Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Amnesiac Church

Robert Hendrickson's thoughts on General Seminary's changes as the epitome of the loss of church identity struck a chord with me, as they did with many other people. Some years back I wrote of how my first parish was lost to me, but as with Fr. Hendrickson there is an earlier, a scholastic loss. Many, many people have seen the chapel in which I was made an Anglican, for it figured as a prominent set in a well-known movie. It looked then much as it did in my day, although far more brightly lit. Built in the extremely stylized Gothic of the midcentury, it lies buried at the heart of the main school building, dark and perhaps oppressively silent when not in use. Like many Anglican churches of the era it abounds in symbolism, most especially the wooden altarpiece which closes in stages, to be entirely shuttered on Good Friday.

In my day, it was arranged as a classic tripartite church, and between that and my old parish (before its remodelling), I came to understand how the 1979 BCP was tuned to such a space. And because I was interested in art I understood how that form echoed western church forms back into the dark ages. Oh, there were signs even back then of a certain weakness, but by and large Sunday services were conducted with high-and-wide panoply.

But it is all changed. I was a high school student in the mid-1970s, when there was still a certain hesitancy about that money stuff; the only significant building while I was there was the girls dorm, completed just before my arrival. Shortly after I left the 8th and 9th grade boys dorms were torn out and replaced by individual rooms, of which I heartily approved. Then the capital poured in, and now there is no building left untouched, and several altogether new besides. Ironically, the last I was there the only unchanged space were the upper grade student rooms, which seemed to have changed not since my day but for the light bulbs. And much of this I could appreciate too: the gyms, for instance, were quite problematic in the winter; the old boathouse was kept erect by cables. But the chapel.... It suffered improvement too. Anyone can guess what was done: the altar was pulled far forward, and the choir arranged around and behind it. The altarpiece was left, irrelevant, on the back wall. Architecturally this arrangement is less than satisfactory simply because the space overall, massive and immobile, is relentlessly longitudinal and resists being made to accommodate a centralized plan. But more to the point, it signals a change in the way the liturgy is viewed, and with that, a change to the way we look to God...

... because, in the new plan, we do not look to God at all. We look to ourselves, and turn away from transcendence. Communion itself is the most immanent of all rites, for what could be more immanent than holding Jesus' flesh in one's hand, and drinking his blood from the common cup? Jesus looks down upon the performance, over the shoulders of the sopranos, hoc est corpus, hocus-pocus, see how the miracle is performed once again, pay no attention to that Son of God over there, reigning from the cross.

But it isn't just there, and it isn't just the trendy vandalism of sacred space. I was confirmed along with the new prayer book, and my personal volume says "Proposed" in big letters on the title page, because it's a 1976 BCP. I've never in my entire life experienced a 1928 service, and I wasn't exposed to Rite I until I was over 25. Rite II was the service I grew up with in the church. And for years, I would go elsewhere, and Rite II it usually was, except for the occasional Rite I (and missal services a couple of times at Ascension & St. Agnes). And, for all the "mays" and "shoulds" in the prayer book, there was a way that nearly everyone did it. But now, I step into an Episcopal service with the full expectation that liberties will be taken. Commonly if there is a leaflet it will avoid referring to God as "he", which I ignore and say the right words (and if any man quibble with that, the words in the BCP are by definition the Right Words). But now I brace myself for other changes, so that this element or that may be omitted. Leaving out the confession is commonplace now and hardly to be remarked upon, but I've been at Sunday services where the creed or even the Lord's Prayer were not said. And there may be strange readings from non-Christian religious writings, or strange prayers of unsound theology and regrettable English. I have yet to hear the anaphora messed with, but that must be a matter of time and judicious screening of the parish website on my part. Furthermore, stories reach my ear of parishes in which, contrary to canons, homosexual marriage rites are performed sub rosa; communion is offered to pagans and the irreligious so often now, again in violation not only of mere canon but of the plain teaching of St. Paul, that if and when General Convention votes down Eastern Oregon's heretical proposal, one has to doubt that they can take the next step and apply any discipline at all to those who continue to flout the canons. But after all, even being an unbeliever isn't cause for defrocking; only finally losing patience and looking elsewhere for an orthodox bishop is cause for revocation of orders.

