Tuesday, September 16, 2014

One Heck of a TREC

I have been alerted by Tony Clavier to the release of a letter from TREC which presents a mixture of observations, conclusions, and proposals. So OK, not every thing they say is wrong-headed, maybe. But once again we are presented with a fundamental failure to remember what a church is all about.

TREC spends a great deal of time talking about how to get more change, but the rhetoric of its bemoaning the supposed inertia of the present structures is quite telling. Consider the following: "The Episcopal Church’s structures and governance processes reflect assumptions from previous eras that do not always fit with today’s contexts. They have not adapted to the rapidly changing cultural, political, and social environments in which we live." Now, I would wholeheartedly agree with the very first clause of this: the church's priorities do reflect a mindset that is some forty years old, at least from July 29th, 1974.

So let's back up and talk about the actual problems of this church. The main presenting problem, of course, is numbers: we don't baptize enough babies to make up for all the people we bury, so we need to recruit enough adult members to make up for the difference, plus replacing the people who leave. This we are failing to do, to the tune of a 3% net loss per year. That's an objective, inarguable problem despite the occasional attempt to deny it. But consider this: is better organization going to fix this problem? Almost certainly not. The thing, first of all, is to have parishes staffed with effective clergy to raise up laypeople who attract other laypeople; and second of all, a national church which fosters this, and doesn't do things to make the parish priest's life hard. But this is first of all a matter of the church's will, and this remains sharply divided in spite of efforts make it otherwise.

Let's start with the way they talk about General Convention. Their first statement is that GC "has historically been most effective in deliberatively discerning and evolving the church’s position on large-scale issues (e.g., prayer book revision, reform of clergy formation and discipline canons, women’s ordination, same sex blessings)". Well, that's what they are constitutionally tasked with, all right. But let us talk about how GC has evolved in dealing with these issues. A great deal of time and introspection went into the 1979 BCP; the issue of women's ordination was discussed with some deliberation. But the latter issue was decided by two votes, either of which could have brought the proposal to naught. From there the quality of deliberation has declined, so that same sex blessings were "discussed" by parading speakers from either side before microphones where each speaker got to say his (short) bit and then sit back down. This is a parody of deliberation, a whitewashing of the tomb of discourse; there is no way in which it represents a conversation within the body.

The record of narrowly divided votes on major issues and presenting theological crises doesn't point to something that can be resolved by organizational efficiency; nor was the church heretofore arranged to facilitate such easy resolution. We have voting in orders to make change difficult, as with the requirement to approve changes to the prayer book at successive GCs. The push towards efficiency in this wise is a vote for unrestrained change, as is the centralization of power in the person of the presiding bishop, whose office of old was barely more than to hold the gavel in council, and whose person was selected by fickle age. At the same time, they propose nothing that is going to do anything about problem clerics, which is at least as big a problem as our numeric decline. My reading of all their materials is that they do not consider this a problem in the first place, which as far as I am concerned puts them squarely against the side of the angels.

All in all I see no need to continue into the details of what they propose. Their imagination is too small to encompass anything that will do any good, and I'm brought back to the observation I made in my first outing on the subject:

If re-imagining doesn't mean repenting of the theological deviance and litigiousness which have characterized the national church of late, then I don't want any part of it. I imagine a church in which its clergy and people stand together each Sunday and unite in stating the Creed without reservation. I imagine a church where I don't have to go over the service leaflet in order to decide whether I will be able to take communion in good conscience. I imagine a church which has the confidence in its liturgy and music to not change everything for fear of offending some unnameable person. I imagine a church that can speak truth to liberal as well as conservative power. I imagine a church whose preachers can speak knowledgeably and confidently from Anglican tradition. But I don't imagine that I'm going to get that any time soon, except through benign neglect.
Imagine a church where I get a priest in my parish who is orthodox and an effective preacher, and a bishop who is not a theological embarrassment, and then get back to me.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Monday, August 04, 2014

In Moments Like These

Back in Cursillo days, there was a particular song that began like this:
In moments like these I sing out a song,
I sing out a love song to Jesus.
Love songs to Jesus, it turns out, are their own little genre, and apparently they've evolved into, well, romantic ballads. At least that's what I'd heard, but being a stalwart 1940/1982 kind of guy, I hadn't really been exposed to these that much.

So this morning we, er, people at church sang a song for which I have provided the word cloud at right. I didn't sing it, at least not after a line or so, because I noticed that (a) it was a love song, and (b) it wasn't to anyone in particular. As you can see, there's no reference to Jesus, God, Christ, salvation, the cross, or indeed anything even slightly religious. You could sing it to your wife or your boyfriend or your pet monkey or even you favorite well-padded armchair without changing a word. Oddly enough, the one missing word in all of this is, well "love".

