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.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

TRECing the Seminary

Surely everyone who follows matters in the Episcopal Church is aware of the struggle at General Theological Seminary. The dean has said things which in retrospect should not have been said, but more disturbingly has unilaterally made changes to the life of the seminary which have elicited objection from faculty and alumni alike. A protest in the form of a work stoppage on the part of most of the faculty has been met with a weasel-worded firing of the lot. The trustees have offered "reconciliation" in a form condescending and imperial while standing firmly behind the dean.

It is ironic that the one official seminary of a liberal church should be at the forefront of the move to reduce university faculty to peonage. Consider the direction that the TREC committee reports have taken, however, and contemplate their proposals to consolidate powers and reduce checks on those powers. This is how they want our seminaries to be run, and this is how they want the church to be run.

TREC's concern for getting things done is in plain conflict with the way church governance is set up to impede that. Voting by orders, consents to episcopal elections, the requirement to approve changes to the liturgy in successive general conventions: these are all mechanisms which slow change in the cause of greater review and consensus. Everything TREC has proposed about changing governance is in the cause of allowing action the face of objections. There's something almost Randian in their faith in forceful management, as though the Very Rev. Howard Roark and the Rt. Rev. John Galt are going to save the church once they have all those impediments to their free reign removed.

Those of us who still remember know this to be the antithesis of Anglican praxis, which of old tended indeed toward the anarchic, yet still grounded in a stubborn, charitable, practical center. We still have yet to see an ecclesiology or missiology expressed from TREC, whose language is rooted in business management. They seem to have no idea of what the business of the church might be, and indeed this amnesia seems to be a disease so widespread at the upper levels of the church as to nearly doom us. To me (and to my young adult children) it seems stupidly obvious that if the business of the church has no religious object, then there is no reason to be involved in its business, and no reason to attend to a pale non-worship of the oft-renamed god of the upper middle class intelligentsia.

It all keeps coming back to recollection and repentance. I do not know the circumstances or the precise substance of the dean's remarks, and to some very large degree I do not care. What I do care about is the mentality where he comes in to unilaterally upend the spiritual life of the place to no clear purpose. I do not care whether he is empowered to do so (and there is plenty of complaint that this is not how this is done in academia, anywhere); appeal to the raw exercise of power is not something I find in the New Testament. It of the same destructive ilk as the currently fashionable theory about how the interim is supposed to come into the parish and shake things up so as to make it easier for the new rector to impose his regime on things. My experience after four of these transitions is that more humble respect of the traditions and character of the parish would result in a stronger congregation instead of one weakened by the dispersal that is the result of such deliberate disruption and disregard. I have to think the same holds true for our seminaries, but more so; reducing them each to theological and liturgical Laodiceas is the road to having their graduates spewed from the mouth of anyone seeking the savor of Godly spiritual food.

No, what needs to be done is to remember what being Anglican entailed, and turn back to it, rather than to look to schemes whose hidden premise appears to be that we need to become less what we are as fast as possible.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Numbers: 2013

Well, the 2013 statistics are out, mostly. I say "mostly" because the overall by-diocese numbers have not yet been published. But the overall totals are here, and they show the familiar story of decline: reported domestic membership is down 1.4%, while domestic ASA is down 2.6%. (Overseas numbers are croggled by a change in Honduras's reporting which has cut their numbers in half.)

Only it isn't this good. Last year I remarked that this would be the year when the South Carolina departure would be manifested in the losses. The overall reported numbers for the diocese, however, are strange, showing a decline in ASA of only 366 attendees, which would represent no more than one good-sized parish departing. It's not a plausible number.

So what is going on? Well, the parish charts have been updated, and here we see a major discrepancy. The ECUSA remnant has a list of parishes largely consonant with the parishes listed on the national chart, with a number of omissions, most of which appear to be because the parish/mission is brand-new. There are also four parishes which plainly represent the remnant of a large departure. Add it all up, however, and there are at most thirty-four parishes and missions with a total ASA of about 3,200, as estimated from the parish charts; and eight of these either don't have charts or aren't even listed on the national site. It is a huge drop from the seventy-two parishes counted in 2012.

So where are the rest? Well, the schismatic diocese, it turns out, keeps detailed statistics too. And their 2013 report shows forty-nine parishes with a total ASA of 9,223. Add this to the ECUSA parishes and you get eighty-three parishes, which when you take out the non-reporters and doubly-counted splits, is pretty close to seventy-two.

Nine thousand plus three thousand, however, gets you surprisingly close to the 12,005 reported in the overall totals, suggesting that reported ASA is inflated. Add the schismatics' ASA to the reported domestic drop of 16,451 attendees, and suddenly things look noticeably worse: the 2.6% loss turns into a 4% loss. Membership losses almost double, to 2.7%.

It is not terribly obvious why these numbers are being reported, which is a polite way of saying that, by all appearances, the numbers have been substantially fudged. Revisions have be made in previous years, however, and it is possible that these numbers may likewise be updated. Even without that, however, we are still in the same rut: 3% losses per year, every year, for over a decade.

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.