Saturday, January 16, 2016

It's not that I Hate Prayer C

I came across this post which if it doesn't link to my thoughts on the datedness of Eucharistic Prayer C, might as well be written as a response to it.

And actually, on one level I like the prayer a lot. The way it moves from the glory of creation through the history of sin and redemption is most highly to be commended, at least in principle. It fairly cries out to be the liturgy of choice for Trinity Sunday. My problems it are in the way of tune ups. Responsive liturgy was the thing back when it was written, but in this case I think it doesn't gain us anything, and indeed immediately presents the problem that the prayer cannot be sung, because getting the congregation over the responses is just never going to work. I also find the final section awkward. Never mind how the invocation of the patriarchs has to be messed with (and I think the solution to that is to work Mary into the mix): the juxtaposition between that and the prayer is jarring. They just don't fit with each other. And that second paragraph: whatever we say, we need to find something better than "this fragile earth, our island home."

I think all of these things are fixable, and if they were fixed, we would end up with a prayer for the ages. But the force driving us to revision is, from what I can see, utterly uninterested in any of this. That's why I wrote the other article: I think that, unless there is a huge change of heart or the balance of power is way off from what I and I think most people sense, the specific purpose of the revision will be to make a book even more attuned to the progressive politics and social milieu of the present. Prayer C only hints at the early 1970s; you almost had to be there to fully read it. Enriching Our Worship is unmistakably the product of turn-of-the-century academic progressives, and that is the direction we are intended to take.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Embarassment of the Revised Common Lectionary

I have complained before about the peculiar way the Revised Common Lectionary omits parts of readings, and particularly so in the psalter. So tonight, on the feast of the Epiphany, we have yet another peculiar psalm passage. Both the BCP and RCL appoint some or all of Psalm 72 for this feast, regardless of the year. The BCP gives the option of using all nineteen verses or allows skipping from verse 2 to verse 10. I would guess that it is this latter verse which was felt germane to the feast: The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute,* and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts. And given the length of the psalm it's not surprising that the BCP offers a "cut to the chase" option.

The RCL, however, gives only one option, which is to omit the last five verses along with verses 9 and 10. It is the latter omission which is the more striking because it's decidedly peculiar to skip over just two verses. And here they are:

8 He shall rule from sea to sea, * and from the River to the ends of the earth. 9 His foes shall bow down before him, * and his enemies lick the dust.
What could possibly be wrong with this? Well, I have to think that it is verse 9 which offends someone's tender sensibilities. But when the Great Litany rolls around and we are beseeching God that we "may finally beat down Satan under our feet," I really can't see the problem with a great deal of grovelling on the part of Christ's enemies, or rather, The Enemy. But apparently someone saw enough of an issue that we were made to skip a pair of verses, so that once again reading the text straight out of the BCP is made difficult, to no particularly good end.

Some liturgist I once read said that part of the purpose of cycling through the psalms was to put the words of scriptural prayer and praise in our mouths whether we wanted them there or not. It would appear that this principle was foreign to the compilers of the RCL readings.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Hope in the Child

preached 4 Advent 2015

many of you have wondered what Micah is talking about when he speaks of “Bethlehem Ephrathah”? What, you, may have wondered, is “Ephrathah”? Well, it's a place name, which may or may not be a simple synonym for Bethlehem itself; but what matters to us is that, like many such names, it has a meaning, which is “fruitful”. Bethlehem, out of which was born the King of Kings, the savior of Israel and all humanity: this the prophet foretold.

But first, a stopover in Judea, before the promised births.