But it hardly seems to matter. Lyrics don't get more generic than this; whether it is a hymn of adoration to the godhead or an ode to one's romantic interest, it's vapid and trite. Why should we sing this kind of this rubbish?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Maleficent Redemption

Over at Stand Firm, Timothy Fountain has an excellent analysis of how the recent Disney film deals with themes of love and redemption in ways that step way outside the classic romantic paradigm. His conclusion:
These three big themes - fallen people in a fallen world, repenting of the evil that looks for excuses to take us over, and expressing highest love in sacrificial care for others - are messages of the Word of God. I found Maleficent thought provoking, surprisingly fresh, and, God willing, an opportunity to articulate the Christian message where it might not otherwise be heard.
I can only add that some of the same ideas show up, albeit less well-executed, in Frozen. True love, in these stories, is agape, not eros, not even philia. It will be interesting to see if this striking turn continues as the new Disney message, and whether it also appears in the output of the Pixar side of the house.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

On Sermon Illustrations

Kendall Harmon has today linked to a CT post on bad sermon illustrations. Now, if you are a glutton for punishment and have read through my sermons, you may have noticed a total lack of anecdotes, and a relative paucity of factoids. There are a couple of reasons for that. Part of the reason is simply that I do not have a ready source for them. Yes, there are books and websites full of them, but I do not care to own the former nor search through the latter.

Which brings me to the other main reason: Calling these stories "chestnuts" is being rather kind to them. One of the commenters refers to them as "just so stories", or "urban myths". They circulate as a kind of liturgical glurge to pad out inadequate exegesis.

I don't oppose them entirely. A good illustration is a powerful thing to engage the hearer. But scripture comes first; the teaching of tradition comes next; the preacher's insight after that. The stories are a condiment, a seasoning, to spice the story, not to overly sweeten it or substitute for spiritual meat.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

So What Now, Since We Are Freed?

preached at St. Mark's Highland on 29 June 2014

This week continues the long series of readings from Paul's Letter to the Church in Rome which began last week, and this week's text is the complement to the previous, in which Paul began working through the implications of Jesus' atoning sacrifice versus our present sin.

I have remarked, on occasion, that the all-pervasiveness of sin is the one empirically verifiable doctrine of Judaeo-Christian religion. Everyone does things they know are wrong; anyone who observes the world honestly can see that. The LORD God gave the law to the children of Israel, and even as they had seen the fire on the mountain, they sinned a great sin before Moses had even descended. And I don't know about you, but if Awe-Inspiring Special Effects isn't enough to convince people to put their trust in the LORD and behave, I don't know what would be. We are perverse beings; or rather we are slaves to our broken nature—slaves to sin.

Or at least we once were, before we came to the water of baptism and were reborn in the new life. So what now, since we are freed from that bondage?

Last week Paul began with a question, which appears again this week: why not keep sinning? After all, he said last week, more sinning means more grace; this week, he suggests that being free of the law, we might think we may live as we please. It is a rhetorical question, of course, which Paul answers with his favorite comeback: By no means! We were held in thrall by the rebelliousness which goes all the way back to Adam, but that bondage was broken on the cross. But the freedom we gain is not license; indeed, at the very beginning of this long argument, way back in Chapter One, Paul identifies licentiousness as one of the marks and signs of our sin.

No, the freedom we gain is that we may again take up obedience, that we may become (as he says) “slaves of righteousness”. Now, this may seem to us paradoxical and unbelievable. We are free, but only through being bound to God. We are free, but we yet continue to sin. Fifty-four years after my baptism, and I am still slothful and intemperate, and those are my good faults. The most damning accusation the world levels against us, as representatives of Christ, is that we are hypocrites.

That accusation Paul does not answer this week, but another—that we are no fun—is at the heart of this week's argument. We are stuck in church on Sunday morning, listening to (they say) dull music and being lectured at; we frown on sex and drugs and every other pleasure. But as Paul says, all this freedom to frolic through life is illusion, and that the adultery and fornication, the double-dealing and exploitation, the violence both in word and deed are all signs of the bondage to sin which leads, in the end, to destruction. For those who lack another hope, the payoff, the wages of this sinning may not be held a raw deal, though I see that what the old serpent promises is never really what sinners get.

But this is Paul's message: we do have another hope, through Christ Jesus. We do not have to settle for the wages of sin, but have the gift of new life made available to us through grace. And since sin came as disobedience, so life and freedom come as faithfulness to what God commands of us.

