Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dust, Made Living

This year I have volunteered to relieve the rector of the annual task of explaining how one should “beware of practicing your piety before others” and then proceed to daub our foreheads with char. That task, however, I will cheat upon by suggesting that one may apply a damp tissue or, failing that, the back of one's hand upon leaving the church.

No, it is the words which accompany the smearing to which I will speak first: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This was the word of the LORD God to Adam, after the first sin, and it speaks the fundamental fact of formation from the inanimate matter of the earth. We are not spirits which occupying fleshly vessels, as Gnostics ancient and modern teach; we cannot live separate from our animal bodies. We must eat and drink, and rise and sleep, and in all but the warmest climes we must cloth ourselves and seek shelter from the weather. This is the way of our living, and yet, from the day of our conception, the day of our demise awaits, unless the Day of the Lord intervene. It is as a sign to ourselves, therefore, that we mark our foreheads: a sign of our mortality.

Nevertheless, we who are baptized carry the divine light and are joined into the holy body, the church of which Christ is the head. Still, our fallen nature struggles against the divine. Thus the Church, in her wisdom, has set apart seasons in the year for penitence, which is to say, times in which our minds and bodies are especially harnessed to spiritual discipline for the sake recollecting our sins and purifying our wills, as best we feebly can. Therefore we fast: by tradition we fast of meat, and in the East they also forgo eggs and dairy, and even cooking oils. But if other abstinences prove more fruitful to you, if some other act of self-denial more constantly keeps you mindful, then choose it. The point is recollection of the spiritual through discipline of the flesh, not mere obedience to a rule.

Beyond that, we are called to greater prayerfulness; and if you are not already doing so, I commend to you the daily devotions which may be found in the Prayer Book, even if you can fit only one into your day. And if you can start in Lent, perhaps you can continue through the year, so that prayer becomes ever more part of your daily living.

In these forty days we are reminded of the days spent in the ark during the flood, the days of Jesus' temptation, the days of resurrection before Jesus ascended to the throne of heaven, taking our earthly form to the heart of the Godhead. From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead, on the day of the Lord, which as the prophet Joel says shall be terrible beyond human endurance, were it not for the mercy of the Lord in our salvation. Thus we prepare ourselves for that dread day, that we may watch with the wise virgins, our lamps well lighted. Our appetites, though, call us away, both in body and mind. Let us sleep! Let us find pleasant diversions! Let us give free rein to our impulses! they disobediently cry, as on that sorry day in Eden.

And thus it is given to us in some seasons to rejoice in our salvation, and in others to look upon our sins and acknowledge them. We reheat the twisted metal of our souls in the forge of self-denial to make them malleable, and hammer them on the anvil of spiritual disciplines to restore their proper shapes. And thus we begin this season, the mark of ashes recalling to us our origins in the substance of creation. We are but dust, made living through the first grace of God in creation, and now, made living again through the grace which comes through our savior Jesus Christ, who shares in our flesh, its morality made immortal. In that terrible last day, when the old earth and heavens pass away, all that is worldly will finally pass with them, all that has not withered or rusted or been eaten away long before. And before the last, we may, like Paul, be called to set aside wealth and comfort and the approbation of our fellows in our witness to the gospel; indeed, like those slain in Libya, we may lose our lives. But in these losses is salvation found, when what is worldly passes away. And thus it is well that we prepare through self-denial and prayer.

Easter will yet come, the day of glorious resurrection, and after the Day of the Lord, the glorious eternity of the new life. But we are not there yet; and the way to Easter leads first to the cross, that great sacrifice. Can we not watch with our Lord in our own Gethsemane, praying and fasting?

Thursday, February 05, 2015


So, being in Boston again, it was time to look for a place to go to church on Sunday. Last year's trip to Trinity Copley Square having ruled them out, I then found that Old North only had a said service within my service time constraints. (Tourists seemed to be surprised that church services were held there.) The nautilus in the pediment at the cathedral is, um, off-putting; Greek revival isn't my thing anyway. So next, I looked into Emmanuel's website, but the statement that "Believing is not a condition of beloving or belonging here" told me that wouldn't be welcome.

