Saturday, June 18, 2016

But Who Listens?

Tony Clavier commended the Word to the Church promulgated by the House of Bishops from their March meeting, but remarks on the likely futility of such pronouncements:
We tend to function as if we still had a ready hearing. But who listens? As we have shrunk, we have become the more partisan. The conservative party at prayer has become the progressive movement in church. Our General Convention adopts a huge number of resolutions on political and social matters unheard or read by the powers that be. Our largely right of center laity either bristles at or ignores these resolutions. Thus when our General Convention or in this case our House of Bishops has a non-partisan, objective “word” for our church and hopefully through Episcopalians to the nation, who listens, who hears? In large part we have squandered the utility of our national pulpit because we haven’t the discipline to give objective moral guidance to the church and nation, or we simply assume that our political opinions are gospel.

And this is but the tip of the iceberg of our irrelevance. As a few of you may be aware, there's this fellow named Donald Trump who will almost certainly become the Republican presidential candidate. I would describe him as a buffoon, a political incompetent, and a businessman whose wealth is made possible by the fact of starting out with so much, ameliorating his many failures and manifest mismanagement. He has no positive qualifications to speak of, and many negatives. And yet, he has consistently prevailed in the Republican primaries, to the dismay of a wide swath of commentators and analysts. Why are people voting for him?

Well, there is yet one more thing I see about him: he is a man who does not so much lie as he cares neither one way nor the other about truth. Over at the Atlantic they have begun to consider whether Trump's message is anything more than an outpouring of emotion signals to a people for whom rational consideration of issues is foreign. And in that is enmeshed Trump's blatant disregard for any sort of social norm. I shall reduce it to one single aspect of his business dealings: the art of the Trump deal, it appears, is to simply to refuse to pay up, and then through threat of legal action, to force his creditors to take cents on the dollar. It would have been a terrible temptation, preaching on last Sunday's lesson from First Kings, to begin by saying,

The widow Vera Coking had a house in Atlantic City, beside the property of Donald Trump. And Trump said to her, "Give me your house, so that I may have it for a parking garage, because it is near the hotel I am building; I will give you its value in money." But she said to Trump, "The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance."
And, well, at least Trump was not successful in getting her land. But in gauging his appeal, I have to consider that some large portion of his base shares his amorality. As a claimant to moral authority, we have no voice which they will heed. Indeed, we are held in contempt for stepping across the visceral taboos which are all that are left of their morality. Can we even preach salvation to them? Well, we are not interested, and the social justice we do preach has no traction, for they reject the bonds of community upon which such justice must depend.

But if even if we remember the command to convert the world, will it hear the call? That, increasingly, is the question we must confront. We can no longer be a church for seekers (and at this lesser task we fail, because we have so much trouble repeating the most basic words of our faith), because increasingly the people about us have either despaired or lack (they think) for nothing, and so they do not seek. This is our challenge.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Jesus' Marriage Annulled

Ariel Sabar has an article in the just-published Atlantic detailing his investigations into the provenance of the Jesus's Wife Fragment. His research points to one Walter Fritz, one-time business partner to Hans-Ulrich Laukamp (the supposed owner of the fragment) but more intriguingly, also former masters student at the Berlin Free University, studying Egyptology before abruptly disappearing from the program. Karen King (the Harvard scholar behind the revelations) responded with the admission that the investigation "tips the balance towards forgery."

So now that the affair is all but over, let us review the matter. Still the most telling comment on the whole affair was made at the beginning by Jim Davila: "[T]his fragment is exactly, exactly, what the Zeitgeist of 2012 would want us to find in an ancient gospel. To my mind that weighs heavily against its authenticity. [....] My working hypothesis at the moment is that someone who knew what they were doing went to a lot of effort using a piece of ancient papyrus to create a remarkable forgery." And he is quite justified in stating, in his response to the new story, "I called it correctly as soon as the existence of the papyrus was announced and I maintained that position throughout all the twists and turns of the story over the last three and a half years." With less knowledge of the field, I personally said that "[i]f I were a betting man, I could put my money on this coming to nothing."

