Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Blessings of Our Peculiar God

We are blessed with a peculiar God.

We use the word “peculiar” to mean two things: that something is strange or odd, or that something belongs to or is characteristic of some particular thing. It could be said that our God is both, from our earthly perspective.

But it's not for our lack of trying to see Him otherwise. Thomas Aquinas, in the middle ages, attempted various proofs of God's existence, and while there is a certain pleasing symmetry in his arguments from natural law on the one hand and philosophical superlatives on the other, the end point, as it were, of these formulas is the three circles of the trinity as spoken of by Dante in the last lines of the Divine Comedy: a mathematical but unilluminating perfection. And what if there is a god? It is as Robert Farrar Capon once wrote in his introduction to systematic theology:

The important question is not “does God exist?” but “what is he like?” Is he nasty or nice? Does he wear overpowering aftershave? Does he force Chinese food on all his friends?

I cannot offer an opinion on the question of aftershave, but I am reasonably certain about the Chinese food, and I am utterly confident that He is nice— or rather, not nice, but good, loving beyond our powers of comprehension. And why? Well, because this is what scripture testifies.

And why scripture? Because it is only the revelation of God which truly brings us to know Him, and it is in scripture, that sacred history, that he shows Himself in the world. So, let us move half a century after Aquinas in the 13th century, to the philosophers of the Enlightenment in the 18th. In their faith in human reason, they took the superlative, perfectly spherical God of medieval theology and did it one better, and so we got the irrelevant God of deism, who can be counted on never to insert Himself into the world and disturb it; they took the bible and edited the miracles from it and reduced it to a source of moral tales which they did not in any case read—unless they already agreed with them.

What was their problem with those scriptural tales? Well, it's what they tell of what God is like: for all the philosophical perfections we attribute to God, the story scripture tells of his action in the world is so, well, skewed. The story it tells of God is that He chooses to work through particular people, and he does not reward heroes: he makes them out of the unlikely. Thus he picks Abram, and Joseph, and Moses, and David, and the many prophets; and while they in faith prove God's choice, it is clear in every case that it is not through their own merit that they have grace thrust upon them. Abram's only qualification appears to be negative: that he is childless. Moses is set apart at birth and is reduced to watching his father-in-law's herds in the wilderness when God calls to him. Joseph and David are boys, the tail ends of their families.

And now, today, the angel Gabriel from heaven comes to speak the word to Mary, who, of all women, is chosen to bear the Word of God incarnate. What is special about Mary? Luke and Matthew say only that she was virgin, as Abram's wife Sarai and Zachariah's wife Elizabeth were barren, so that the life-giving power of God might be fully shown in these children of the promise: Isaac, John, and last and finally, Jesus. And these promises are another characteristic of our God. The irresistible grace laid upon them by the Spirit is in every case accompanied by promises: to Abraham, to be the founder of a nation; to Joseph and Moses, to save the Hebrew people in Egypt; to David, to complete the founding of the nation; to Zachariah, the salvation of his people; and finally, to Mary, to bear the Messiah, the Son of the Most High.

Thus Mary, as with her forerunners, was a hearer of the Word, and also its bearer. And she is also its speaker: in her visit to Elizabeth, she prophesies the words we sang in place of the psalm today, praising God for his blessing, acknowledging his mercies, and foretelling the kingdom. Is there something special about her? Well, yes, of course: only one woman is the Godbearer, the Theotokos as the Greeks call her. “Blessed are you among women”: that was Elizabeth's greeting. And yet, in a way we are all made special as she is, for in this hall we are all God-hearers, and through baptism we are all made incorporate in Christ's body which is the church, even this child which is brought before us today. And in each communion we partake of that holy body and blood, so that God is in us in the most literal way, made part of our very matter, as Jesus's humanity was taken from his mother.

