in 2002. Five parishes were closed since 2009, but more significantly, two parishes left. Mount Calvary was quite small, but St. Timothy's Catonsville was not. Most parishes in the diocese show either slow decline or if they are very small an erratic struggle to survive; nobody shows a steady increase, however slight. We've also been running budget shortfalls for some years, though at least the size of the deficit has been diminishing.

And of course, well, um, religion. I was astonished to pull up the convention booklet today and find that the convention eucharist is going to be Rite I; perhaps there is some hope that the diocese can pull away from the destructive and self-absorbed gender theology of the 1970s. At GC, it appears, we still have much to fight on this, given that all the same-sex rites have options to omit "Father" and "Lord" almost everywhere. A diocesan convention is mostly about business, but perhaps there is hope that the attendees will recall that our first function is religion.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Diocesan Convention: Reports and Resolutions

So I am the lay representative this year for diocesan convention (Maryland), and having looked over the convention journal with the rector and talked strategy, I thought I'd give a few thoughts about it and diocesan business. Now, to me the most interesting stuff is in the supporting material, where there is a lot of informative stuff that the average parishioner is completely blank about. For instance, there is a complete list of parishes, and by "complete" I mean that it includes all the closed an merged parishes too, with dates of demise. There are quite illuminating reports of what the bishop and the standing committee did in the year, and a list of all clergy including ordinations, transfers in and out, licenses, and the like. There are reports from various ministries, some of which are illuminating in perhaps the wrong way: did you know that there is a national white privilege conference?

It's a terrible temptation to snark mercilessly at what is an earnest attempt to do right on the part of (one hopes) well-meaning people. And yet, the resolutions. It's always the resolutions. So, we have six resolutions, one of which is the inevitable and necessary compensation resolution which sets forth expected rates for clergy and employees as well as the standards for supply priest pay. Two more have to do with rearranging the system of regions we have (something like deaneries in some other dioceses) and adjusting their function a little. These are the real business and can be discussed on their merits.

After that, however, comes the other part. The fourth resolution asks us to "[support] all such measures prohibiting the Department of the Environment from issuing a permit to authorize the hydraulic fracturing of a well for the exploration or production of natural gas in the State until April 30, 2023 or until a specified panel is appointed, convenes, and reports to the Governor and General Assembly on the safety and environmental risks of such activities." Well. I personally am extremely wary of fracking; the fears of groundwater contamination seem to me to be well-grounded even if they haven't (yet) been demonstrated, and if contamination happens, it's likely to be widespread and extremely difficult if not impossible to undo. That said, environmental effects of industrial techniques are not even vaguely in our core competency. As my very liberal daughter observed (more pungently than I shall express it here), this is about making ourselves feel good about doing something absolutely ineffectual. really, nobody in the diocese who wasn't at convention will ever know that we passed this, and nobody can seriously believe that such a resolution will have any impact when general assembly meets— and the governor is a Republican, and appears to be a Catholic.

Next up is a resolution which asks us to "support the adoption of state legislation for “death with dignity” in the 2016 session" and "encourages on-going discussion of the issues surrounding this issue". OK, well, this is a little closer to stuff we actually know about, but "death with dignity" is after all a euphemism for physician-assisted suicide in the face of terminal illness. It's not something that we, as laypeople, are up on as to the moral and legal nuances. Half of us will want to oppose on the grounds of our inarticulate moral queasiness, and the other half will want to support on the basis of some relative's painful and undignified final days. Both sides will sigh in relief when the first clause is struck and we pass an ineffectual but self-affirming resolution to talk about the matter some more.

Finally, we get to a resolution which "encourages Episcopalians to build bridges that will foster positive relationships between residents and local law enforcement officers who are assigned to police neighborhoods where congregations are located" and which states that "community engagement such as this is in line with the concept of what it means to be a parish." This takes a bit of unpacking unless you have been following the news recently of the death of a man in Baltimore City police custody apparently due to their brutality. It's a serious social problem, made all the more dire given developments since the convention journal was produced; but again, we're outside our competence, and the impotent wording of the resolution shows this. OK, so this is turning out to be a big issue, but I fail to see how we in convention can contribute much, especially since few of us live in Baltimore City. And note the phrases used: what does "building bridges" mean? How about "foster positive relationships"? What's "the concept of what it means to be a parish"? These vacuities are progressive church buzzwords, rhetorical filler; they are about saying the "right things" without saying anything. So what it actually says is "the situation with the police in Baltimore City is atrocious but we don't have any idea of what do about it but mouth platitudes."

So we have three resolutions which amount to nothing but self-congratulation, and meanwhile there are three very big elephants standing in the room.

Friday, April 24, 2015

An Unlikely Anglo-Imperial Union

My wife has been studying early 20th century Japanese history, and the advent within the household of a novel in which Hirohito makes an appearance brought me to the thought that he and the presiding bishop shared an interest in marine biology. The thought of them meeting and discovering their shared interests led me to flash upon the following:

I must however say that for all the regrettable vesture of her career she never wore a miter to compare with THAT. Further reading also informs me that while her interests turned to squid, his lay in hydrozoans. I should have known the relationship was doomed from the start.