So, here's the score: on the one side we have the mainstream media, who seem to largely be staffed by people who are ignorant about this stuff, don't want to learn, and have an antipathy toward anything orthodox. This particularly is manifested in their views towards sexuality, which tend to run towards "even if it does frighten the horses; especially if it does." Gnosticism, as they see it, is this Crowleian-Gardnerian-Learian thelemo-wicco-countercultural palimpsest, scraped clean of the original hatred of the material body in preparation for forgery of modern sexual (im)mores as ancient. Surely, if they had spent much time asking the many people who are familiar with the material and who don't participate in the academic Gnostic Sales Company, they would have found out that (a) from the beginning these others were extremely cautious if not outright doubting of this text, that (b) if it had been genuine, it almost certainly wouldn't have intended to say that Jesus had an actual in-the-flesh wife, and most of all (c) that it didn't matter to orthodox Christianity anyway. Sure, simple sensationalism goes far in explaining their credulity, but it's hard to imagine that, for example, the revelation of a ca-AD 90 text of John would get the same hype. Well, except maybe on Fox News.

But anyway, on the other side we have Dr. King, and with her, Harvard. Given the immediate and strong negative reaction from the field, there is no question but that she must be faulted for her credulity. And I'm afraid I have to say that I have to think that this was predicated on her membership in the Gnostic Sales Company. She was a Jesus Seminar member, which I consider a public relations effort for pushing the merits of the Gnostic material in understanding apostolic Christianity, and she has published other books pushing the Gospel of Thomas forward. And while I suppose there's a degree to which nobody can be faulted for putting their own ideas to the fore, Harvard certainly should have known better.

Perhaps the best thing about the affair, besides the vindication of the doubters, is that the religion writers who abetted the fraud are having their faces rubbed in the matter. Laurie Goldstein at the NYT, the chief cheerleader, was made to back down back when the parallel Qau codex forgery was uncovered; now the others are being presented with the same fate, not to mention being roundly scooped by a competitor precisely because they didn't bother to do some pretty basic homework. I can only hope that in the future the next big "discovery" will be treated more circumspectly.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Shoot, If You Must, This Old Gray Head

Trigger warning: bad poetic allusions

Well, Dean Hall is gone from the national cathedral, and while he may not be moldering in the grave or anyplace else for that matter, some small bit of his soul is marching on in the announcement that the two representations of the confederate battle flag are to be removed from the Lee-Jackson windows and replaced with clear glass. It's oh so tempting to suggest that they should be replaced with white glass, but at least they aren't going to efface the whole thing, and for whatever reason they're leaving in the two representations of the confederate national flag. And, well, perhaps the Corps of Engineers flag should removed for offending the sensibilities of environmentalists everywhere.

OK, OK: sorry for all the cheap shots. But there's a certain irony in the whole project in that the whole controversy is over a very small fragment of a fabric deeply woven with a symbolism towards which the committed leftist progressive must have an uneasy relationship. Jesus to the north, sitting in royal judgement over the world; Jesus to the south, sitting in triumph; Jesus to the east for a majestic two-fer: it's all so royal. But at the same time, the towering presence on Mount St. Alban, the highest hill around, symbolizes the influence the cathedral establishment feels it deserves. In the '50s, it was still plausible; when the cathedral was finally consecrated in 1990, it perhaps was still plausible. But by then, already, the fragmentation of American society into warring political tribes had become a feature of public life, and the church, any church, could no longer present itself as the moral voice of the nation.