It is all so very unreasonable. Why should a bit of bread and a sip of wine put God in us? Why should a splash of water bind us to Christ? Rational humanity scoffs. Why should God be manifested in three men at Mamre, or a burning bush? Who can believe that elderly women or virgins can bear children? Rational, scientific mankind knows better, because it does not know God. We say, piously and superlatively, that God is beyond human comprehension, but it is so very hard to take this seriously. Humans want explanations, and if they are not forthcoming from God, then, well, our theologians can supply them if we do not, and eventually we explain God away entirely. Rationalism demands a God who can be examined at humanity's whim and leisure, but that is not what God is like. God is uncooperative and does not submit to such probing; God speaks, and it is for us to hear—to hear, and to repeat. At the end of Luke's narrative of Jesus's birth and childhood, he says that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart,” and it can be guessed that she is the ultimate source of the scriptural account we have. God reveals himself in the word, but it is we, his people, who must carry it forward. We must, like Mary, like men and women of faith through the ages, be speakers of the word, for how else will the grain of faith be scattered, that the angels may harvest at the end of days?

Our peculiar God has, in his inscrutable wisdom, entrusted his church with speaking his word, a strategy which one theologian described as appearing to be an act of supreme folly. But that is the God that is, and thus we have it that salvation is not something one can find, but something that one is given, given right here, through word and sacrament, but first of all through the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus, the son of Mary and son of God, the Messiah born of the line of David, as promised of old—for although the prophecy made to Nathan foretold the glory of Solomon, it also spoke, out of time, of the greater son of David, who is Jesus. Tonight we remember his first advent, singing with the shepherds; and through grace, we wait in hope for his second advent, when the Father's purpose is brought to its close, and we are united with him in the life which has no end, in his everlasting glory, the Father who with the Son and the Spirit lives and reigns unto ages of ages. AMEN.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Numbers: 2016

Well, when you get past the spin, the news about the 2016 numbers is that the news isn't as bad as usual. Domestic attendance dropped by 1.6% instead of the typical 3%; given the impending Christmas year, if these kind of numbers become the baseline, then they might manage some slight growth that year.

Lots of dioceses showed growth this year, with the largest absolute increase coming in the diocese of Washington. Half of that increase, it appears, came at the cathedral, where the new dean seems to be working out: attendance is up over 20% from its 2014 low. This has to be evaluated, though, against the decline of over 500 from the most recent peak, in 2007: on that basis we're looking at a 30% loss still to be undone. Several other larger parishes appear to have contributed most of the rest of the increase; of course the prevailing pattern is still decline.

Maryland, as I mentioned earlier, also posted a small gain, again, it appears, mostly based on gains at a few of the largest parishes. Besides the two mentioned, twenty-four other domestic dioceses posted gains, with the largest percentages in Navaholand (12.3%) and Northwest Texas, whose 7.0% gain was the second largest absolute increase (Washington is 7.6 times larger, so it only increased by 1.8%).

No province gained attendance overall, but the geography of dioceses with increases is striking. While there was at least one gaining diocese in each province, the gainers were concentrated in Province 3 (the mid-Atlantic) and even more so in Province 7 (Texas and the southern plains), where seven of twelve dioceses showed gains. The five dioceses with losses, however, tended to lose big. In Province 3 the gaining dioceses lie in a strip running from Erie to Richmond, with Philadelphia tacked on the northeast corner; again it's big losses in a few dioceses which make the difference, as losses in Bethlehem and Southern Virginia together account almost exactly for the 525 net loss for the province. Curiously, of the four surviving split dioceses, all but South Carolina recorded gains; unfortunately the schismatic diocese hasn't posted numbers yet, so I can't see how they compare.

The situation for the foreign dioceses has shifted markedly. Province 9 is dominated by huge losses in Honduras, but sampling of the parish charts suggests that there are still severe record-keeping problems, as the numbers since the 2013 "correction" tend either to grind along as very small values, or jump about erratically. Suffice to say that the diocese accounts for most of the loss in the province, and 55% of all the foreign loss. Haiti also posted a large loss, and since it accounts for half of foreign attendance, well, between it and Honduras the foreign dioceses as a whole lost 10.6% of their attendance, and it could be worse: it appears that Venezuela didn't report data this year. On the other hand, omitting the foreign dioceses from Province 2 reduces its loss from 3.3% to 2.4%.

