Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Words We Pray

Neil Alexander has an interesting reflection on the pending revision of the Book of Common Prayer, particularly in terms of where we stand with the language of the 1979 version. What is interesting is how much ground he ends up giving to a conservative and possibly even a little reactionary revision. He admits, for instance, that "even after 40 years of Rite Two, a substantial group in our church still prefers traditional language as embodied in Rite One," and continues, "the pastor in me would be loath to take away the possibility of traditional language from those eucharistic communities of our church who desire it."

He goes a bit astray, though, in discussing the assembly of the 1979 book, and the way in which he strays is instructive. One can read in Hatchett (between the lines a bit, I must admit), that Rite II Prayer A is far and away the most hammered-on new material, and that the collects and many of the prayers represent the oldest material. And it shows: material which came later in the process is invariably weaker and less felicitous. The modernized versions of old prayers and collects tend to be the most pleasing to the ear; the older new material tends to be the most direct and taut. So when he says that "{t}he 1979 Book of Common Prayer embodies the liturgical and sacramental thinking of the mid-1970s": that is surely incorrect. One need only look at The New Liturgy, published in 1966, to see the complete outline and even some of the language of the new rite in place; in particular nearly every proper preface listed would be familiar to a Rite II congregation, albeit in post-Jacobean language. Prayer A itself is basically the rite first published in Services for Trial Use (the "green book") back in 1970, tweaked but without substantial changes for the 1976 proposed book. The BCP we ended up with represented the tail end of postwar liturgical thought, not the radicalization of the 1970s.

What was current in 1979 was the kind of radfem thinking which drove Enriching Our Worship and which leads to Bishop Alexander's remark about "pronouns". It was then still largely an idea within academia, but theologians are within academia, and liberal theologians, even before the book became final, were repeating Mary Daly's ideas approvingly. And it's these impulses which are sprinkled throughout his essay, in coded language. In particular, there's this passage: "That said, for many, the language of Rite Two is quite dated and needs to be revised, particularly with respect to gender-inclusive language. Many of us, myself included, would hope that a revision would mine the depths of Holy Scripture for even more expansive language for God." OK, well, that's where the problem lies. There have strong objections to nearly every rite promulgated thus far in interests of supplement or revision, and they are rooted in the fact that "inclusive language" has consistently meant God-language which every prior generation would have held plainly heretical. While the language of Rite II in places has no precedent within the tradition, what that new language says is entirely within the catholic tradition. What EOW says is not within that tradition: that is, after all, why it says what it says, because a certain line of modernist thinking rejects what traditionally has been said. That is the very heart of the revision problem: it appears to be impossible to come up with a rite which satisfies the "inclusive" faction but which can still be counted orthodox by those for whom "inclusion" is not their issue, and the only way that conflict is going away, it seems, is by driving traditionalists off or waiting for them to die, rather stepping up to catholic criticism of the novel god-language.

And back to those pronouns. My issue here is that, for the sake of a conspicuously neoPlatonist theory about the sex/genderlessness of God, we increasingly cannot say the words of scripture, because they do not conform themselves to that theory. I already have a huge philosophical problem with current talk of gender and sex, because the tendency is to absolutely demand and then utterly deny the equality of the sexes in adjacent sentences; on that level I simply cannot enter into the way these things are being talked about, because I immediately find myself unable to talk at all and make any sense.. Gender/sex as it relates to God is unknowable. But that is something of a side issue, whereas for a Protestant the supreme objection is that this doesn't come from scripture. Yes, I know: there are instances where feminine similes are used for the action of God, but that is not the same thing as the core God language. Jesus calls Him "Father", and who are we to gainsay Jesus? We need to learn to live with this, and not count ourselves more enlightened than the second person of the God Himself.

Looking at how I've seen Rite II used over the years, it seems to me that the structure has stood the test of time. Nobody except maybe a few Anglo-Catholics wants to make any changes to that, and I think that the "mays" and "shoulds" could be whittled down to reflect usual practice. There is a lot of polishing that could be done, particularly in getting rid of the "well tell God what he does" construct and in (yes, you knew I'd get to this) Prayer C. I think Bishop Alexander is right in the need for more discussion of the ordinal, but not in a good way. But already we have six options for Sunday Eucharist, and I'm not seeing how we need more-- except to allow theological deviance.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Tolerating Traditionalists

From the Covenant site comes the following:
We all are thinking about the future, and the place of “traditionalists” in the Episcopal Church. While we are tolerated, it is not yet clear what is being tolerated: we as individuals or the view we represent. I am assuming that the church has made its decision for the foreseeable future. Why would the church allow a bishop or a diocese to hold a contrary view? Can it accept reasons for such a minority stance as valid and if so, why?