And by then there were no longer a series of signs along US 40, one each mile, telling the traveller the distance to the Barbara Fritchie House in Frederick. Whittier's poem, it is widely agreed, is something of a political pious fiction, assembled from a mixture of tales which more likely than not had their origin in the defiance of another woman, and which probably didn't involve Jackson. I have never visited the attraction, though I understand it is still in business. It was so blatantly a tourist trap as to be avoided by my parents. In the end a more scenery-conscious age swept the signs away, and a more cynical age swept away such pure sentimentality as Whittier wrote. There is something if the same naive secular hagiography in the window, which forgives the two of being on the wrong side of the conflict in favor of recalling their piety (which was quite real).

Such noble sentiments were once not ridiculed. As the First Things article from last year recounts, Dean "I marched with MLK even though my granddaddy was that great segregationist Woodrow Wilson" Sayre, under whose helm the window was commissioned and installed, wrote that "Cathedrals do not belong to a single generation. They are churches of history. They gather up the faith of a whole people and proclaim the goodly Providence which has welded that people together as they have hoped and suffered and believed across the centuries." Washington National Cathedral certainly was built under that vision, in the haphazard course of such projects; interrupted over and over, steered by benefactors and the whims of current taste, it is perhaps a miracle that it holds together as well as it does, and surely that can be ascribed to the long presence of Philip Frohman as architect. In it are recorded the concerns of a century of American life, through two world wars and into outer space. Perhaps one of my favorite memorials is the spot in a transept where it is carved that then Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher laid his hand in blessing; another remembers that Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon in its pulpit.

And now, apparently, two pieces of clear glass, each about the size of my hand, are going to testify through the ages to the contrived twitchiness of early 21st century progressives. I suppose I should be grateful that Dean Hall's original notion was not carried through; and yet the window, in the hands of the cathedral chapter, has been turned from its original purpose of reconciliation into a permanent sign of division. The day may yet come when the battle flag is just history, and perhaps then some crate in the cathedral archives may be opened, and two old pieces of red, white, and blue glass may be returned to their former places. But I do not hold out hope that I will live to see the day.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Another Year in the Sausage Factory

So once again I was a delegate to diocesan convention, this time as an alternate. This year worship tended towards high-and-wide, pretty much straight out of the BCP except for the one spot anyone can guess (it was during Eastertide, so the other spot didn't come up). Musically it was all organ but there were a couple of quite unfamiliar numbers, particularly the opening hymn. If one is going to set Hyfridol, which is probably in the top ten in Episcopal hymnody however one slices it, it behooves one to make a text which is rigorously metrical. And for that matter, please come up with one's own tune, rather than reusing Sine Nomine (another case later on). At least the service music was almost all familiar.

A chart of parochial report data, if it be for 2015, does in fact report positive numbers: ASA of 10,273 compared with 10,256 in 2014. It's less than 0.2% gain, but any gain at all is an achievement after a solid decade of losses. This was against our new assistant bishop Chilton Knudsen's declaration that "ASA is passe." Is that so? The ongoing attempt to pretend that we don't have to take our losses seriously is a painfully destructive denial of reality, particularly considering the lack of interest in why people are leaving on the one had, and the self-congratulatory undertone of how it's the result of purification.

This was reinforced by our speaker, the Very Rev. Mike Kinman, dean of the cathedral in St. Louis, who also preached the eucharist. Between the two addresses, we got a Change sermon and a Social Action sermon. Anyone who has read this blog much knows how I abhor the former, and while there is a place for the latter, we keep coming back to the problem that baptizing people in the Triune name and bringing them into the church just never seems to be a priority, a problem reinforced when Bp. Knudsen blessed in the Modal name. Can't we get over that?

And so, on to the resolutions. I ended up sitting with a group from two churches at the far western end of the state, where even the city parishes are small and parish survival is a big issue. This came up twice in the resolutions, once in the obligatory compensation resolution and the other in a canonical revision which, among other changes, created a formal process for closing a parish from the outside. This, apparently was prompted by a lawsuit, but it was opposed by our table, who were surely concerned that central Maryland standards of viability might not reflect their situation. Another necessary resolution dealt with an amendment to the cathedral by-laws, which apparently we have to be involved in; it went through without comment.