One year is not a trend, and while the Living Church made a fairly cautious and minimal report, headlined "Declines Soften a Bit". The Episcopal Cafe, on the other hand, went for "Signs of hope in 2016 TEC stats", ending with "The clear takeaway from this report should be that terminal decline is not our future, but certainly consolidation is." Well, even if the 3% per annum losses had continued, it would be a long time, I suspect, before we would see wholesale consolidation of dioceses, but really, this is trying to put a good face on things. And their analysis tends to concentrate on the less reliable membership numbers, so when they say that "There do not appear to be large regional variations in ASA or membership changes domestically, though the southern provinces (IV and VII) had smaller percentage declines than average," well, that's not what I see in the ASA numbers, where Province 4 is not among the worst, but where few diocese recorded gains, and those gains were small. But it will be at least three years before we can see whether this represents an interruption in decline, or a slackening, or the beginning of a real turnaround.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Reshaping Away the Creed

Matthew S.C. Olver's assessment of Ruth A. Meyers's "revised edition" of Leonel Mitchell's seminal Praying Shapes Believing heads right into the issues which make me an opponent of the push to "revise" the prayer book. Now, Mitchell having been dead this past half-decade, and thus not in a position to take exception to this, there is a serious problem with this notion of a "revision" of his work in the first place. It's not too much to say that Meyers has, in reality, co-opted Mitchell's voice in pushing a program which, at least in the passages which Olver highlights, is quite at odds with what Mitchell said the first time around. I have to say that she needed to have published her own book and left his well enough alone.

But those passages: the changes that raise my hackles the most are those which address the place of the creeds, both in worship and in the doctrine of the church. Consider this:

In her other books, Meyers cites other issues that might be addressed Meyers in a future prayer-book revision. One of those is the Nicene Creed. Meyers replaces a sentence of Mitchell’s that acclaims the creed as sign of unity and renewal of the Baptismal Covenant with a clause noting that it “provides material for both an historical and a systematic theology.”

It is not an essential part of the liturgy,” she adds. “It was introduced into Eastern liturgies in the early sixth century and was only added to the liturgy at Rome in the eleventh century. The core beliefs of the church are expressed in the eucharistic prayers, which carries much of the theological weight of the liturgy on weekdays when the creed is not proclaimed” (pp. 158-59). The complicating issue, of course, is that in Enriching Our Worship, any gendered proper names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and their subsisting relations disappear. This disappearance is only exacerbated if the Creed is not used, as Meyers seems to favor and as Enriching our Worship appears to allow.

One is moved to ask why the creed was added, but then it's easy enough to guess why there is such pressure to take it back out: not because it is unnecessary, but because it is offensive. In the rhythm of the first half of our eucharistic liturgy (the "Liturgy of the Word") it is the high point of a sequence in which we praise God, we hear his word, we have it interpreted and elaborated for us, and we respond with an act of anamnesis: the ancient statement of our church's faith, as we have it from the church fathers. In this wise the Eastern name for it, the Symbol of Faith, is entirely apropos. And it is entirely reasonable to come at Enriching Our Worship with the observation that it wishes to permit, and perhaps even to establish, deviation from that ancient faith. Beyond the in my opinion misbegotten gender issues, the direction taken is away from anything definite and towards a liturgy that eliminates acknowledgement of our subordination to the godhead and especially to what that the Lord has already said. This is particular evident in her attitude towards the general confession:

When Meyers discusses the frequency of the general confessions, she adds the clarification that “there is no ancient precedent for a general confession of sin at any point in the eucharistic liturgy” (p. 152). This is a bit misleading, since there is precedence for preparatory prayers of penitence by clergy of both Eastern and Western churches, the use of the Confiteor from at least the 11th century in the West, and most importantly the requirement that a Christian confess all serious sins sacramentally before receiving Communion. The rejection of the necessity of auricular confession at the reformations leads to the appearance of general confessions. Without this background, one is left with the impression that confessions are simply an incursion into the eucharistic liturgy. This perspective is furthered because Meyers deletes a sentence by Mitchell that notes, “The confession of sin is an integral part of our common prayers and an important preparation for worship.”

