Sunday, April 21, 2019

Antique and Holy Advice

Beloved in the Lord: Our Savior Christ, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood as a sign and pledge of his love, for the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of his death, and for a spiritual sharing in his risen life. For in these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another.

Having in mind, therefore, his great love for us, and in obedience to his command, his Church renders to Almighty God our heavenly Father never-ending thanks for the creation of the world, for his continual providence over us, for his love for all mankind, and for the redemption of the world by our Savior Christ, who took upon himself our flesh, and humbled himself even to death on the cross, that he might make us the children of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, and exalt us to everlasting life. But if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord. Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.

And if, in your preparation, you need help and counsel, then go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith.

To Christ our Lord who loves us, and washed us in his own blood, and made us a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father, to him be glory in the Church evermore. Through him let us offer continually the sacrifice of praise, which is our bounden duty and service, and, with faith in him, come boldly before the throne of grace.

The words I have just read to you come from your prayer book. They replace a set of three such exhortations from the previous book, the first of which was to be read on the first Sunday of Advent and of Lent, and on Trinity Sunday, and the other two to be read the Sunday prior to when communion was to be offered. In those days, before the eucharist was designated as “the principal act of Christian Worship on the Lord's Day and other major Feasts,” it was common that communion occurred perhaps monthly; but then, in Roman Catholic churches from medieval times until relatively recently, people commonly received only once or twice a year, though the mass was said every week.

In the middle ages, the people's part was to see the offering made, a theology rejected by the reformers; yet infrequent communion remained a feature of Protestant worship until the liturgical movements of the last century. I remember as a Presbyterian child attending communion only four times a year. But the reexamination of our rites which led up to the adoption of our current prayer book has overturned all that, so that weekly communion is the rule in most of our parishes. And thus, the typical Episcopalian, accustomed to a routine of Eucharists, week after week, likely finds this exhortation obscure, and its advice perhaps antique. Week after week, we come to church expecting to sing some hymns, hear some scripture and a sermon (hopefully brief), say the creed and some prayers, and then approach the altar for a fragment of bread and a sip of wine, with nary a qualm about the whole routine.

But perhaps we should be having qualms. The habit of weekly communion: this is commendable, as is any practice which cultivates prayer as part of life's pattern. But habit can become mechanical, and the weekly miracle can fall into the other kind of routine: ordinary, mechanical, lifeless. Paul writes that we who partake need to discern the body, or call down judgement upon ourselves. And surely Paul does not mean a literal vision here, for who among us can see divinity—or at that, who could withstand the vision? But equally surely, he must mean that our participation in the rite needs to go beyond simple consumption, and ought, within the bounds of your faculties, to be founded in an awareness of what it is that we do, with all the reverence and worship that this implies.

For consider this: for a moment, you will hold something of Jesus in your hand, and sip something of him from the cup. Christians over the years have argued exactly how this is so, and we Anglicans have refused to commit to a single theory of how this is so, which to my mind is a prudent reflection of the limits of theology as a product of human thought. I would venture to say that taking these theories too seriously may be condemned as fostering the factions and divisions which Paul condemned. But as a church we Anglicans have always held to the faith that Jesus is Really present: however spiritual, however material, however mystical, we do not hold communion to be only symbolic. Jesus is there, on the plate and in the cup, and Jesus is therefore in us, and we are united with him again as we are united in the church, which is also his body.

But even as these are truths, they are also images which can be made the objects of various sorts of idolatry. We can for example come to think of the altar rail as a sort of divine filling station in which we get our heavenly tanks topped off every week. And this much is true: we do need God every week, for we need God every minute of every day. But even to the degree that the Jesus is in the substance of communion, even to the degree that it feeds us, the analogy between His food and our daily bread tends to reduce the former to the latter, an ordinary transaction which we are wont to take for granted—especially the majority of us, whom I would wager never seriously want for nutrition.

Likewise, there is the risk of taking communion as a sort of religious insurance policy, so that we may go about the rest of our week indifferent to the gospel demands, secure (we think) in the armor with which our rites surround our souls. We sin, not in order that grace may abound, but simply because our routine includes a great deal of routine sinning, which we cannot be bothered to notice and or rein in. We know that we are good people, because we go to church and take Jesus into us each Sunday. Well, as you may recall, Jesus commended the Pharisees—barely—for their scrupulous observances; it was what went on in between that he condemned. We have improved upon this slightly, for we at least know that we hold the right moral and political and economic positions (as God appears to have taught us through the mouths of our secular leaders). But really, when examined seriously, our lives show contempt and hard-heartedness and lust and greed and every other sin on a daily basis. Yet we may be saved, but for the repentance which is not part of this routine.