Another inevitability was a alcohol policy resolution, which passed without difficulty. We also got a "let's shame everyone how hasn't gotten their anti-racism training" attempt which was not surprisingly muted to read "don't forget to get your anti-racism training."

The bishop of Puerto Rico was present for the occasion of setting up a companion diocese relationship. I have no idea what these do for anyone but there it is.

A particularly peculiar resolution was one to recommend putting Origen on the calendar. This was obviously way out of the competence of nearly everyone in the room; I could barely handle the materials myself. It's hard to say why this was brought forward, though it's possible his ideas about universal salvation might have prompted this, universalism being very popular now. At any rate it was very difficult for anyone to mount a contrary response, and only one person made a pretty limited attempt.

The big event was the last resolution, which was dealt with parliamentary procedure right out of Lewis Carroll. This resolution proposed that the diocese "give an amount equivalent to at least ten percent of the assets of its unrestricted investment funds to the diocesan chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) as an initial act of reparation." We used the same procedure as last year of small table discussion and sending cards back to the resolution writers; for this resolution, however, each table got a representative (I presume from the commission that wrote this) as a facilitator. Mind you, I was sitting next to a retired state trooper from the extremely white and poor west end of the state. The word "privilege" was of course brought out.

The subsequent and irregular handling of the resolution demonstrated how problematic the whole thing was. The resolution specifically set no limits on how the UBE was to use the money, and this is probably what brought on the rewrite to dump the matter on diocesan council for further discussion. This was announced first, then voted; then we were to discuss the matter. Given the constraints this discussion was essentially impossible and therefore next-to-nonexistent, especially since it was the only "business" keeping us from closing up shop. In any case only two people spoke, the first of which pointed out that the original resolution was out of order from the beginning because it lacked certain requisites of a spending resolution. Oh the time this could have saved....

The other speaker foolishly pointed at the elephant in the room. I personally could not see this as anything as a symbolic but ineffective act, and I said so in table discussion. I was not so foolish as to point out the bigger problem: that we are so very deeply out of touch with the lower classes. One clause of the original resolution "encourage[d] all congregations to examine how their endowed wealth is tied to the institution of slavery and consider returning a portion of that wealth as part of this initiative." OK, so the patriarch of my branch of the Wingates is supposed to have emigrated to North Carolina back in the the 1740s, and if you want some slave-generated wealth, consider that "Old Brick" in Columbia had space in the balcony for said slaves. All these years later, though, my father's mother family were workers exploited in the same cloth mills managed by my great-grandfather Wingate; I remember my grandmother's pride in managing to escape the factory floor for the offices. In any event, my parish was started in the 1880s. And my mother was from a broken farm family in Ohio; her grandfather was a Dutch immigrant.

Really, we could liquidate every asset of the diocese and not make a dent in the poverty and suffering of blacks in Maryland, for we have neither the wealth nor the influence. And we talk about the problem as outsiders, all around, when we talk at all. Thus, one person stood up to the microphone and spoke of our lack of interest in poor whites, and how his parish was much more recently founded, and finished by stating that he was not racist. The whole performance was met with embarrassed silence, and that was the end of the discussion.

Friday, March 25, 2016


For Maundy Thursday, 2016

Remembrance: this is crucial to faith. It is so central to the Eucharist that theologians and liturgists have a special word for it: anamnesis. Amnesia is forgetting; anamnesis is remembering. We do this in remembrance of him, according what we have been taught of old.