It was thus that I turned to Church of the Advent on the edge of Beacon Hill. Advent had been recommended to be after my recounting of my experience last year at Trinity, but as AC is not my churchmanship (I'm sky-high) it hadn't been at the top of my list. Their schedule, however, listed "Sung Mass (Rite II)" at 9, which sounded promising enough.

Trinity out-decorates Advent, but only because it's bigger and because John Hubbard Sturgis did not paint every square inch of the brick and stonework. Instead, he built one of the few American essays in "muscular Gothic", with its massive structural elements and elaborate patterning. It is emblematic of the style's overmuchmess that Sturgis put a hammerbeam ceiling in an not-all-that-large room more or less because he could, and perhaps because nobody else up to that point had done such a thing in America. Various lily-gilding through the years includes Ralph Adams Cram's rood, and the elegant but very French and not at all muscular aumbry whose golden tower can be seen to the left of the altar in the picture.

It is an intense space, and at 9 o'clock it was populated, not terribly densely, by a mixture of grey heads and parents with very small kids. One gathers that the main action is the "high mass (Rite I)" at eleven. But what we got at nine was, with a few quirks, the perfect image of a high church Eucharist of about 1986 (which date being dictated by the delivery of the 1982 hymnal, which actually came out in '85). The words of the BCP were said exactly as written, with no messing about with God's gender or lack thereof. The lessons were according to the original lectionary and were read from the RSV; indeed, each hymnal rack also held a volume of lectionary readings, copyright 1978. The service music was by Dom Gregory Murray and was unfamiliar to me, but it was quite singable and very much of the period. There were a very few deviations: the sursum corda was lined differently from that of the hymnal, and the tone used to chant the Lord's prayer was also unfamiliar, and quite difficult to sing without music. I also found their adherence to the dictate of the BCP that there should be a definite pause at the asterisk in the psalms, to be exaggerated to the point of posing an impediment to common recital. The two insertions in communion (the prayer of humble access and the non sum dignus) were not typical of the period.

And yet. THIS was the direction that prayer book revision took, before the loss of nerve in the face of the happy-clappy set and the political purists made decently-and-in-order services out of the BCP increasingly rare. And it is something that could be recovered, if people are willing to take church seriously and solemnly again. It is something that could be regained, if people could admit that, for most of the population, the contrived speech patterns of leftist academia are off-putting where they are not outright rejected. It could be revived, if the stupid progessivist doctrine that we "can't turn back the clock" (meaning that we cannot ever say that some supposed accommodation to the culture was a bad idea and should be discarded) were once and for all rejected.

Sure, 1979 is (as everyone admits while looking at a certain sentence in Prayer C) hardly perfect. But the way it was originally done, by serious-minded Episcopal parishes, is much better than the way I find it done in so many supposedly progressive places today. The "celebrating the community" ethic does not work. It produces worship of the community and of our identity as righteous members of the same. It's time to repent of it and go back to celebrating the Godhead instead.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Suffragan Mess

As a parishioner in the Diocese of Maryland, and especially as the parish delegate to the next diocesan convention, the accident in which the newly elected suffragan bishop killed a bicyclist has a double impact upon me. I have elided the bishop's name out of charity, though I will not paper over the facts of the matter by calling them allegations. The various witnesses are clear: on a Saturday afternoon, the bishop swerved and struck a man, then fled the scene. When she returned she was found to be deeply intoxicated, and was apparently texting at the time of the accident (I am unclear as to the source of this assertion); she was eventually arrested and is being held on bail. This is bad enough, but it has also come out that in 2010, while she was serving in another diocese, she was stopped by police due to her erratic driving and because one of her tires was shredded; the officer on the scene cut the coordination tests short for fear that she would hurt herself, and her blood alcohol was determined to be far in excess of the legal limit. Charges were eventually dropped on other charges of possessing marijuana, and the incident was eventually pleaded down to probation before judgement.