Traditionalists once liked to condemn the 1979 book as a diluted, pale version of the 1928. I never found this that convincing, and on some points the 1979 takes a more catholic and dogmatic line (such as in the inclusion of a catechism). But all that is far, far behind us, because however weakened it may be, the rites of 1979 have proven to be far too regressive to see continued use. It is stupid that I should have to be nostalgic for the 1985 and the new hymnal (which has its own egregious emasculations of many texts), but there it is: these days I feel I have to check ahead of time to make sure that I'll get a prayer book service with music from the hymnal.

And then there's the preaching, and the theology of Inclusion, which really means accepting all the sexual quirks of the upper middle class and saying all manner of self-serving pablum about overcoming racism and classism and sexism and a whole lot of other -isms. There are altogether too many Episcopal sermons and incidental writings that might as well start out with the following: "God (remember, you can't say 'Lord' anymore: imperialism, don't you know), I thank you that we are not like other people: traditionalists, patriots, corporate executives, or like this Republican over here." Liberal politics has become a parasite on the church, driving actual religion from the body. The only hard doctrine that matters is fealty to 815 (and to nowhere else: heaven help you if you suggest that Canterbury is owed some more final allegiance, much less the greater tradition of the church.

We can't go on like this, and if we keep trying to have a church that stands for nothing in its theological past, we will end up with no church at all. We pick saints who are not Christian, say prayers which omit the most basic claims taught from the beginning, and join the Body in communion to those who are more likely to follow Bacchus or even Moloch than Jesus. Our "leaders" hate our buildings, our words, our music, and even a lot of their own members. And there's no hope that the more orthodox liberals will act to rein this in, because they sold themselves to the high church Unitarians because they thought the latter would be needed as allies against the troglodytes, as though the Unitarian crowd would ever have done anything else. The worst of it all is that the old liberal notion of the church as a force for social good is completely bankrupt. Nobody takes our moral voice seriously, and nobody should. We are too obviously in hock to the mores of our class.

Is there hope? Well, perhaps, but only if priests who cannot get through the creed without crossing their fingers are defrocked, and bishops who cannot do so are deposed. The prayer book should be left alone for another thirty years, and priests who cannot resist tampering with it should be kept out of parish ministry. Preaching social justice needs to give some ground to preaching basic doctrine and personal virtue. We need to recover the old Anglican virtues of common sense, simple orthodoxy, and sensible solemnity (meaning, we do still need to remember how to laugh at ourselves). If we cannot do these, we will continue to fade away, and we will deserve to do so.


Bryan Owen said...

This is a very fitting companion piece to Fr. Hendrickson's lamentations at The Curate's Desk.

In my own response to that piece I recently wrote:

"It is precisely the breakdown of discipline in the Episcopal Church (and elsewhere) that fosters an ethos of tolerance for false teaching. I'm becoming increasingly aware that this ethos continues to make too many gifted and valued lay and clergy persons in this church decide that they can no longer in good conscience remain Episcopalians. But I've also been told by some that such collateral damage is the price for 'progress' in Christianity."

Your prescription is on target, and I'm particularly taken with this portion:

"Preaching social justice needs to give some ground to preaching basic doctrine and personal virtue. We need to recover the old Anglican virtues of common sense, simple orthodoxy, and sensible solemnity ..."

But I'm not holding my breath when it comes to holding clergy accountable to ordination vows and Prayer Book norms.

When it comes to the big picture of the Episcopal Church, I suspect things will get much worse before they get better. In the meantime, perhaps the best we can do is work to make our individual parishes strong and healthy, in spite of ongoing institutional decline and anomie.

Jon in the Nati said...

I just want to mention to you that this post encapsulates a lot of my own feelings and recollections of my time in The Episcopal Church. In fact, you are so on point that I felt more than a few pangs of regret while reading it.

You're a stronger man than I to stick it out in a church that, by and large, no longer believes what you believe and no longer stands for that for which it once stood. I will continue to pray for you and all my TEC brothers and sisters.