Well, yeah. Her bland remarks are utterly at variance with pre-reformation practice, about as far back as we are aware of. But simply erasing Mitchell's position on this: that is really beyond the pale.

It is increasingly apparent that the 1979 book, far from being the liberation from old Anglican tradition that the progressive party wants, somehow managed to re-embody that tradition in corpus of the newly written rites. Even Prayer C, that last minute and entirely novel construction, spends too much time on our sinful rebellion to go down easy in the new revision. And those patriarchs: what an embarrassing gaffe! So now we have to start over again, and make the liturgy safe for the unrepentant and the apostate. You can guess my assessment that: ANATHEMA!

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Appomattox in the Cathedral

So the word has come down that the Lee and Jackson windows are being removed, consigned to some undetermined fate. Those who have read my earlier responses here and here may anticipate, correctly, that I am not terribly happy about this, but the events in Charlottesville surely sealed their doom.

Mark Tooley's article in First Things is a bit of a mess, and the comments of course are mostly a cesspool of posturing, but he manages to convey some of the rather mixed message of the cathedral fabric. This report produced by the task force set up to advise the cathedral on the windows is not particularly illuminating in its own right and especially as to the motivations of anyone other than a UDC member (you knew the Daughters were going to figure in this), and her offering is a classic in Lost Cause thinking, but when it comes down to it either Bishop Freeman (who was an upper crust New Yorker from birth) was misrepresented in his stated desire for a Lee memorial, or there were a number of Yankees who helped push this thing along. My impression was that they found Lee and then Jackson, who was added fairly late in the development of the memorial, honorable and even admirable figures; they were also plainly having Westminster Abbey delusions, into which certain prominent southern figures dovetailed nicely. And at least it was Jackson, and not Leonidas Polk. But while the cathedral has managed to maintain its claim to national religious ceremony (as witnessed most recently by its dogged participation in the Trump inaugural in defiance of progressive pressure), its memorials are scattered and unsystematic. Nowhere is this more evident than in the windows, which, except for Rowan leCompte's clerestory series, vary widely in style and subject, with the only pattern dictated by age and taste, and, well, by donors.

Those images form part of a fabric that is at once anamnetic and forward-looking in hope. "A house of prayer for all people" was an objective from the start, and while one can of course feel a certain hubris in the Episcopal assumption that they were ordained to do the uniting, the cathedral as a building stands as a monument to the idea of a nation gathered together in prayer. But the Episcopal Church itself has abandoned any such vision. Our leadership still suffers from the notion that they, by virtue of their positions, ought to be heeded, but they in reality have come to speak for a narrowed position that is still caught in the old boomer progressive contradiction of being simultaneously rebellious against authorities and utterly captured by leftist academia's elitist notions.

The torch-bearing mob in Charlottesville tipped the balance, of course: with Lee and Jackson being shrouded and indeed any figure on the wrong side of modern judgement about the war being taken away in the night, it was inevitable that the windows would be secularized and taken away to ignominy. But with their removal comes another moment of national irreconciliation. The national battle is not between alt-right fascists and righteous leftists, for the vast bulk of the nation would have neither in control in the end, contrary to the alarmists who serve the major political interests. Too many people have defended taking down the statues by making anachronistic attacks on Lee's character; he was no saint, nor were any of the other generals on either side, but to reduce him to a mere traitor is to apply a judgement out of time and in denial of a genuine conflict of loyalty. This is rewriting history, and while I have laughed at the romanticism of the Southern cause ever since I was old enough to understand the antics of the North Carolinians who populate my father's family, the current angry certainty of the left trivializes the issues faced by southerners when the war began. And my sense is that we have still further into a national ethos where the constraining civic virtues-- honor, loyalty, duty, respect-- shrink further from public life and become merely weapons: increasingly ineffectual, as the last presidential election showed. It is often said on the left that these were always honored more in the breach than the observance, but I do not believe that; and at any rate, if we do not aspire to them, the alternative is, well, the increasing nastiness we have now instead.

