Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Ike, We Hardly Knew You

In one of the more egregious acts of questionable triumphalism concerning the recent General Convention, Becky Garrison writes:
Commentators at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times may decry the Episcopal Church as a place offering pet funerals but nothing for the faithful or failing to provide anything one cannot get from purely secular liberalism. These traditionalists appear to bemoan the loss of a 1950s-era church that promoted an Eisenhower-era civil religion replete with the cross draped in the American flag.

While they wax nostalgia over a past that largely existed only in TV Land, the Episcopal Church made history at its 77th triennial General Convention by passing two gender nondiscrimination resolutions.

She is, at least in one respect, talking through her hat: given that she is a bit over a year younger than I am, she has no memory of the fifties, because she wasn't even born yet. Eisenhower himself was in some respects a throwback to mid-1800s political faith: he holds the unique distinction of being the only president to be baptized while in office. But as for the past, I need not recall the fifties, but (to take a signal year) 1979. In that year there were plenty of signs of weakness, but one could generally be assured of stepping into an Episcopal Church and getting an orthodox service and a half-decent sermon. The crackpot radfems were about (Gyn/Ecology was first published the year before) but if you avoided recent EDS graduates or faculty, you were probably safe, and there were still plenty of priests left from the glory days of Sewanee.

Thirty years later, and surely nobody is particularly surprised by the transgender resolutions. It's the sort of stuff we do, as a matter of course, endorsing the mores of that sect of liberal academia who still go to church. The problem, as Garrison resolutely ignores, is that there is no theology behind that morality; instead, the theology is cut down so as not to tread on the mores of the upper middle class.

The sneering reference to TV Land is, of course, a slap at Ozzie and Harriet, as though few people were raised by their undivorced parents. Far more typical of fifties TV fare were slap-happy, childless comedies like I Love Lucy and Jackie Gleason's various shows, as well as all those westerns; the other archetypal "fifties" show, Leave It to Beaver, didn't start until '57 and ran well into the sixties, and Andy Griffith didn't start until 1960. In the irony department we have the fact that Hugh Beaumont was a licensed Methodist lay preacher, and that the real TV Land has been running Roseanne for the past four years.

But then, one could just as well make snide references to Rocky Horror religion, seeing as how GC has all but set us up for the Rev. Frank N. Furter. Way too often there is a kind of freak show quality to things Episcopal these days, where there seems to be a contempt for the ordinary and a love of what we in the medievalist community call "freaking the mundanes". Thus canonizing agnostics and inviting pagans to communion is good, because it annoys people who take baptism seriously. Weird, clumsy and questionable rewrites of the liturgy are good, because they annoy people for whom the long-memorized words of the rite recall the ancient traditions of the church. Chasing after academic leftist fads is good because it annoys the supposedly rightest establishment. Doubting the creed is good, because it annoys those who see the manifest hypocrisy of it. The Episcopal clerisy and its hangers-on are heavily contaminated with radical chic.

I do not need the fifties, which I too cannot remember. But I like to think it is still possible to set the sarcasm aside and simply do the prayer book rite straight up and mean it without irony. I like to think it is possible to do theology as a church instead of as a colony of secularized academia. And I like to think we can talk about the past without falsifying it. Her picture of what the reasserters want is, to put in bluntly, as false as can be, and furthermore it's very hard for me to believe that she could have any real awareness of them and honestly make the claims about their desires that she presents.

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