An unborn child is all potential, the object of our hopes as parents. Then the day comes, and we parents are presented with a bundle of nascent humanity, whose impact upon the world is unrealized and whose future, for good or ill, is seen only in our dreams, and in the providence of God. Some weeks back I came across a consideration of the morality of killing baby Hitler to forestall the evil he brought forth; in truth, it is only an academic exercise. We know not whether our children are destined for obscurity or fame or notoriety. But the two mothers-to-be in our gospel, unlike the rest of us, had Gabriel's promise that the children they carried have a place in divine providence above all others. The two miraculous conceptions, Elizabeth's out of her age, and Mary's out of her virginity, were the sprouted seeds of the grace of God; Jesus, the branch of Jesse's tree, was promised to bring to fruition the salvation so long awaited by the prophets.

And thus, in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, the Theotokos, the God-Bearer (for so she is titled in the east) came to visit her. The child in Elizabeth's womb lept, he of whom the angel promised, “he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” Caught up in the Spirit, she blessed Mary, the vessel of divine grace, for Mary's trust in God's promise, that Mary would carry the son of the Most High, the heir to the throne of David, whose kingdom will have no end.

Mary's hymn in response to Elizabeth's greeting, praising God for his mighty acts and for the grace laid upon her, is one of the great and most ancient hymns of the church. But that hymn, as she sang it, looks to the past: God has shown strength, has scattered the proud, has put down the mighty, has filled the hungry and has sent the rich away empty. The Lord God was known to her and to Judah in the history of Abraham and his descendants, bringing them out of Egypt to Sinai and then to Jerusalem, where his presence filled the temple in the midst of the land. She recalls how the Lord acted, not out of the mighty among men, but out of the small, the weak, the outcast. Abraham was childless; the children of Jacob were slaves before they passed through the sea to freedom; David was the least of Jesse's sons. But God did not forget the covenant with the father of the nation of Israel, as Mary recalled, and God does not forget his children adopted through the water of baptism. Thus did she trust in the angel's promise.

We know where the promise was to lead: to the cross and the tomb. Mary did not, or at least, Gabriel's message gives no hint of the road to Calvary. Did Mary cling to faith in God's promise to her on that Friday when the apostles' hope was broken? We do not know, though we know that she was among the few who stayed in witness. We as parents see the future in our children, whom (we hope) outlive us to continue humanity. Mary, and Elizabeth if she lived to that day, saw their sons executed, seemingly the end of hope. But God's promise was not empty: his providence was fulfilled, and beyond the hopeless Friday and dismal Saturday came that glorious Sunday, the day of life reborn and unending.

In these latter days we wait between that first advent and the next and final advent, when the kingdom will be complete and all death and sorrow shall be ended. We start out with hope for our offspring, hopes and desires which may be fulfilled or disappointed or crushed entirely in this world of sin and loss. And yet in our our sorrows, in our losses, at the grave, we sing this song: alleluia, alleluia, ALLELUIA! So in this season, let us set aside our hopelessness and look to that holy child, Jesus Christ, in whom our hope and salvation is made incarnate, and who with the Father and the Spirit is given praise and glory unto ages of ages. AMEN.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Athanasius on Enriching Our Worship

Given the suspicion that the program of BCP revision is intended by many to establish Enriching Our Worship as the pattern for future common prayer, it behooves the prudent liturgist to examine its rites with an eye towards the orthodoxy of its language. Fortunately Matthew S.C. Olver has done the heavy lifting for us in a series of three articles on the Covenant website. Part 1 provides an introduction and lays groundwork for the study; Part 2 examines the differences between the EOW and BCP rites in the large, and Part 3 focuses on the eucharistic prayers.

But you can readily get a picture of where this is heading by opening up a PDF of EOW 1 (daily office, litany, and the eucharist) and searching for the word "father". The word appears as follows:

  • Once in the preface (a reference to the church fathers)
  • Nine times in the canticles, of which three are in the Te Deum alone
  • Twice in the Apostles Creed
  • Six times in the Nicene Creed
  • Three times in a section explaining the omission of the filioque
  • None whatsoever in any of the eucharistic prayers
The tallies for "Lord" would appear to be better until one realizes that maybe a third of them are in the Benedicite, and that most of the rest are either in other canticles or in the exchanges which open the eucharistic prayers (plus one in the Sanctus). But it's the composite of this, the way it comes together in a theology, which makes the difference. Fr. Olver is not sanguine about this:
The reason that the Episcopal Church must find a different way to address the feminist concerns I outlined in my first post is that, despite the claim of SCLM’s principle that “the truth of the Gospel which proclaims Jesus as the Son of God the Father and as Lord is essential,” the EOW1 rite as a whole, speaks a fundamentally contrary word. EOW1 speaks a de facto different Trinitarian theology. Let me be clear: I do not wish to imply in any way that the SCLM is trying to introduce a new Trinitarian theology. Rather, I want to suggest that the Trinitarian implications of their revisions take a back seat to the stated goal of removing gendered language for God. My reading is that they have not considered carefully enough the wide-reaching implications of these revisions in Trinitarian theology, Christology, soteriology, and beyond.
Personally, I do not think the situation is that innocent, and I think that allowing Arian interpretations and other heterodoxies is part of the intent, albeit perhaps indirectly. Recall that the driving word behind all of this, and really behind nearly any ECUSA controversy, is "inclusion". Inclusion has been construed extremely broadly, so that it has been seem to encompass not only avoidance of racism, not only resolution of disputes over sexuality, not only conflict over the role of women, but has moved into the whole issue of whether the church even has any boundaries. And throughout church history, the two markers which drew such boundaries were sacrament and doctrine, and they were always coupled.

But now we are seeing numerous attempts to blur the line between being a Christian and not really being a Christian: communing the unbaptized, claiming saints who aren't Christians, priests who claim to be both Christian and Muslim, a bishop-elect with an infatuation with Buddhism, and numerous experimental rites which incorporate neo-pagan elements, tamper with scripture, and excise the creed. Thus the door is opened to Arian (or even Unitarian) tenets because the people in particular to be included encompass those who cannot deal with the doctrines of the virgin birth and the resurrection, or who for that matter don't want to be Christians at all.

In order to make this church safe for that sort of indifferentism, it must, in the end, be made inhospitable to any insistence of orthodoxy. The Council of Nicaea must not only be made optional, but in the end must be proscribed, for the canons of Nicaea are the very realization of the judgement that it does matter what we say about Jesus, and that when we worship his resurrected humanity, we recognize also his divinity, and with Thomas say, "my Lord and my God." Thus, the intent will surely be, in the end, not to place the rites of EOW alongside those of the true prayer book, but to displace them. And, in orthodox faith, I cannot have that. Rite I and Rite II are the starting point of revision, not these error-ridden substitutes.

Monday, October 26, 2015

This Fragile Book, Our Island Tome

Prayer C no doubt sounded like a fabulous idea back in 1974. Four years after the first Earth Day, the environmentalism-themed Expo '74 was underway in Spokane; that same summer saw the "irregular" ordinations in Philadelphia. The time was surely ripe for a last-minute addition to the new prayer book. And thus Howard Galley, officially "Assistant to the Coordinator for Prayer Book Revision" but in practice working editor of the new book, wrote the liturgy one summer evening in his office at 815.

Much of it is good; as a proper for Trinity Sunday its basic structure of recounting the history of salvation from "in the beginning" to our present day is sound. It has its infelicities as well: the responsorial form sounded like a good idea back then but has not worn well, and the final paragraphs, with their (oft altered by feminists) invocation of the patriarchs, do not live up to those grand opening words. But chiefly are we bound to remember it for the passage which inevitably earned it the sobriquet of "the Star Wars prayer":

At your command all things came to be,
galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,
and this fragile Earth, our island home.