I am somehow managing to view the episode with an emotional detachment suitable to a Vulcan, and thus am not moved to expressions of moral outrage or judgement. It is clear, as Bishop Ihloff (MD ret.) says, that she cannot be allowed to continue as a bishop of this church; the disciplinary machinery of the church has begun to move in this direction, so we are told. Care for both the victim's family and for the soon-to-be-ex-bishop must proceed, and as I understand it, is being provided for. Justice will be done.

But what also will be done is a second election to replace her, for this diocese is simply too large to be served by a single bishop. And while I am not interested in assigning blame in the previous election, it is abundantly clear that The Process (or at least its execution) failed us. That process, at least as described in Rev. Anjel Scarborough's letter, seems to have invited someone deeply in the thrall of alcoholism to engage in a campaign of denial in order to advance her clerical career. Regardless of the conclusions of any psychological examination, any elector with full knowledge of the details of the 2010 incident would surely have to question how well-controlled the drinking was of a person who but three years before had to be pulled over before she hurt someone else (or herself, for that matter). And all the more so considering that she was not forthcoming to those electors about her situation: that should have been a red flag.

The "experts" have opined that really, nothing much more than a failure of judgement within the process was at fault. I am not convinced. And furthermore, this doesn't provide a route for correcting a patently faulty process. I'm not seeing testimony from people who are familiar with alcoholism and who look back at the older incident and say, "well, she could have been OK, from what we knew then." The testimony I have read is that everything about it, all the way to the election itself, should have told the search committee members responsible that her nomination should not have gone forward as it did.

The second search is going to have to be different. If nothing else, electors are going to have to be proactive in researching the candidates, because it is apparent that current processes do a poor job of presenting the candidates. What we had here was a situation in which someone was implicitly encouraged to hide the truth about herself in favor of presenting a facade in a few short written statements (none of them, to my mind, particularly demanding) and to show up at various public events and put on a good show. The potential for this to produce disastrously bad bishops ought to be obvious.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Sine Symbolo Fidei

AAK over in Sed Angli writes of a Christmas Eve service in which the creed was not said, in contradiction to the rubrics. Let us turn to page 358 of the BCP: On Sundays and other Major Feasts there follows, all standing The Nicene Creed. Turning back to page 28, we find Christmas listed among the "principal feasts".

Just so we're clear on that.

Of course this is the twenty-first century Episcopal Church, where rubrics exist to be set aside as the priest pleases, so the mere fact that the BCP tells us to do something doesn't amount to any actual requirement. And gosh darn, it wouldn't be "inclusive" to have all those C&E visitors be asked to state their faith in public, not to mention their lapsed and irreligious relatives. Not only that, it speeds up the service by a precious two minutes to leave this out.

Come on, clerics. It is obvious that on the two greatest feasts of the year, those in attendance should be called to recommit to the mysteries of the faith, as they are called to do on every Sunday of the year. Those who cannot do so can stand silently, and they can absent themselves from the altar rail in turn. To do otherwise shows our own lack of commitment to the faith.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The TREC Report Is Out

I'm going to let the Young Curmudgeon Priest speak for the core issue this time:
I think I am stuck. I am stuck because I have decided that while structural change is certainly necessary and should always be ongoing; the real crisis in the Episcopal Church is not one of structure, it is one of theology and missiology. Is the purpose of these changes so that we can create and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ or are these changes so that we can make it easier to be social workers that mention God once in a while? I am not convinced that our shrinking numbers have much to do with changes in society, but has much more to do with the fact that we no longer stand for much other than being nice. We have replaced cries for Jesus with cries for Justice forgetting that justice comes with a life in Christ. Are these proposed changes for Jesus or are they for us? We can reimagine and restructure all we want, but until Jesus becomes the center of our lives again - all of this is a waste of time.
All the structural changes proposed by TREC are designed to make it easier to make change in the church, but given the history of things since 1974 it's hardly arguable that simply being able to change things is going to improve matters. More change, in the current theological climate, simply means more of the same. TREC failed to articulate a theology behind their work or which their new structures would embody, and that's pretty much what ECUSA is about these days.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Awaiting the Reckoning

The day of the Lord; the day of glory. The day of wrath and mourning, when heaven and earth pass away, and the new, redeemed earth awaits the descent of the new Jerusalem. The day when the wrath of God is poured over the earth and is spent.