I'm not writing nasty or sorrowful letters to the cathedral, if only because I do not believe they will value my opinion. I have to hope that Dean Hollerith and Bishop Budde, unlike their immediate predecessors, will be able to deal with the empty tracery with some sensitivity instead of a display of triumphalist self-righteousness. And I pray that they can find a way to include those outside the progressive circle in the future of our national cathedral.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Attendance, Two Decades On

Back in 2010 I put up this post on ASA for the period 1992-2008. I cannot find the data I used for the charts in that post, but with a little snooping around I did find data for 1995 to 2015, so here we have charts for Average Sunday Attendance in the domestic dioceses. First, the totals:

Next, the percent change per year:

In the latter chart you can see that, yes, once again, 2011 shows the Christmas Sunday effect, which we will see again either this year or next as well. And you can see that, yes, 2003 was the watershed year, and that, excepting 2011, we have lost attendance steadily ever since. I didn't draw charts for the dioceses, but you can see the total change here (noting that Quincy doesn't appear, it having disappeared in the period):

Those two green patches are the only gainers; Western North Carolina had essentially no change. Everyone else lost attendance, predominately in the 30-50% range, with the four surviving split dioceses having lost in excess of 70% each. I'm hoping to go through Red Book data and see what I can do about other diocesan statistics in a later post, but this is bad enough: 3% a year, year by year, for over a decade now.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Diocese by The Numbers: Prelude to 2016

Well, I discovered in check a few parishes last night that R&S has (mostly) put up new charts. I say "mostly" because, as was the case last year, South Carolina's diocese chart is missing, and it appears that St. Savior at St. John the Divine in NYC has been bad and didn't report numbers this year, because there's no change in their chart.

In good news, it looks like replacing the dean at National Cathedral is continuing to pay off in increased attendance: ASA is up 20% from its 2014 low. Grace Church Brunswick also continues to climb, though we'll have to see how things go now that Anjel Scarborough is moving to a new parish. Other than that, the news tends to be lackluster performance in all directions. For the national church I'll be waiting for the tables, but spot checking shows that dioceses tend to be showing slight declines, with Nevada again the conspicuous exception; Maryland, however, is showing the increase we were promised a year earlier, and Washington may also have posted a small increase, so it's possible that this may be the first year in a while that the church as a whole doesn't post a 3% loss. I'll have to go through all the parishes again to see where the Maryland increase came from but I can tell you that my home parish was not one of those contributing.

2017 will be a Christmas year for ASA, so if we get better numbers this year, we might get two years of apparently good news in a row. Or at least, perhaps not consistently bad news.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Diocese by the Numbers: Next Door

I have run some of the same analyses on the Diocese of Washington, and have come up with some quite surprising results: although some of the aggregate numbers are similar, the details are almost entirely different.

Let's start with some geography, and then some history. The diocese of Washington was carved out of the Diocese of Maryland because what at its peak was over two hundred parishes (and probably close to it, back in the day) is way too much for one bishop to administer. (Easton, the eastern shore portion, was split off much sooner, I would guess due to travel issues during the Civil War.) Back then, both dioceses had an urban core surrounded by a great sea of rural space, but this similarity was deceptive, and the evolution of both the city and especially the suburbs would lead to very different social contexts for the two.

Washington, now, consists of a central mass of urban density wrapped by a blanket of outer suburbs that fades to nothing on the south side, and bracketed by two very different rural areas. The Western end is like Diocese of Maryland territory, with a mixture of farm and outer suburbs and a sprinkling of late Vicky carpenter gothic town churches. The southern one contains the oldest settlements in the state and is served by scattered chapels of ease, mostly Georgian in style. The diocese also contains the black heartland of the state. Maryland by contrast has a large rural western area which is isolated, very white, and Appalachian more than farm rural, and the built-up urban area is much smaller, but also poorer. Howard (in the diocese of Maryland) and Montgomery (in Washington) are at the top of the income pyramid in the entire country, but Montgomery is much larger, and over a third of it is essentially city, whereas Howard has no truly urban area at all (Columbia being, when all is said and done, an experiment in making a really large subdivision). Economically, DC and its suburbs have waxed and waxed, while Baltimore has waned.