It is this repentance which leads to a confession of sin have been made a part of the eucharistic liturgy. And the church, in her wisdom, has appointed that her priests may offer the grace of pardon not only corporately, but one-to-one. Indeed, in the larger church catholic, it has been the norm to insist that this be done in preparation for partaking. Anglicans have not made such a rule, but the rite has been commended, both in cases where a rite of personal contrition has seemed called for (as the exhortation suggests), and as a regular practice, seeing as how we sin as regularly. But at least we should approach the rail knowing and admitting our own failings, and also confident in the grace which washes sin away and makes us fit to stand before our God.

Therefore, I say this: if the words I read at the beginning sound antique, the instruction they give is ever current. We travellers through this modern century have not passed beyond their advice, but instead should heed these words all the more, in a world which teaches that God is neither there nor anywhere else, nor is sin of consequence nor of any reality at all. Tonight, and at each eucharist, I bid you take some time to pray before and after you approach the altar, and consider the implications of how you are fed with the substance of divine love, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Episcopate Trends, Continued

Back in the fall I commented on the latest thing in episcopal elections: all-women slates. And now we have an election in the Diocese of Michigan (meaning Detroit and its surroundings), and there are four candidates, and all of them are women. And there is a superficial diversity: there's no Hispanic, but one is black and one lesbian, and one is from way out of the area. But all either come from large parishes or serve on diocesan staff, and apparently someone has been looking at the charts from Research & Statistics, because in all but one case the parishes they served show a period of growth under their leadership.

And on that level, I cannot criticize the slate much: Rev. Perry, in particular, stands out as someone who oversaw the virtual resurrection of a near-dead parish. The questions asked tended towards putting parish growth as a priority, and given the diocese's 25% decline in attendance over the decade, it's a pressing issue, as in most of the church. As for theology: well, they were not asked the jaw-dropping question that was asked in Newark last year, and to ask "Much has been written about the changing paradigms in 21st century Christianity. How are you thinking and working to engage these changes? How will this inform your ministry as bishop?" is to invite a heterodox response. That said, none of them rises to the bait; indeed, there is next to nothing of systematic theology in their responses. One wonders how any of them would deal with St. John's Detroit, which is so retrograde as to be a 1928 parish, using the old hymnal no less. But perhaps in this era the pressure to dismay the orthodox has retreated in the face of the numbers.

And yet: in domestic dioceses, the only two of the last eight elections to include male candidates were those in Maine and San Diego, and in the latter, it was clear from the beginning that Susan Snook was the preferred candidate (considering that it took petitions to get anyone else on the slate). In the former, the gay candidate was elected; the other man was the only straight male in the entire lot. Without denigrating the qualifications of any of these people (there being only one or two of whom I knew anything aforehand) there's obviously something in the Episcopal water that's prompting a rather curious set of slates.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Philosophy Is Not Dead, and We Have Not Killed Her

Perhaps the most galling feature of the resurgence of "scientific" materialists is how truly terrible the science itself is. Take this passage from an interview with neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky:
A muscle did something. Meaning a neuron in your motor cortex commanded your muscle to do that. That neuron fired only because it got inputs from umpteen other neurons milliseconds before. And those neurons only fired because they got inputs milliseconds before and back and back and back. Show me one neuron anywhere in this pathway that, from out of nowhere, decided to say something that activated in ways that are not explained by the laws of the physical universe, and ions, and channels, and all that sort of stuff. Show me one neuron that has some cellular semblance of free will. And there is no such neuron.
Not to put too fine a point of it, but the reductionism here simply doesn't reflect the state of the field, even ignoring that question-begging word "decide". But it doesn't hurt to start there: on some level, "decide" is exactly what each neuron does. His description of a game-of-Moustrap-like chain from stimulus to response is, as a rule, the exception: the typical neuron in the brain is taking in a complex of inputs to which it responds in a manner over which there is a great deal of argument, including models that are frankly probabilistic, beyond the feedback which is part of so many neural circuits. Likewise, the implicit reduction of a thought to a single neuron firing is laughably simplistic, even without considering that we don't have any substantial idea of how anything beyond a fairly limited set of sensory impressions are realized in the brain, and certainly nothing as abstracted as a rational thought, or even an emotion.