Years ago, before we we were married, my wife used to listen to a Christian radio station at work. And one day there was a preacher who said, in excited radio-preacher tones, “You know, the day of the Lord could be today! And wouldn't that make today extra special!” Somehow “extra special” feels inadequate as a description. A dreadful day, and yet each week we pray for its coming, the day when the kingdom is not only at hand, but is established finally and totally.

All through the fall we have heard the parables of the kingdom as they appear in the Gospel of Matthew:

  • “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slave.”
  • “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”
  • “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten maidens, five wise and five foolish.”
  • “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.”
  • “All the nations will be gathered before the Son of Man, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
Week after week, we have heard of a time of reckoning, when each of us will be called to account:
  • How have we handled our talents?
  • How have we treated our debtors?
  • How have we shown mercy and compassion?
  • How have we kept ourselves ready?
Week by week we have heard: it not just in our piety that we show our faith, but also in our acts. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, but also must you love your neighbor as yourself. Show God your works, and you will show him your faith, says the apostle James; faith without works, he says, is dead.

OK, so here we are. We settle into our pews, in this sacred and handsome place, and we give so freely of our wealth that our parish is able to budget a tithe of its income towards outreach into the community, supporting Guardian Angels' ministries and the Seafarer's mission; many go well beyond that in their participation in the projects of Habitat for Humanity and other such charities. Perhaps our flasks of oil are thus well-filled, and perhaps we risk some confidence in being placed on the right, among the sheep, when that latter judgement is at last carried out.

And yet, the years hang heavy. Decades ago it was easy to believe in an apocalypse of thermonuclear fire: a war whose pointless outcome would have been suffering of every kind for the survivors, and an invitation for the second divine revelation. More recently one might contemplate the militarism of a fanaticized Islam, or the ruination of the environment through any number of poisonings.

As yet, however, the armies do not gather at any Megiddo, and as it draws night to a third millennium of Christendom, we wonder at that generation which will not have passed away before the end. The earliest church believed it was their own generation which would be these witnesses, but it did not come to pass in that way, though they were put through a great tribulation, with the temple razed and Judah dispersed. And thus the urgency fades. Generation after generation has come and gone, and still the skies are unriven, and the earth tumbles on around its annual circuit, pain and joy dispensed in greater or lesser degree from year to year. We look in dread and hope for the signs, and do not see them. Some, heeding not Jesus' words, calculate the hour and day and month and year, leading to ridicule and doubt when their predictions do not come to pass. Some give up and say that the prophecies of the gospels were written after the fact, “predicting” the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the seventieth year of the era, because (they say) it had already happened. In our fascination with the end, we make and watch post-apocalyptic films whose desolations show no glory, but only a desperate struggle in which “Maranatha”— “come, Lord”— is futile and unspoken, and in which men and women seek, without hope, the nonexistent oasis of a dispirited gracelessness.

And so here we are, sitting in not too uncomfortable pews in our handsome church, hearing the words of the prophets which prefigure Jesus, and the words of Jesus which warn of the wrath which is to come, soon. Soon; soon to be two thousand years of “soon”. The great city Babylon reigns on, indeed seems to be growing, with its kings and merchants having naught to bewail. We wait and wait in our little quarter of this city, some comfortably, some distracted by their travails, while around us the ungodly world sins on, unheeding. How can the human spirit stand such a wait? Generation after generation lives and dies, and the expectation is wearied. The lamps are trimmed, and trimmed again, and maiden after maiden must venture out for more oil, in dread lest the bridegroom make his appearance. But he never comes, and our urgency is deadened. We pray, “even so, Lord, quickly come,” but our hearts are not in it. We rest content, our souls well-filled by the spiritual wealth we sense we have stored up around us. The harvest goes unreaped, for what is the hurry? The Father has waited for so many lifetimes, for centuries, for two millennia: surely He is in no hurry to close up the register of the book of life.

