Friday, April 21, 2017

Parish "Growth"

Lately there has been a trope in this diocese of stories about "growing" congregations. For instance, we have this ENS story joining St. John's Havre de Grace to Resurrection Baltimore; meanwhile we have this upbeat Baltimore Sun piece on St. Peter's Ellicott City.

So let's look at the history of these places, courtesy of Research and Statistics handy charts. The picture they paint isn't terribly upbeat: yes, these parishes show increases, but only if you look at the past few years. Starting with St. John's: ASA in 2005 was about 45, and ASA in 2015 was just under fifty. What we're seeing here may turn into growth in the long run, but what the chart shows is a marginal parish which had a brush with dissolution. Resurrection is a bit harder to puzzle out because the apparent metamorphosis into a Spanish-language mission isn't reflected anywhere that I can see. But there's that chart again, which shows a parish on the verge of extinction transforming into— well, into a marginal parish with negligible income, for with P&P of under $20K the diocese must surely be providing a lot of support.

The situation at St. Peter's is better-documented, not to say notorious. I don't have numbers from before when the rector and a chunk of the congregation went off tot he Antiochians, but ASA in 2015 was roughly two-thirds the 120 or so who attended on an average Sunday in 2005. In the middle the parish nearly came apart, what with internal strife and then the (probably unrelated) murder of one of the outgoing co-rectors. Again, the message is crisis survived rather than a model of growth, for ASA of around 70 is at the low end of viability, though at least their finances are sound enough. Meanwhile, St. John's Mt. Washington (actually a neighborhood in Baltimore) has abandoned its building in favor of the chapel at a nearby retirement community. This is being spun as a positive thing but ASA in the 30-40 range and P&P of $40K and dropping more or less steadily means a congregation that could no longer afford a building and was lucky to find another home.

Here's the ugly truth in this diocese: attendance has dropped, fairly steadily, over a decade, with attendance in 2015 about 73% of what it was in 2005. That parallels the drop in the national church. I'm not going to go through all 100-odd parishes and missions in the diocese, but I have yet to come upon one which has shown significant growth over the period. Some are stable, other erratic, some show declines; and of course, there are the closures.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Crucial Message

preached for the Easter Vigil, 2017

Here we wait in faith, in the dark of night, waiting for morning's appearance, watching for the women at the tomb. We know the story, as they did not; we await the discovery that the stone has been rolled away, while they came upon it in surprise and trepidation. The apparition of the angels shocked them, while we listen for their appearance and their message in joyful anticipation. The wonder and amazement with which they received that message has, for us, been turned into rejoicing, but better still, faith: faith in Jesus, through belief in the resurrection, which is the key to the kingdom into which we have been brought.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this testimony, and scripture itself emphasizes this. It scandalizes some people that the gospels, especially John, are not in complete harmony, and do not record all the same events, the same teachings and parables, and the same miracles as one another; often it is held that those passages where they are in agreement, they are said to have copied from a common text, rather than admit that they are all based in common memory. It seems to me that too much is made of this by those looking for reasons to disbelieve what the church has taught over the centuries, but in any case, when it comes to the events following the last supper, the four gospels converge on a single narrative, to which they devote more space than any other single story. They all agree that Jesus took the disciples with him when he went to pray at Gethsemane, and that there he was arrested by guards from the temple, led by Judas; they all recount the same story of interrogation by Caiaphas and the chief priests, during which Peter made the three prophesied denials of his master; they all tell how Jesus was taken to Pilate, who condemned Jesus in spite of his obvious innocence, releasing Barabbas instead, as a sop to the crowds. They all describe how Jesus was mocked, and how he was crucified with two others, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James looking on, but the disciples dispersed. and how his clothing was divided among the soldiers; and they all state that Joseph of Aramathea came and, with Pilate's permission, took the body away and laid it in the stone tomb, wrapped in a shroud, before the day was out.

But that is not the end of it, by no means. All of them go on to relate the same tale of Sunday morning: that at daybreak Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it opened, and that Jesus' body was not there; they all say that she and those with her encountered angels who asked her why she wept, and who told her that Jesus was not there, and that he was risen from the dead. Here, then, is the heart of the gospel message: Christ crucified, but also, Christ risen. Nothing is more important to the faith than this—nothing! Only the incarnation, as doctrine, approaches it. It is because of the testimony of these women and that of the disciples after them, in their encounters with the empty tomb and the risen Jesus, that we have a religion to preach. It was this that Peter taught in his address to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, and which teaching put him and the other disciples in front of the Sanhedrin.