I submit that, in these terms, the conflict is lost. I map out, in any diocese north and east of Virginia (including my own), as a "traditionalist" simply for insisting that the words of the 1979 BCP be used without alteration. And I am fine with that, but if doing what the canons say to do is something that has to be tolerated, lawlessness is the order of the day. It is not traditionalists who should be in need of toleration, but those who wish to deviate from tradition.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

American Apostasy

The following passage is commonly attributed to Adrian Rogers, one time president of the Southern Baptist Convention:
You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the wealthy out of freedom. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend, is about the end of any nation. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it.
Rogers did not originate this passage; whatever his immediate source, it first appeared in The Cross and the Flag, a virulently anti-Soviet magazine put out by Gerald L. K. Smith, a one-time Disciples of Christ minister who fell into politics, riding the coattails first of Huey Long, then of Father Coughlin, and finally, perhaps, of Strom Thurmond, who wisely refused to acknowledge him. A virulent antisemite, his other views seemed to shift depending upon whose star to whom he had hitched his own. To take this present tract, Smith wrote it in 1957; but in the mid '30s he was the heir to Huey Long's "Share Our Wealth organization, whose aim was largely antithetical to Lewis's later views. Indeed, there is a certain timeliness to the movement's theses, but the later Lewis surely could not condone its redistributionist and tax-heavy principles.

Lewis's other claims to fame were the revival of Eureka Springs and the highly regrettable "Christ of the Ozarks" which he made the centerpiece of his facilities there, but this squib on economics was picked up and passed around by other right-wing agitators, which I must presume is where Rogers found it, rather than alongside Lewis's holocaust-denying rants. Now really, even considering the sorry state of economics, a cleric cannot justify taking this kind of passed-from-hand-to-hand political propaganda and proclaiming it as the word of God.

But as I was trying to find time to finish this post, the dismissal of national charity write above was rudely upstaged by a clip of Donald Trump talking about handling (so to speak) women. Incredibly, that paragon of virtue Ralph Reed blew the matter off with this response:

I’ve listened to the tape, my view is that people of faith are voting on issues like who will protect unborn life, defend religious freedom, create jobs, and oppose the Iran nuclear deal. I think a 10-year-old tape of a private conversation with a TV talk show host ranks pretty low on their hierarchy of concerns.
Meanwhile, the head of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, came through with this principled statement:
My personal support for Donald Trump has never been based upon shared values, it is based upon shared concerns about issues such as: justices on the Supreme Court that ignore the constitution, America’s continued vulnerability to Islamic terrorists and the systematic attack on religious liberty that we’ve seen in the last 7 1/2 years.
And here we are. In the words of Brent Orrell: "It represents the complete subordination of ends to means; the ugly reality is that this leadership will support anyone who claims to support their issues (mainly abortion and marriage) no matter how laughable those claims of support are and how insupportable the behavior and character of the candidate who makes them." Anyone who has seen Trump in action over the years knows that, when it comes to sexual morality, he has none whatsoever. He is nothing but appetite mixed with egomania and a taste for cruelty, governed by no other principle. Yet these "leaders" are willing to sail with him.

And yet nearly half the country is willing to vote for this man, who is so devoid of any Christian virtue that the only sins he cannot be seen to embody are those for which he has not developed a taste. The Seven Deadlies? He all but exemplifies the lot. Nothing he says or does seems to perturb them, and my impression is that they share his collapse into pre-nursery-school amoral impulsiveness. It hardly matters if these people go to church (and My impression is also that they don't) because it doesn't seem to register on them at all. Christianity is nothing more than not-Islam (and probably not-Judaism), a faint cultural marker that involves no religion.

Not that I am going leave the left out of this. Clinton, however duplicitous and evil you think she is personally, represents a program of civil charity which, if ill-advised, poorly executed, and intrusive, at least has some consonance with the teachings of Jesus. But as I've said before, the church's participation in this seems dictated by secular, essentially atheistic culture which is always in peril of stepping away from the gospel. An Atlantic article on the first presidential debate referred to it as "post-Christian" and noted that the faithfully Methodist Clinton avoided, as usual, the language of faith, which those of us in the same social class knows is the way it is done now. And it isn't as though Clinton's "deplorables" don't have a legitimate grievance with the power structures taking advantage of them, and it isn't as though progressive charity towards these people is influenced by their repugnant racism, sexism, and general classlessness. Trump is not their champion no matter how he pretends so, which leaves them with pretty much nobody. And there is no reason not to think that the upper middle class's drift into irreligion is going to be halted, and that even such charity as is thought of now will also fade.