People tell us that spirituality is all about a search for God, and that furthermore, one carries out this search on a path of ones choosing with some vague confidence that, if nothing definite is ever found, it is the searching that matters. But that is not how true religion works. This is not to say, not at all, that God is not to be sought, but rather that the world makes God the passive and silent object of a person's seeking. But the LORD God, so the story of scripture says, is not passive; indeed, it seems more the case that He is wont to reveal Himself to people without warning or invitation. Abraham, Moses, and Samuel in the Old Testament; Zachariah and Mary in the New: all these were the target of God's revelation, wanted or not. In the case of Paul the apostle, the divine presence was thrust upon him quite against his will.

We moderns, for the most part, are spared such revelations. No burning bushes, no voices, no angels speak to us, and we are apparently in little danger of being thrown from our horses. So how do we know God? Well, by word and sacrament, as the prayer book says. Language is fundamental to humanity: while other animals do communicate, and we have taught some rudiments to a few apes, it is humans who speak and hear and write and read. Humans, and God. God said, “let there be light.” Jesus is the Word who is God. Thus scripture manifests God, simply by telling the divine story.

Scripture testifies to the LORD God, and he commands its recollection. Tonight we have heard two of these commands. In Egypt, on the eve of deliverance, he tells the Israelites to prepare the Passover meal out of which will come the mark, the sign of their separation; but he also commands festivals in perpetuity, that the Jewish people should ever remember their exodus and how it was accomplished. A thousand-odd years later, Jesus ordains another meal, bread and wine, which we are to do in remembrance of him, until he come again. In obedience to this the church has set apart ministers to break the bread and offer the cup, that the death and resurrection of Jesus be remembered to the end of ages.

So here we are: The LORD God, in the words of scripture, is sitting there revealed to anyone who would but read. We have been given the story, and we have but to have faith in it, and do as it tells us. But if words come from God, well, lying came from the serpent. And the words of scripture: well, God spoke them through the mouths and pens of men. Thus we are presented with a paradox: the truth is not only out there, it is right out in the open; but being words, we cannot of ourselves sift it from all the untruths and misapprehensions and outright frauds that pretend to tell us the fundamental truths of the cosmos. Thus, when we turn away from written revelation and conduct our own search, we like as not end up at an idol of our own construction, having forgotten the God once shown.

But we have more than word; we have sacrament. Jesus said, “do this in remembrance of me”; but he also said, “this is my body”, and “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” And while many have argued through the years that these words are purely symbolic, that is not what the church as a whole has taught, and this is not what this church has taught. Broken bread and poured wine are not merely token; Jesus is really present, in a mystery whose explanation is beside the point. We eat and drink, and Jesus becomes part of us, in reality. Likewise, in baptism we are bathed in Jesus' death and resurrection, not just in play-acting, but in a truth which is beyond mere materialism. And all this is carried out in the Church, that great and sacred mystery, in which the words and sacraments are handed down, from one generation to another. We remember, because the church remembers—because we remember. We remember the holy story, and we repeat it again, and thus it is passed along, the most fundamental ministry and evangelism there is. The truth is not found; it has revealed itself, and that revelation must be told, and must be partaken of in the rites of the church.

And thus anamnesis: remembrance. To remain the people of God, we must remember that we are the people of God, and we must tell the story anew. Otherwise the gospel, the good news, dies as we die, and the vine of which we are the branches fails to grow. In this age of studied skepticism and contempt for authority, this is a very hard thing, since after all, our telling is but the latest in a long chain of speakings, and who will believe what he has not seen?

And yet, in so believing, we are blessed. And therefore in telling, we are the more blessed. Jesus commanded the disciples to love one another; and if our love for the world leads us to tell the sacred story to those who have not heard it, our love for each other must manifest itself in our mutual encouragement, in the repetition of the gospel, that it not be forgotten. Let no one be a stumbling block to another's faith; let us recollect together the holy Word which is within us and which binds us into the church. Let us, in remembrance of him who died for us and rose again, break the bread, drink the cup, and repeat the story of salvation as we await the day of his coming, when the story will be fulfilled and we will see the truth, face to face, world without end. AMEN.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Glory, Seen Through Faith

preached 7 February 2016, the last Sunday in Epiphany

Epiphany begins with a voice from heaven, at Jesus' baptism; then the first miracle, at Cana, is a small, subtle thing. And today we are at the midpoint of Jesus' ministry, and we have a miracle that is not small, and not subtle; in fact, it is all about show: Jesus, shining in glory, accompanied by Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the foremost prophet. Nobody is healed, nothing is physically changed; the three witnesses simply see the spectacle of Jesus, the Son of God, the Christ testified to by Law and the Prophets, in his glory.