Paul likewise makes Christ crucified and risen again the center of his teaching, and so must we also bear witness, for if Christ were not arisen, what would the point be? It is the testimony of that Friday, and that Sunday morning, that gives meaning and justification to our gathering here, to remember again the glorious grace which we have received. Were Jesus not arisen, well, we have many moral teachers from around the world; what is one more? Were Jesus not arisen, what hope would there be in our faith? Were Jesus not arisen, why should the world heed our message?

But the tomb is empty, as the women related; Christ is arisen, and death's power is thus broken, to be utterly wiped away on the last day, when the old passes away and all is made new forever. It is these moments in history, in which salvation is realized, that are the foundation of our message to the world. The brokenness of humanity is something that anyone can see; human sinfulness is the one doctrine which can be empirically observed. But salvation is hidden from such inquiry; it can be found only in the church, not because the church owns it, but because it is the testimony of the the church, the memory of those sacred days, that brings the message of salvation to the world. Without us as its messengers, who would hear of Christ? Who would know that salvation is there, and is freely given, and may be taken for no greater price than confession, faith, and baptism? And when we say to others, “you should live as we teach, in the name of Christ,” who should heed us? We know that Jesus is the incarnate Son, and that his teaching is that of God on earth; but we know him first as Jesus crucified, buried, and risen again, and it is this which compels our worship, because it is in this that we see the fulfillment of the LORD God's saving purpose. And if it is how we see what is revealed, it is thus how we must show others the same divine revelation.

Christ is risen from the dead: that is our first message; come and be baptized: that is our second; and live together in the kingdom as Jesus taught, doing his work as we await the last days in faith, love, and hope: that is our third. One follows the other; they are not separate. So here we are, and what work must we do? Well, to live as Christ taught, of course, dead to sin in the sacrifice of his crucifixion, as Paul explained. But it is not simply a matter of living an upright and godly life in charity and purity of heart. No, to the best of our ability, and in the grace of the Spirit, we must carry out the will of the Father not only in abjuring sin, but in showing the Son to the world. Those outside the church need to see a reason for coming in, not just through our superior life (for at this we fail over and over), but through our superior knowledge: we know the story of salvation, and the world does not. The world chases after false gods: not only failing to see the LORD God as He is, and worshiping others in His place, but elevating human lusts and greed and impulses above all other principles, to the end that any kind of life together becomes predatory and abusive. We must offer them, instead, the one True God, incarnate in Jesus the only Christ, fully real and truly man, crucified at one place and time in Judaea while Pilate was procurator under the Emperor Tiberius, and risen again from the tomb in Jerusalem, and from thence returned to the heaven which is beyond our mortal and physical knowledge. As they are taught, and are baptized, and partake of the sacraments, then shall they know the Word Incarnate, and shall see the Godhead, and with us they may join in the work of the kingdom. And then with us they shall proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died!
Christ is risen!
Christ will come again!

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Bother of Holy Week

From Aleteia:
Is Holy Week really worth the effort? If you talk to pastors, liturgists, choir directors, leaders of RCIA, etc., Holy Week is a time of frenetic activity, the culmination of much planning and lack of planning, and somehow—at least sometimes—inspiring. And then…? Well, a few weeks of lilies and extra “Alleluias!” and then back to business as usual. (E.g., First Confessions and Communions in May, a spate of weddings in June, etc.) It seems that Holy Week is a lot of work for a few, an inconvenience for a few more (“How many times do I have to drag the kids to church this week?!?”), and an annual irrelevance for many, if not most Catholics. But does it have to be that way?

Here’s the key problem with Holy Week as described above: People who halfheartedly believe that they’re sinners try to stir up sorrow for an atoning death they’re not quite convinced they need, so that a few days later they can try to stir up joy for the benefits of a resurrection they don’t quite understand or believe in. So understood, it’s not very convincing theater, and even less is it worthy worship.

Friday, February 03, 2017

On Being the Principal Minister

From Peter Robinson, UECNA bishop and old on-line friend:
I really do not want to be prescriptive about ceremonial, but I do think we need to keep two ideas before us. Firstly, we are Anglicans, not wannabe anything elses. Secondly, the function of worship is to offer glory and praise to God, so every time we approach the altar or the reading desk we need to remember "I must decrease; He must increase!" That means that the church's ceremonial should minimize the individuality of the priest, and take him into the liturgy as an integral part thereof as the 'minister' and not the focus of public worship. For this reason I object in the strongest terms to the westward facing position at communion, and to the practice of individualizing or omitting the accustomed vestments. The minister should stand at the Lord's Table or the reading desk not as Pastor Bob or Fr. Jim, but as just another minister of Word and Sacrament.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

I'll Take the BCP Behind the Curtain, Monty

So the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music is offering us four options for going forward on BCP revision:
  • Revise Book of Common Prayer
  • Create Book(s) of Alternative Services, and leave the BCP 1979 alone
  • More talking, listening, researching, and discerning
  • Deepening our relationship with the 1979 BCP
They also offer a "technical fixes" option which could go with any of the other four.