This, then, is the American apostasy; and it presents a major challenge to evangelism. Religion, left or right, is increasingly just someone telling you not do do what you want, and nothing more. Even moral therapeutic deism, the default faith of Americans only a decade ago, is quickly losing ground to utter lack of relationship to God, so that even strident atheists, even agnostics may be held more religious. How do you articulate the divine message in the face of this? "Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again" is a proclamation which simply goes in one ear and out the other.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Life After Modern Death

After my recent sermon on faith it is only proper to turn to the matter of George Clifford's two part "things no modern man can believe" attack upon supposedly traditional ideas of life after death. Stewart Clem's response over at the Covenant website covers most of the bases, but I have a few points of my own to add.

Clem's first two points I would like to take up in a bit more depth. He quotes this passage from Clifford:

[H]istoric Christian understandings of what happens when a person dies, views that usually presume an empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily resurrection, are increasingly anachronistic in view of advances in astronomy, particle physics, and biology.
and a little further on, Clifford supplies a specific finding:
Astronomers, after losing their initial clashes with Christianity, have triumphed over Christian efforts to cling to literal interpretations of the Bible’s three-tiered cosmology (heaven, earth, and hell). Heaven and hell, if they exist, are almost assuredly not actual physical places.
OK, let's start with some corrections. The whole three universe story thing is a pretty modern interpretation: the earliest usage I could quickly find was by Minot Judson Savage, a Unitarian active in the later 1800s. I'm not going to get into the argument as to whether this is the picture of Genesis, but it is manifestly not the medieval Ptolemaic model, Dante notwithstanding; nor, when pressed, would they have agreed that heaven and hell were physical in the modern sense. Likewise, the more or less singular incident of Galileo has been mythologized into a permanent church versus science conflict which is also a product of 19th century rationalism. Fundamentalism, for all its flaws, is a reaction to this secular encroachment into the religious topics, not an ancient mode of thought. And this isn't just Clifford's fault. Neil deGrasse Tyson stated in the new Cosmos that Michael Faraday was raised in a "fundamentalist" faith, but the truth is that The Fundamentals would not be published until half a century after his death. Faraday and F. C. Baur, the father of the "T├╝bingen School", are almost exact contemporaries, but higher criticism really didn't hit English religion until a few years before Faraday's death.

The secularist narrative of its triumph over the Dark Ages (meaning not the period between the fall of Rome and high Middle Ages, but rather anything before the self-styled Enlightenment) is heavily invested in these anachronisms, but what ought to be increasingly anachronistic is this recourse to these highly unhistorical claims about how the ancients and medievals thought about natural science, the spiritual, and the nature of miracles. And it isn't as though nobody ever thought about these questions. Clifford says at one point:

First, what is the nexus between the spiritual and the physical? That is, how does the immaterial spiritual interface with the material, physical world? No explanation of that interface has gained widespread traction among scientists and theologians. In the absence of such an interface, how can humans, whose senses and cognitive processes are all physical, think, speak, or otherwise describe, much less interact with, the spiritual?
Now, surely any sophomore philosophy student can pick this apart. It's ridiculous to insist on a phenomenology in which the only things that happen are those for which there is some prior explanation, whether or not it is believed. Indeed, Christianity has, as rule, denied that such an "interface" is knowable, never mind whether "interface" is even a good word for what happens. Even among unbelieving science fiction authors and computer scientists, the notion that human "cognitive processes" are "physical" loses traction, for the notions that those cognitive processes could be represented in computational hardware, or that neurons could be fed stimuli quite unlike those of our six senses, are old and unsurprising. Consciousness is potentially metaphysical even in its physicality; nobody knows for sure, and beyond the highly questionable Turing test, nobody has any idea how to be sure. In the presence of the unfathomable and investigation-defying supernatural, it is not at all hard to do without the "ghost in the machine" reductionist caricature and live with a "soul" whose nature is likewise unknowable.

And it isn't as though people haven't ever talked about these problems. The whole thing seems to be founded in ignoring centuries of theologians and philosophers, preferring instead to take materialist positions that have been answered over and over. Or to put it in other words, what we're seeing here is a severe loss of philosophical nerve. All too many, now, have begged the question by declaring God dead, but instead of pushing back, theologians have, more or less futilely, sought the approval of the secular academy by conceding the battlefield. To take for granted what modern man cannot believe is to take irreligion as an axiom, but as there are modern men who do not believe so, the "axiom" is not so axiomatic, and men who know religion should be questioning it, not taking it without question.