Forty-odd years later, and those words still draw a snicker from many a liturgist; in their earnestness they call forth recollections of bell-bottom pants and huge lapels, not to mention guitar masses and "hip" clerics celebrating in blue jeans. And for me at least they also recall the overheated activism of the turn-of-the-decade. Us pre-teens of the time (I went off to high school the fall of that year) got to see how it all actually panned out: not in glorious revolution against the Establishment, but in gas lines, shoddy polyester clothes, the AIDS crisis, student loans and finally, Ronald Reagan. But in 1974 it was still barely possible to maintain a "tin soldiers and Nixon coming" hysteria— barely, given the course of the Watergate investigation, which by that point had yielded its first indictments.

As for the fragility of the earth: consciousness was certainly raised, and we enjoy the benefits of that, so that the bald eagle, reduced to less than a thousand, has recovered in great numbers. But at the same time the sense that the world was in imminent danger of being snuffed out in a chemical cloud has faded. The world has turned out to be a sturdier place than that, for all the injury done to it. And thus we passed from the threat of chemical apocalypse to the 1980s obsession with thermonuclear doom, which has in turn moved on to the current threat of global warming.

But the same time, America's social structures were simply falling apart. Family structures among whites were torn up, and in the black community they all but collapsed, so that it is now the rule that blacks are born out of wedlock. It's pretty clear, as this Brookings report summary argues, that the abrupt endorsement of abortion by the Supreme Court played a very large role in that: men could and did dump responsibility for a child back on the woman, who after all could then be expected to exercise her newfound control over her body and evict the unwanted (by the father) child. And yet, here is where this church is on the subject: the official position as put forth by General Convention explicitly condemns abortion "as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience," but if you can find anyone actually teaching this I have to think that it's going to be in a pretty conservative parish. I don't recall ever hearing an Episcopal sermon touching on abortion, and I have to think that only the most foolhardy male preachers would dare. Marriage doesn't present quite the same peril as a topic, if only because Episcopalians tend to be in the social classes in which marriage still prevalent.

Environmentalism, on the other hand, is reasonably safe. Sure, the rector may lose some of the few remaining Republicans who are paying attention, but a seminary professor after all need not be exposed to even that consequence. And besides, much of the blame for environmental crises can be laid upon those Republicans, or better still on Corporate Interests. Our retirement funds may rely upon the moneys those corporations take in, but what of that? We can always push for a ineffectual solution like carbon credit trading which monetizes the transfer of responsibility.

Likewise, given the events of the past few years it is going to be a tremendous temptation to make our liturgy somehow less racist, whatever that means. And that last phrase is particularly important because a lot of people without an investment in the matter are going to look at the 1979 book and say, "what exactly is racist about it?" As far as sex is concerned we do not have to speculate, because the erasures of the masculine characteristic of Enriching Our Worship and the other recent products of SCLM trace right back to the 1973 publication of Mary Daly's seminal work (if you will pardon the pun), Beyond God the Father. This was an important work, no doubt about it, but it was very much a product of its time and place, where Daly could say "When God is male, the male is God" (p. 19 of the original edition) and not be ridiculed for the gaping logical hole in the claim. She eventually was effectively apostate; meanwhile back in PECUSA we had the sorry spectacle of the Office of Women's Ministry, years later, promulgating a bizarre liturgy which I described thusly: "It almost sounds like a seminary assignment: 'Write a liturgy contravening at least the first commandment. Use ritual acts denounced by at least two OT prophets.'" The weird neopagan cast of these alterations seems to have faded (or at least is kept in the closet) but the continuing attempt to minimize "Father" and "Lord" and to wipe away every male pronoun still comes across, for those of us who were academic onlookers at the time, as the product of a decades-old anachronism.

What we don't need in 2015 is to bring the liturgy of 1976 up to the academic fads of 1979. I will not dare to speak for the young man or woman of 2015, but in 1979 I was not in the market for a "contemporary" or "relevant" service, and I did not have to worry about being subjected to "inclusion" only because the obsession with homosexuality had yet to build up to a fever pitch. When I stood with all the old ladies at the 11:00 service I called up the image of people across places and ages turning to the altar to profess the ancient doctrines. Perhaps there are young people today who are pleased to join in the same antique declaration. But I cannot imagine that many of them want to recover the fashionable faith of the 1970s.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Numbers: 2014

Plenty of other people are trumpeting that the number are, as usual, bad, with domestic Average Sunday Attendance down 3.7% this year, so there seems little point in going over what has been a consistent decline for over a decade. Instead, I'm going to look into the South Carolina situation.