If you've read many of my BCP revision posts, you can guess that I prefer the fourth option: no revision yet. The current book needs some revision, but limited, and revision only. We already, in the form of Enriching Our Worship, have the second option, and it has been a major problem, both in terms of commonality and in what those alternate rites say. New rites (e.g. the trial same-sex blessing rite) have consistently taken precisely what is problematic about EOW as a starting point, and there was a large outcry when revision was announced of people who saw the process as specifically to legitimize if not impose these deviations; I was one of them. So the first option is undesirable, and the second option, legitimizing the current mess, is undesirable.

And more talking? Well, they didn't say "dialogue", which as we all know tends to mean "We know better than you on this topic and we’re going to have a ‘dialogue’ until you see the error of your ways and agree with me at which point our dialogue will be done." But setting the terms of the talking is crucial and problematic. Already we have Matthew S. C. Olver saying "I think it is important to acknowledge at the beginning of this piece that Christians must take seriously the concerns raised by feminist theologians" and "Related to this more experiential concern is the basic Christian theological claim that God is neither a man nor a woman, neither male nor female." OK, well, I do not agree to the second, which is not to say that I disagree, but simply that the issue is debatable. In the first place, if this is going to be "basic" for a Protestant, it has to be attested directly from scripture. And while I am certainly open to be corrected about this, I am not aware of such attestation; the principle appears to arise out of neo-Platonic idealism about God. Furthermore, the problem is not as a rule language concerning the Godhead, but about the three Persons. There the whole thing starts to come apart very quickly when the words "male" and "female" are pinned down, because given current sexuality doctrine there is nothing one can say about the words as genders that affords any objective truth, and without something objective to anchor them on, treating the names as rhetorical figures devolves into meaninglessness.

The bigger issue, however, is the demand to engage feminist theology. I'm plenty happy to engage it, but when I start complaining about its category errors, left and right, things are surely headed off into Dialogue. The tendency in these "dialogues" is to exclude me because I am male, and therefore (if I dissent) a troglodyte who has to be instructed (that is, lectured and then dismissed). It's hugely problematic that the many people who accept women as priests but who have problems with radfem talk about God are largely ignored, and the attitude from the SCLM up to now has been that EOW is the starting point for everything new. EOW is also our local source for the pro omnis error, which they don't mention; but it also represents a step away from Protestant principles.

I suppose there needs to be talking all right, but it needs to be about more fundamental principles than feminism or universalism. The biggest issue is our institutional hypocrisy about theology as a whole. We have creeds, which we stand up and say "on Sundays and Major Feasts", and then our clerics deny that we believe them. We affirm the church's teaching that communion is only for the baptized, and then advertise in all too many parishes that "all are welcome to partake." We promulgate a church position on abortion that has been reaffirmed several times over now, and nobody would dare to teach it on a Sunday. On the one hand, we get subjected to controversial deviations as if there was consensus to do so; on the other, we get subjected to deviations when there is stated consensus that they are deviant and not to be done. Trying to work out a new prayer book in these circumstances is a huge problem because this sort of behavior makes it a bad-faith effort.

that's why I'm in favor of sticking with the last option. I think there is plenty to fix in the current book, but I don't see how we can go about that until, to be really blunt about it, the progressive side starts playing fair.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Designing the Beloved

Kara Slade, in The Living Church, has written a fascinating and thoughtful reflection on robotics and sexuality which does not flinch from the difficulties of the subject, and especially the hubris hidden in the topic.

Let us start with this observation: "In Levy’s presentation, the language deployed to describe the ideal robotic spouse was inadvertently telling: ' All of the following qualities and many more are likely to be achievable in software within a few decades. Your robot will be patient, kind, protective, loving, trusting, truthful, persevering, respectful, uncomplaining, complimentary, pleasant to talk to, and sharing your sense of humor.' Suffice it to say for now that this statement reveals quite a bit about the priorities of the author, and very little about the task of technologically approximating any existing human woman." Or to put in in other words: the robot is to be giving out on the one hand and undemanding on the other. So that word, "love": this describes not something to be loved, certainly not the subject of agape. It is instead something to take "love" from.