What we're seeing here, then, is an emotional rather than a genuinely intellectual response. So what is going on here? That shall have to wait for the next post.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Ad Populum in a Pinch

I'm always interested in what Leander Harding has to say, and his observation about dealing with the ad orientum/ad populum issue in a turn-of-the-20th-century neogothic church was no exception. What struck me the most were these comments:
The nave is long, with a deep choir and a raised, high altar of marble against the (liturgical) east wall[....] Originally there was a rood screen in front of the choir, and the communion rail was at the foot of the altar steps.

The presentation of the Cross as tabernacle and temple in the Book of Hebrews provided a theological rationale for this architecture. Because of Christ’s sacrifice we may go boldly into the holy of holies, to the throne of grace, there to receive the body and blood of the Lord and be made one with him. The building’s original architecture allowed this dramatic movement to be enacted in the liturgy, by passing through the Cross into the inner sanctum for the administration of communion.

Around here, the typical outer suburban/town church is in a Victorian (or occasionally Federalist) building that is almost without exception a much shorter high-ceiling box, with a tiny chancel pulled out of the east end. There is typically very little room to pull the altar forward, but that doesn't mean people don't try, no matter how infelicitous the result. My current parish, in being expanded, went from this sort of compressed space to a truncated cross according to the current fashion, in which the sanctuary is a squarish platform for the acting out of the rite, with the altar at its center. Twenty years into using this arrangement, and problems which became evident early on are still manifest. The arrangement has never accommodated the lectern/pulpit/ambo comfortably, so that in the end it has migrated inside the rail and is moved out of the way before the offertory. We have been reduced to dependence on amplification, which ought not to be necessary, but the ambo cannot be placed in an acoustically satisfactory location.

There is,however, a deeper problem, a far more subtle lack which has only become apparent in watching a series of rectors cope with the space: it doesn't give any support to the liturgy. I have written before about how the 1979 liturgical rhythm moves so well with the tripartite neo-gothic space, and even in these small semi-rural parishes it works the same way. And this helps carry a priest through the rite, as long as they do not actively sabotage its solemnity. In our space, though, everything has to be carried by whoever is speaking or acting at the moment, because that person is on stage. The one thing that works well in spite of this is hymn singing, because there's nobody on then. And the thing is that I think at least communion could be improved by pushing the altar a foot closer to the retable and celebrating ad orientum, because then the celebrant wouldn't have to be on stage.

My high school chapel suffers the problems Harding outlined with his two altars, in spades. To cut them some slack, they were and are severely constrained by the need to fit more kids than the space was designed for into its utterly inflexible walls, but still, much of the mystery has been lost in its transformation into a liturgical stage. These little churches are scarcely less restrictive, as crowded as they inevitably are before the altar.

I have finally found a good picture of the interior of St. Clement's, Alexandria, so that you can see the kind of space that versus pop thinking was really aiming for. Here we see a very short and wide space, in which the only action occurring at the altar is communion itself (the pulpit and lectern are on the wall behind, as you can see). There is no audience, or rather, the celebrant is not performing to anyone there present; indeed, celebration is not versus populum at all, but rather in medio populi, which is a wholly better (and perhaps also more holy) symbol. But notice: the liturgical direction is turned back to the outside, toward the transcendent God.

It would be possible to transform a similarly shaped space into a similar plan, but it's a lot of work, and it needs room, which is (again) precisely what these little buildings do not have. And simply pushing the altar forward a couple of feet and putting the priest on the other side is not going to convert these Victorian spaces into the supposed patristic model; what you get instead is the turn-of-the-millennium auditorium church, writ small. I've given my reasons for preferring ad orientum in general, the chief of which is that I think in this era worship does need to be directed outward at a transcendent God; but I don't think you get the symbol of immanence by moving the altar two feet forward and conducting the rite from the other side.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Waiting in Faith

preached 7 August 2016, after weeks of doing Track 1 with its long run of OT prophet readings

This week we are taking a break from the denunciations of the prophets, but don't you worry: there will be more next week. But today, we take up the subject of faith.