The truth is that even the computers to whom analogy is often made are beginning to exceed our comprehension as their complexity grows. When the top go-playing program is set against itself, for example, the result is play that has been described by experts as "Amazing. Strange. Alien." Some of this appears to rise from limits of human ability to process the board as a whole, but other peculiarities of its play in these matches have resisted analysis. And the game of go, it should be remembered, had up to this time resisted computational attack by sheer combinatorial depth, not because of any complexity of its rules. The brain is hardly so symmetrical.

It is not unreasonable to hold this doctrine (for that is what is) subject to the demands of scientific proof. I do not accept that one can argue free will out of existence in this way: that the brain is mechanically deterministic is a hypothesis which needs explicit experimental proof, which we certainly do not have and which is certainly not going to be produced without a huge advance along several fronts of neurology and cellular biology. But beyond that, anyone is welcome to ask of these dogmatic skeptics, "what exactly do you mean by the will, anyway?" And at that point, we plunge headlong into the discomforting domain of the philosophers.

And it certainly discomforts them, at least if statements from the likes of the popularizers are any sign. If Stephen Hawking claimed that philosophy has become irrelevant because its practitioners haven't kept up with scientific developments (which he did), if Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson can, between the two of them, ridicule philosophers as concerned with irrelevancies, it is a sign of how insular and self-inflated the voices of secular materialism have become. Or rather, it points, philosophically, to the intellectual impoverishment of their own, well, philosophy. To turn to Philosophia's spurned sister, the theologians have not in fact been particularly discomforted by scientific advance; it is self-doubt that has proven their greatest threat. If we are reduced to a "god of the gaps", well, that's an aesthetic objection, to which reality need not conform.

And if humans created philosophy, as Nye claims, well, natural science is of the same ilk. He is hardly a model of intellectual rigor, and one would really consider the guardianship of that rigor to belong to philosophy; but even by standards about which there is no real controversy, these statements don't withstand even casual scrutiny. They have the same quality of rationalization about them that they attribute to others.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

The Kincade of the Baroque

My attention was directed today to something called the "The Young Messiah", which was an arrangement of Handel's oratorio trimmed for length and then expanded to include rock instruments, specifically a trap set, a keyboard, an an electric guitar. The various arias are sung in pop styles, often in different ranges from what Handel specified, and with backing vocalists.

Now I'm not in any way a musical purist. "Proper" baroque practice is interesting, but hardly obligatory, and there's nothing wrong with reinterpreting classical music, or pretty much any thing else, in some other style. As it happens, this project originated from the same guy who took "Jesus Joy of Man's Desiring" and sped it up with a rock beat to create "Joy", which was a minor hit in 1972. A fellow named Jonathan Aigner took it upon himself to savage this thing, citing it with clips from some performance done sometime in the 1990s. For this he was roundly savaged himself, a bit unfairly, but we'll get to that in a minute.

The performance itself is, well, mostly dreadful. As far as Messiah itself is concerned, I grew up on the highly controversial Bernstein recording, with its substantial omissions, its extreme tempo changes, and most of all, the rearrangement from three sections into two. He apparently anticipated this, because it came with a lengthy justification of the changes. Be that as it may, I have tended to prefer "maestro" recordings (such as the Dorati version recorded at WNC, with its spectacular and reverberating choruses) and find a lot of the original instrument versions a bit dry. And surely one has to believe that if Handel had had wailing electric guitars at his disposal, there would have been "b-tchin' guitar solos": baroque music, and especially Handel, is dramatic in the extreme and full of showy virtuosity.

And yet... The thing was remounted in 1999 in a production funded in part by the Irish government (recalling that the original 1742 performance was in Dublin), about which one of the producers had this to say: "By re-interpreting the music in a modern idiom, with popular artists, this new version will, in our view, be immediately accessible to a much wider audience." Yeah, well, I don't see that happening, except in the way that some people can't take the full strength version of something and have to have it diluted. The thing we have here is simultaneously undercut and overblown, so that for some reason we can't have a soprano singing the brilliant aria preceding "Glory to God in the Highest" (and indeed, peculiarly, we seem to have no women soloists at all), and the flourishes in the choruses have to be simplified. The rock band is slathered uniformly across everything like the "light" in a Thomas Kinkade Christmas card scene, adding little to nothing beyond blurring Handel's sharp rhythms. It's not really a reinterpretation: Handel is all still there, but diminished and weakened. Perhaps it is more accessible to someone, but really there is no getting around that it is a lesser thing.