Last year I observed that the Diocese of South Carolina numbers ignored the departure of most of the diocese. This year the departures are no longer so hidden, except that for some reason you cannot get a chart for the diocese as a whole. Excepting the money, however, I can produce a substitute chart, which as you can see shows a cliff-like loss in 2014.

The schism continues to produce detailed statistics which show just how bad the departures hurt. Looking at ASA, the loss of nearly 9,200 attendees represented over three quarters of the previous year's attendance, and 39% of 2014 losses in domestic ASA. Now, the schism reported ASA of 9,325 in 2014, which when added to the rump diocese gives an increase of 132 over the previous year; but doing the subtraction on the 2013 numbers indicates that the rump diocese itself had an increase in ASA of 99. Had the schism not occurred, the unified diocese would have grown by 1%, and the loss in domestic ASA would have been reduced to 2.2%.

And departures continue to be the name of the game. Baptisms and receptions together exceed burials by some five thousand people, to say nothing of what portion of the ten thousand adult confirmations represent new members. The Episcopal Church is shrinking because people are leaving it.

Friday, October 09, 2015

On Keeping the Creed

A year-old post from Father Christopher concerning the use of the creed in the liturgy attracted new attention last month, with further responses from Derek Olsen and Fr. Hendrickson. I sense in the original post that I sit at the crux of the age gap between those who object and those who accept the creed willingly: born in 1960, I am technically a boomer, but my experience is that people around my age pretty much missed the boomer bandwagon. I was a child in a mainline Presbyterian congregation, where I learned and memorized the Apostle's Creed; my religiosity was reawakened in high school, not rescued from a theologically dictatorial childhood. I have no fundamentalist upbringing against which I in any sense rebel, then or now. And this indeed seems to be the core of the matter.

There are two big questions which arise about the creed in liturgy: one which everyone steps up to one way or the other, and the other which pretty much gets ducked by everyone. The first is the expectation that we say this together because we are at least in part bound into the church by our assent to her teachings, in this case tenets which bind us through time for some sixteen centuries. I've been over this before, and there comes a point where I lose patience. And that is where I hit the second problem. I spend a lot of time here grousing that the clerisy takes people like me for granted and assumes that someone orthodox is going to keep showing up and writing checks even if there is really nothing left of the church they signed on for. And constantly we are warned, in Change Sermon after Change Sermon, against being mired in the past. But this is precisely my I loathe such sermons: they are essentially about making the past indefensible, when an examination on merits would present a strong defense.

For the creed itself, that defense is precisely that the church has been saying this "on Sundays and other Major Feasts" for age upon age. Why should the feelings of some sixty-something Americans gainsay that? I know this sounds terribly belittling, but there's a coloring of the adolescent to the insistence that the liturgy be edited to suit those rebelling against the old patristic teaching. Earlier generations might well have accepted the dissonance between what the creed says and what they are comfortable with believing as a personal responsibility to resolve by being taught by the church (and thus understanding their failure to believe as a failing) or finding/founding some less orthodox religious community. The notion that the creed, fought out as it was in those early controversies, was subject to editing or outright omission to cater to the foibles of any individual layman: this was not only foreign, but anathema. The whole point of the creed, after all, was to draw a line between Orthodoxy and the Arians.

The sign in Fr. Christopher's seminary experience, I think, is that this modernist insistence in the primacy of personal beliefs is passing, but more importantly, that the elevation of rebellion against The Establishment is also passing. Or perhaps it is that younger folk no longer believe in an establishment, but instead see their church for the outsider rebel community against the unbelieving world that it is supposed to be.