But the day will come, tomorrow, a year from now, a century off. It does not matter. The wrath of God will be spent, and Jesus will return, when we do not expect. And in our own lives, if we be spared the day of his coming, our last rest will overtake us, and the record of our lives will be writ in indelible ink. When the angels come to gather us in, it is that book which will be opened, and we will set to one side or the other, for life or destruction. And therefore we must live in expectation of that dread day, both in trembling and joy. The time is coming soon, for our time is coming soon. The day of the Lord could be today, and were we not ready, what account could we give? The day of the Lord could find us resting in a death that may take us tomorrow or decades hence, and what account could we give? It is that urgency which we must find.

Our time is limited, even among us who are fortunate to live out the fullness of years; the work is great, and the field vast. Does your life testify to those about you? Does it uplift your fellow Christians in their struggles? Then good; by grace, you may stand among the sheep. But year by year, the call goes out, and because the faith is not articulated, it is not heard; or because of lives which belie the Christian path, the call is spurned. Who knows how many could not be called back from the lake of fire, which is the second death? It is perhaps very, very many. And every day the time draws nearer, when the accounts are settled. May we be counted good and faithful servants, and not be left outside when the doors are shut on the wedding feast of the Lamb of God. To do so, we must do what is set before us: to live generously, and graciously; to witness to our faith; to stand strong in the face of persecution; and at the last, to commend ourselves to our savior. In these things, if we are steadfast, the salvation offered to us will be ours on the last day, and thus we may say “Maranatha!”— “come, Lord!”— with pure hearts, in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him, and to the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honor and worship, unto ages of ages. AMEN.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Next Round of Gnonsense

The scholarly world has been rocked by the need to rebut yet another round of breathless coverage of a questionable textual claim, this time by that master of biblical sensationalism, Simcha Jacobovici, and his partner in hype, Barrie Wilson. It's the old gnostic "Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married" canard, this time based on a supposedly obscure text in the British Museum which the pair of them (Jacobovici and Wilson, that is) have discovered and newly deciphered.

Well, if you have been paying attention to the textual follies of the past several years, you already know the answer, one way or the other. They give the name "Ecclesiastical History of Zacharias Rhetor" to the text, but in fact they are only interested in one pericope within it: the Syriac version of The History of Joseph and Aseneth, which is also known in Greek. This is not by any stretch of the imagination an obscure text; on the contrary, papers on it are being discussed this year. If you want to read it yourself in translation, you can do so at Mark Goodacre's pages on the text. The point of the text is to get rid of the difficulty that Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, were the founders of two of the tribes in spite of their non-Jewish mother. The topic was of interest to post-exilic Jews who were tempted to take gentile wives, an issue which did not go away in New Testament times. The matter is not entirely settled, indeed, as to when the story was written, with a minority seeing in it a Christian cast.

What is certainly NOT in it, however, are the names "Jesus" or "Mary"! So the startling decoding is to simply substitute those names for "Joseph" and "Aseneth", and QED! There's your proof.

Of course, anyone who stops hyperventilating long enough to consider the logic of this can see that it falls under the fallacy of "just making stuff up". Using similar methods I can prove that Liberace was actually not gay and that James the I and VI was the lovechild of a union between him and Queen Elizabeth I. But that didn't stop reporters at virtually every major media outlet from falling for the press releases of a man whose track record (the Talpiot Tomb, the James Ossuary, etc.) is one long string of sensationalist but at best doubtful claims. It's hard for me to decide between surpassing incompetence, wish-fulfillment, or outright malice as an explanation for the willingness to repeat claims that are just not true and which would be shown to be so by consultation with anyone in the field (textual scholarship, that is, not cable channel "documentaries"). But in any case I would support making them appear in public with an appropriately worded T-shirt until Epiphany.

Meanwhile everyone who actually knows something about the field is doing a facepalm at the thought of having to straighten the public out again. None of these radical claims has withstood examination, and this one is far poorer than most. Indeed, it is so preposterous in its misrepresentations that it is hard for me not to entertain the thought of fraud. Yet year in and year out the mainstream press surpasses itself in its gullibility. The prudent man, Christian or no, doubts these revelations on sight, but among the masses, a culture of invincible ignorance grows.