Jesus gave us a new commandment: love one another has he loved us. We know the measure of his love, stretched out on the arms and post of the cross. Paul says that we are not to yield our members to sin, but Jesus yielded up his hands, his feet, his side to those who crucified their Lord. Therefore we yield our members to righteousness, even as they remember their old habits of sin. Take up the bread and cup in remembrance of his sacrifice, and then take up the acts of service to the LORD, living in Godly harmony, in charity, and in worship. Thus we show in our lives the free gift of the Father, in the Spirit, which is life and hope for the age to come.

This Puny Cosmos

So, a week or so after the end of he the new Cosmos series, Trinity Sunday rolled around, and we did Prayer C, with "the vast expanses of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile Earth, our island home." Not one of the BCP's more felicitous texts, but its heart is in the right place. And it is surely most suitable, in its comprehensive story of salvation, for this culminating day of the Easter and Pentecost season.

Those vast expanses, those galaxies and suns, and that fragile Earth all featured prominently in Neil deGrasse Tyson's scientific story. I do not recall Tyson specifically referring to the mediocrity principle, but it buttresses his cosmology. Earth is unimportant, unremarkable; there are held to be uncountable earths populated with innumerable races. There must be: probability dictates it.

But the story of earth is anecdote, not data. We don't know how uncommon earth-like planets are, or how commonly they evolve some form of life, or how often that life evolves toward creatures like unto ourselves. Indeed, more recently the oddness of earth within the solar system has been heightened by suspicion that the formation and existence of our rather-larger-than-typical moon is important to the development of life here. The hope of those who want to believe that there is nothing remarkable about our human existence is that the unimaginably numbers of galaxies and stars within galaxies and planets around stars are sufficient to overcome any conceivable rarity of our situation, but pitting the unimaginable against the inconceivable is on the order of multiplying zero times infinity and expecting to get an answer.

The motivation behind this is Genesis, Chapter One, or rather, a distaste for it. When Stephen Hawking asserts that "the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies," the several value judgements (including Hawking's exaggeration of how common the sun is) are, after all, his judgements. God was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, so there is no reason to look for him in the gas giant, the supernova, the galactic core, or the black hole, or in any number of cosmic vastnesses or exotica.

If it offends that the creator of all should have created all but the most infinitesimal portion as mere backdrop to the divine earthly drama, well, that reflects on our aesthetics, not on God. The "pale blue dot" is a question of perspective, but in the end, it is the divine eye that matters.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Numbers: 2012

So another year's statistics are out, and the five year fast facts summary brings the cheery news that domestic membership is down 1.5%, same as last year, and that domestic ASA, after last year's interruption, has resumed its steady decline, not quite the traditional 3% this year. overal summary informs us that in a decade we've lost 24% of our ASA, and that not only did half our parishes lost ASA, but that over half had lost at least 10% of their ASA over a decade.

On a diocese-by-diocese basis, I note first of all that 2012 will be the last year that all of South Carolina is counted; as the 19th largest diocese by ASA, its loss means a decline of up to 1.9% of the total, alone. That year will also see the disappearance of Quincy into Chicago, but given that it was the smallest domestic diocese (Navaholand, which is a mission, is smaller), around 4% of parishes each have more ASA, and its membership is less than the typical error in that number. It's also a sign of How Things Have Changed that Quincy was not merged into Springfield, which in the old days would have been a far better fit; but most of the diocese having passed on to ACNA, I suppose Springfield would represent, to the remnant, that which they wished to avoid.

At any rate, the diocesan numbers are somewhere between "not as bad as they could be" and "well, pretty bad actually". Nineteen dioceses recorded gains in ASA, San Joaquin squeaking in with one, that's right, one extra attendee. Only three relatively large dioceses recorded gains: Chicago, Southeast Florida, and (oh well) South Carolina. Four of the gainers were overseas, including three of the top four by percentage gained. Lots of dioceses scored big losses, topped out by Los Angeles, whose loss was 10% of the total domestic ASA loss. Ohio also did quite poorly, with a 14%+ loss.

Then we get some other cheery numbers. In the domestic dioceses, burials outnumber child baptisms by 2300 ex-people, or in the 8% range of the total of either. Receptions alone are enough, for now, to make up the difference, and presumably some adult confirmations also register an increase, but again, the losses show that the attendance problem is caused in large part by people just not coming anymore. Overseas dioceses did better, as usual.

Next year's numbers are sure to be bad, what with the departure of most of SC. A continuation of the 3% ASA decline is a near certainty. And it will be a sad day when the best we can come up with is the observation that, well, at least our financial investments increased.