The comments on Aigner's rant mostly center around the inference that he is attributing the badness of the thing to the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) scene, when the original version came from Irish/British musicians whose link to CCM is perhaps tenuous. The version he criticises, though, is full of CCM people, and the style is straight out of American CCM productions. It owes essentially nothing to the very English-influenced Pretentious Art Rock of ELP and their compatriots, who, on either side of the pond, were heavily influenced by classical technique and style and whose renditions of classical pieces were transforming, not diminishing. That's not what we get here: Handel is debased, and it is debased because, apparently, American evangelicals can't take the real thing.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Yet Another Novel Rite, and the Problem With the Whole Idea

So, on Facebook my attention was directed to this Advent-specific Eucharist rite from Trinity Wall Street, which the Episcopal cognoscenti are likely to recognize as one of the go-to places in the church for liturgical trendiness. So let's just say the service time explanation is not promising to this visitor, given that exactly one service time (the Sunday crack-o'-dawn said liturgy) admits to using a BCP liturgy. This leaflet is for a weekday service, so at least it wouldn't figure in my weekend planning But let me move on to its text.

These days I can save myself a lot of trouble by skipping ahead to the institution narrative and looking for the pro omnis error, and sure enough, there it is. And I could go over a bunch of other faults, and places where it's different but OK. And at least they use the Creed, straight up (which is not required for such a service, as it happens). But here's the point: it was proffered withe the question, Is it legit? Well, surely it could be, because the Bishop of New York can authorize nearly anything, and supposedly the Eucharistic prayer comes from the 1982 Scottish book (which seems to be mostly accurate, though I didn't do a line-by-line comparison). And the problem is that, even with this double layer of presumed authority, I am placed, as a potential visitor, in the position of having to work out whether I can bring myself to say the words, which are on top of the theological considerations leaning towards precious, lacking either 16th century flourish or 20th century directness (though they aren't completely terrible). There are too many "legitimate" liturgies out there with serious problems, and too many bishops who turn a blind eye to the theological shenanigans in their dioceses or engage in such themselves.

I know about Trinity Wall Street, and so I already know to look elsewhere should I find myself in NYC, just as in Boston I hie myself to Advent instead of Trinity Copley Square. But the unwary Episcopalian who isn't already with the Program is in for a surprise. A couple of years back it was pleasantly shocking to go to a noon Eucharist at WNC, because again one went there not knowing what to expect, and getting a straight-up Rite II service; my relief was almost palpable. It was easy to choose an ACNA parish while travelling because I knew they weren't going to do anything too weird. The truth of it all is that, really, you have to give up on any caring about the theology of what is being said to be totally comfortable travelling through this denomination, and in the mid-Atlantic you are likely to show up at a famous church and get something which would throw any theologian before Bultmann into a rage.

For a church whose only binding principle is supposedly its liturgy, the fact that there is increasingly less adherence to that liturgy, and where its most prominent parishes are increasingly known for not using those liturgies, means that this principle is increasingly paid nothing but lip service. In fact it appears that the one unifying principle, such as it is, is ownership of church properties. But be that it may, the state of high-end Episcopal liturgy is more like unitarian free-form "worship", but with higher production values.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Latest Trend in the Episcopate

A Living Church observing the recent spate of episcopal elections in which the entire slate was composed of women has prompted an outburst of sarcasm at the Episcopal Cafe, utterly missing the point. Sarah Condon, meanwhile, basically nails the problem: "I grow nervous when people are overly excited about women in ministry. I am here to do the work of the gospel, not to be the church’s latest project. I am here to pastor people, not to be Jesus. And when I see a line of all-women candidates I begin to wonder if the collective church has decided that lady bishops are a good way to fix everything."

The original article is, as it turns out, inaccurate on one point. Four and a half years ago, Maryland had an election for a suffragan bishop in which there were four candidates, all of them women. At the time the novelty of a all-female slate didn't register on me so much as the details of the particular candidates, one of whom, it seemed to me, plainly preferable; instead, the diocese elected a woman who, it turned out, had a major drinking problem which was known to her previous diocese, and which led in the end first to the death of a passing bicyclist and second to her deposition and jailing.

And that's rather the point. Back towards the beginning of the decade there was a run of elections in liberal dioceses with a standard pattern of a bald white guy with a goatee, a patrician white woman, a lesbian, a black person of either gender (or better still, one of each), and one white guy with good hair. It looked diverse, and if you included that last guy (who was usually not elected) it might have had some real (that is theological) diversity, but I cannot say it produced great bishops. And then there were the others, such as Forrester's apparent self-appointment and the whole SC mess.