So then: what is faith? Shortly we will all stand and say together the Creed, which in ancient times was called the “Symbol of Faith”, “symbol” in this case signifying a token: standing, in this case, for The Faith. And note carefully the words: we do not believe only of God, but in God. Yes, we do say that we believe God created the world, and that Jesus is His Son incarnate, and that he died and was resurrected. We believe that God is three in one, and that there is one church, and that Christ will sit in judgement in the last days. And in the large, we believe that Scripture tells us the story of salvation, which story we believe, and we believe that our priests and other ministers manifest God through word and sacrament. All these ideas and propositions we are called to believe, and I hope we do believe them; but believing these notions is not all there is to faith.

No, the Creed says that we believe in God, that He is not just something we know various things about (the chief being, of course, that He exists), but someone in whom we place our trust and reliance. Last week we heard Jesus tell a parable of a man of wealth, who put his faith in the storehouses of his ample goods. He trusted in what was perishable, and it failed him, but we who trust in God place our reliance upon what is imperishable: this we do believe.

But we believe; we do not see. The LORD first spoke to Abram in chapter 12 of Genesis, saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation.” Abram obeyed, and at the end of the next chapter the promise is repeated; and then two chapters on, we hear the promise repeated this morning, and by this time Abram is getting a bit concerned about this descendants thing, seeing as how he has none of yet. Another chapter passes, and Sarai, losing patience, gives her maid Hagar over to her husband so that he has at least some son. Two more chapters pass, and while the God of Hosts establishes his covenant with Abraham and visits him in the form of three men, still there is no heir. Sodom and Gomorrah are razed, Sarah has a run-in with Abimelech, and it is not until we get to Chapter 21 that Sarah finally is pregnant with Isaac—and in the very next chapter, God demands this only son as a sacrifice. Long the promise made to Abram went unfulfilled, and long was he tested, but he believed it, and scripture tells us, it was reckoned as righteousness.

And as we are told in the Letter to the Hebrews, Abraham “died in faith, not having received what was promised.” And likewise, we who are faithful await what is unseen: the final triumph of the kingdom of God. Almost two thousand years have passed since the day of glorious resurrection, and yet we wait. But in that waiting, we show our faith.

So how do we wait? First, we come together in worship, assembling as a people who watch and wait together, their whole unity made from that faith. Second, we read and repeat the ancient promises as they are told in scripture. Week after week we hear the story of salvation—not myths and fictions, but the account of the acts of God across time. Thus the gospel, the good news, is spoken in story, the story of Jesus' teaching and life and death and resurrection. Third, we respond in reaffirmation of our commitment to this faithfulness: singing, praying, hearing, and stating again the principal points of our belief. Fourth, we enter into communion through the Eucharist, which we carry out in faithfulness to Christ's command. And fifth, we go out into the world as witnesses to this faith, that others might become faithful, and that our own faithfulness be shown in acts of love.

So last week, this week, next week, the week after that, the year after that, over and over, we come together in faith. And if our faithfulness is not dulled, well, others are claimed by despair, by loss of hope, by sins of all kinds—pride, greed, lust, and the rest—sins which prey upon us as well. But for us, as for Abraham, our faith may be counted as righteousness. So be assured, that which we await will one day arrive. None but the Father knows whether this world will end tomorrow, or in our lifetime, but if we remain faithful, then we shall be ready for the glorious fulfillment of the promise of salvation given in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Saintly Slash

So this showed up in my Facebook feed today: Martha and Mary of Bethany: Sisters or lesbian couple?

Seriously??? I would like to hope this is just one of those random things that the internet spews forth under the principle of "bullhorns for everyone", but then, there's the Ruth/Naomi and David/Jonathan crowd, both of which made appearances in the same-sex blessing rite's lessons. For those of you who haven't run across it, there's this genre of "slash fiction", which originated in the 1960s-'70s SF fandom with heterosexual women writing stories of homosexual relationships between Kirk and Spock of Star Trek fame. This was abbreviated to "Kirk/Spock" and branched out to include other fictional characters paired in highly emotionalized relationships. I suppose it's a bit unfair of me to compare these extra-biblical matchups to fan fiction, but really, it's not that hard to figure out what's up with Ruth and Naomi (loyalty) or David and Jonathan (friendship/philia). Mary and Martha are more of a Bert and Ernie arrangement, but again, at least as they function in the gospel stories, it's right out there in the open.

But then queer studies or whatever got their, um, well, hands on these, and every two characters of the same sex have to be "shipped" (as they say) in what, to the, um, uninitiated, come across as prurient speculation. Or perhaps the point is to ├ępater les orthodoxes. But it's the twenty-first century, and it is impossible to say anything genuinely shocking anymore on the internet. Thus, I give this my measuredly Anglican assessment:

Give unto me a break.