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.

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