Four such elections in a few months looks like a fad, and while Susan Snook as a one-person slate is probably saving some trouble, the other three suggest an abandonment of apparent diversity in favor of a sort of episcopal affirmative action. As Condon observes, it does not suggest attention to those matters that really, greatly matter.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Once and for All

Preached for Proper 28, Year B. The lessons read were Daniel 12:1-3, Hebrews 10:11-25, and Mark 13:1-8.

“Such large stone, and such large buildings!” If you go to Jerusalem today, you can still see many of the stones, and they are indeed big: those at the Western Wall are about four feet high and six wide, and some are quite a lot bigger. Those stones were put there as part of Herod's project to enlarge the Temple Mount precinct, which began around 20 BC and continued almost up to the the destruction of the city in the year 70. Of course, the great buildings are gone, razed by Titus's legions. The timeframe of this leads to some curious conclusions: given that Jesus was probably born in 5 BC (the year before Herod's death), it would seem that his mother Mary was born about the time that the temple reconstruction commenced, and that Zachariah, John the Baptist's father, had already taken up his duties in the temple at the time.

The enlarged temple was not the only product of Herod's pride. On the southern side of the temple platform, he had a huge stoa built, where the Sanhedrin met and where the money changing we hear of was conducted. Josephus, the historian of the final Jewish revolt, acclaimed it as deserving “to be mentioned better than any other under the sun.” It also is utterly gone, burned in the revolts and eventually replaced by the Al-Aqsa Mosque hundreds of years later. The second temple itself, erected in the reign of Darius I, stood for five hundred years before Herod's work, and almost another century before its obliteration by the Romans. But it is all gone. If the the retaining walls remain, nothing that once stood upon them is left: not one stone is left here upon another; all were thrown down. In those days, the massive splendor of those walls, the golden stone shining in the middle eastern sun, surely seemed, if not eternal, certainly destined to stand for ages to come, but as Jesus foretold, they had less than forty years left.

The temple destroyed, the focus of Jewish worship shifted, perforce, to the synagogues. But these are houses of prayer, not places of sacrifice. Even in modern Jerusalem, there are no more sacrifices. And for us, the members of the church, the sacrifices we make are transformed. The priests made offerings for sin, so that the height of the sacrificial year was that made on Yom Kippur, when a bull, two rams, and two goats were sacrificed in atonement, both for the high priest's own sins and for those of the people. We make offerings for remembrance: the eucharistic sacrifice we do for the remembrance of he who is our salvation. So why the change? Well, the Jews do not sacrifice because there is no place for them to do so, for their temple is no more. But we are Christ's temple on earth, as Paul states over and over, we in our own bodies comprise the body of Christ and temple of our God, with Jesus simultaneously the head of this body and the foundation of this temple. And it is no longer a place where the blood of animals is shed in our place, for the blood of our savior which was shed on Calvary is enough for eternity. Jesus was and is the perfected sacrifice, the perfect God and perfect Humanity which atones once and for all. We are reunited with God through Christ, and so the curtain in the temple was torn at the culmination of the passion; and thus our sacrifices are of remembrance and thanksgiving, and not for our own atonement. “It is finished,” Jesus said on the cross; redemption is won, and is eternal.

Therefore, at the Eucharist, we proclaim the Mystery of Faith, and note well the tense of each verb: “Christ has died,” for his sacrifice for us is done, over, complete, a matter of history; “Christ is risen,” for the new life is now and redemption is present, not in some future, but here and now; “Christ will come again,” for the final union of heaven and earth and the death of the old is not yet accomplished, but we are promised it, and one day the harvest will be completed and the old life will end forever.

Of course the disciples wanted to know when this would be accomplished; who would not? And Jesus gave them an answer, which has turned out over the many centuries to be completely useless thus far. For he gave another answer, than no person would know the date—not even the Son of God Himself. Thus we have seen wars and famine and murder and violence and apostasy and plainly false religion, over and over, and yet, Jesus has not returned. Perhaps when the time comes, the signs will be more clear, but the point, after all, is the readiness. The day will come like a thief in the night, and shall we find ourselves fit to face our God?

For we will face him: that we are also promised. We will all be called to judgement, against which our only advocate, our only savior, will place his sacrifice, that we, in faith, may claim it and live. And so living, the new Jerusalem, we are told, will have no temple. We, the temple of the body of Christ, shall no longer need a place to represent the dwelling of God, for all that exists will be that dwelling, where sin and alienation and sorrow and loss will find no more a place to live.

So, my brothers and sisters, gathered together in this place, remember that one sacrifice, and have faith; you are saved. And remember that faith to others, that they too may come, and be baptized, and join in the temple of Jesus the Christ, through whose one sacrifice is all redemption.