And that takes us to something that Slade does not touch upon. She does remark upon the endless optimism of AI futurists that the human mind can be simulated, but it is, after all, 2017 and not 1976, the year that Joseph Weizenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason was published. Weizenbaum was shocked to discover that many people were willing to treat interaction with the manifestly stupid ELIZA program which he had constructed as if it were interaction with a real person. The lesson I see in this is that the Turing Test (conversation with a computer being indistinguishable from that with a human) is in practice not successful, because people aren't good at it. Weizenbaum went on to attack the whole notion of external behavior as a proxy for the interior life of the mind, and this is particularly pointed in a situation where that internal life really seems, in the end, to be unwelcome.

After all, the terms of Levy's ideal are frankly servile, and it is a short distance from serving to simply being used. One senses from all the emphasis on sexual companionship that these futurists have no problem with the idea of a robotic sex toy which cannot be raped because refusal has been edited out of its humanity. It one telling footnote, Slade remarks that "While writing in this field gestures toward both male and female robotic lovers, the predominant assumption is clearly centered on the idea of a robotic woman," and I imagine that feminist analysis of this would be unsparing. She remarks on the degree to which various alienations seem to drive the quest for the robotic companion, but there is the irony: if it were possible to fully emulate the humanity of a real woman, it does not seem (in the minds of these would-be Pygmalions) desirable to do so. This she does note, but I would go further: not only would they not desire it, but I believe that they would on one level fail to see that something was missing. That is, they would see that some "undesirable" impulses were absent, but they would fail to grasp that they had obtained a less-than-human, because all of these "faults" arise out of the will.

So here we are, right back in our own Eden, but we don't have to worry about Eve taking the fruit because she lacks the independence to do so. I am thus irresistibly reminded of the creation of the dwarves by Aulë in the Quenta Silmarillion. Ilúvatar sees how the dwarf fathers were created outside of his one, true creation, and he challenges Aulë's deviation from the divine plan; but when Aulë moves to destroy them, they quail, showing that they have been given life and wills of their own. I imagine our ideal companion robots putting up no such defense, and indeed one can imagine a robot who has specifically been created to be tortured (as I believe at least one SF write must have already depicted). And thus the alienation is complete: its creators put off from real human congress, the ideal robot companion is made a perversion of humanity, specifically so that it can be used and abused without qualm. We may not be able to give it a soul, but we will surely see to it that it does not accidentally get one. So much of robot mythology fantasizes that they may exceed our humanity and displace us, but here it seems that in our relationships with them, they may exceed our humanity because we diminish theirs— and with that, our own.

Monday, January 16, 2017

On Naming the President in Prayer

Let it be said first of all that a quick glance through the BCP shows there is little expectation that the president be payed for by name. Of the seven forms for the prayers in the eucharist, only two (Rite I and Form V) even offer an option for naming him; neither does Prayer 19 ("For the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority") among the miscellany in the back. (A correspondent informs me that the Great Litany does expect the name to be used.)

And yet. Consider the following miscellaneous prayers:

  • 6. For our Enemies
  • 26. For those who suffer for the sake of Conscience
  • 28. In Times of Conflict
And consider what we pray for concerning our president: "Grant [him] and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear." If we pray so for a president whose policies we support, how much more so for one whose views we deplore?

In the midst of the upcoming elevation of the despicable Donald Trump, we thus have the following missive from the rector of that bastion of liberal churchmanship, All Saints Pasadena: "I have made the change to remove the president’s name (while continuing to pray for him by title) and beginning to pray for the president-elect (though not by name)." The excuse he gives for this is that "[his] name is literally a trauma trigger to some people – particularly women and people who, because of his words and actions, he represents an active danger to health and safety." OK, well, that is nonsense. First of all, I don't think it is really true; I have too many overly dramatic (which is to say perfectly normal) elderly southern female relatives to take that seriously. Again, I say, I join with those who oppose him, most of his platform, and the culture of greed, amorality, and self-service which he represents. But just upon hearing his name? Take some Buck-u-uppo, for crying out loud. Or perhaps our clergy should follow the example of the priest who slaps his gibbering fellow passenger in Airport. Catering to such drama-mongering is just bad all around.

But in any case, this concern provides a convenient excuse for a political snub of the president-elect. All Saints has dabbled in politics quite a bit over the years, to the point of attracting some federal interest back in 2004. And I suppose, on one level, that casuistry obligates them to do so, even though they are very often wrong. But this simply comes across as petty.