In the orthodoxy wars, the two dioceses were both focal points, but with very different issues, policies, and outcomes. The big story in DC, of course, was the fight over imposing Jane Dixon on several conservative parishes; the diocese won, in the end, and I don't know of any parishes which left all or in part. Maryland, on the other hand, was a focus of resistance, as symbolized in the Baltimore Declaration, but also as realized in the departure of two parishes and the riving of St. Peter's Ellicott City, which has suffered through other crises since and is only now, perhaps, showing signs of recovery.

And then, of course, there is the National Cathedral, which shows something else about DC: it has big destination parishes.

So, enough prelude, and on to the music. Washington also shows ASA loss through the decade, but not to the same degree: 23% to Maryland's 27%. It lost fewer parishes as well, three to Maryland's ten, though in the latter case there were actually twelve losses and two missions started. I don't have information on whether any of the Washington parishes started in this time frame, but there's nothing to suggest that any did. Now, the cathedral, in 2005, accounted for more than 10% of diocesan ASA, so when it is excluded, the two dioceses have close to comparable attendance, with Washington running about 2,000 larger at both ends of the decade. But the cathedral's attendance tanked starting in 2012, which perhaps not coincidentally is when Gary Hall arrived as dean, so that attendance in 2015 was about two-thirds that in 2005. The rest of the parishes declined, in the aggregate, 21%.

In the midst of this, another number stands out: parishes in Washington are just bigger. I didn't go through the work needed to get specific numbers for each parish, so I cannot give a median, but the mean parish in Washington (ignoring the cathedral) had an ASA of 163 in 2005 and 135 a decade later; Maryland's average parish started smaller (113) and shrunk more, to say nothing of the closures.

Staffing is another area where there are conspicuous differences. Washington doesn't do permanent deacons, and thus I found a single deacon listed in the entire diocese. I didn't keep track of associate positions, but I did some of the same analysis for rectors and priests-in-charge that I did for Maryland, and found strikingly different patterns. Maryland, recall, has a lot of home-grown priests and many cases where the newly-ordained stepped directly into being the sole priest in a parish. Neither pattern obtains in Washington: half as many rectors in Washington were ordained in that diocese, and only five went directly from being ordained to running a parish. (One of the latter was ordained in Maryland by, yes, Eugene Sutton.) Beyond that, Washington rectors represent a wider range of dioceses, with the more conservative dioceses better represented (which is to say, at all): Two were ordained by Duncan in Pittsburgh; one from Salmon in South Carolina. But then there is not a lot of commonality between the lists for the two dioceses: the total number is about the same, but only eleven show up in both lists, and other than the two home dioceses, only Virginia has more than one in both lists, no doubt due to the bishop there accosting VTS graduates. Only five parishes were in transition (I think-- there was one person whose peregrinations greatly confused this) as compared to three times the number in Maryland.

And then there is money. I have recently come across this table which is particularly interesting, as it reports non-P&P income, such as endowments. The range in the latter is extreme: ignoring Navaholand, which gets major support from the national church, on the one end we see New York in which P&P accounts for just under half of total revenue, and at the other Upper South Carolina, where P&P accounts for 95%. Now, the cathedral again undoubtedly skews Washington numbers, considering that out of P&P of $33M, it supplies $2M; I have no idea how much it skews endowment income but the contribution must be substantial. Nonetheless, again, in nearly every way Washington is more prosperous than Maryland: people give more, the pledges are larger, and the non-P&P income is larger; and all of this is spread across fewer parishes with more attendees. The only place were Maryland comes out ahead is in the plate, where the average attendee gives $371 a year versus $319 in Washington. One is tempted to assume this reflects the basic prosperity of the two regions.