And yet the vision confounds them. Peter's response is all but nonsensical: what do the three figures need of dwellings? And to further this, the cloud descends on the mount, as on Sinai, and the voice speaks again, as at the baptism, proclaiming the Sonship of Jesus. And the three, what do they do at the passing of the vision? They do nothing, and say nothing.

And yet, they have seen the glory of the LORD God, not veiled, not reflected, but face to face. Before then, only Adam and Eve, in Eden, and Moses have so spoken to God. And as to the latter, we have a curious story. Our first reading comes as Moses has descended from the mountain with the second tablets; and while he is upon the mountain, he makes a request of the Lord:

Moses said, "Show me your glory, I pray." And God said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, 'The LORD'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," he said, "you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." And the LORD continued, "See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen."

And at the end of the book, it says that the glory of God came down on the tabernacle, so that Moses could not enter it; and in Chronicles, when Solomon has finished his prayer before the newly consecrated temple, it says that the priests could not enter, because of the glory which filled it. The children of Abraham saw the Lord's mighty acts as they were delivered out of Egypt, but the divine presence: this they could not withstand, much less enjoy. Indeed, their reaction to the spectacle on the mountain as Moses receives the first tablets was to abandon the Lord for a molten calf, an idol whose glory was naught but the sheen of gold and whose power was but in their imagination. The real reflection of God's glory they could not abide, and thus Moses veiled it.

But here in Luke, “veiled in flesh” as the Christmas hymn says, the three disciples see that glory, ordinarily hidden but now shining forth; and in their testimony we also see that glory, now hidden in heaven but yet present among us. Paul is referring to Moses's veil when he says “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” And he says, “For it is the God who said, 'let light shine out of the darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”: it is this light which is among us, through the Spirit, in the words of scripture we hear and the sacraments in which we take part. Each time we come to this place and hear the Word of the Lord, that glory is revealed, not in a blaze of confounding light, but in the knowledge of Christ which is taught through the Church. And each time we draw near the altar and partake of the sacred body and blood, are we not incorporating that glory into our very selves, even as we recall the sacrifice and resurrection which is the foundation of our faith?

Yes, it is through faith that we now see the vision on the mountain top. To the world this is nothing more than myth, the fairy tale of yet another religion. And even we, who through faith see the real glory, are tempted into a vision of a more manageable god. The LORD God who passes by, holding his hand over Moses in a rocky cleft: it smacks of pagan stories. It offends our sophistication, so that we hew to an image of a god who is so perfected, so encased in superlatives, that we fall into deism, worshipping, well, honoring at any rate a perfect immobility whose glory we never risk seeing directly and whose hand we need not fear, for it will never intrude into the ordinary. We therefore cleave the two great laws and obey only the second. We proclaim the second with all our might, the law the pharisees set aside, loving our neighbors as ourselves, or at least to the extent that our lives leave room for that. It is our worship that is flabby, because we do not fear God. Our very modern skepticism veils his glory, so that we do not draw near his presence trembling as they did at Sinai.

And yet we are so drawn, each week, through spiritual hunger or obedience, and we swallow some small bit of that glory, veiled in bread and wine. And though some of us may rarely be made by the spirit to feel that presence within us, for most it is only faith that gives vision. And yet, the glory is there. Therefore fan the flame of that faith, and worship the God who is really present, not just on the mountain top, but within his church, to whom he has given salvation to ages of ages.