Monday, October 26, 2015

This Fragile Book, Our Island Tome

Prayer C no doubt sounded like a fabulous idea back in 1974. Four years after the first Earth Day, the environmentalism-themed Expo '74 was underway in Spokane; that same summer saw the "irregular" ordinations in Philadelphia. The time was surely ripe for a last-minute addition to the new prayer book. And thus Howard Galley, officially "Assistant to the Coordinator for Prayer Book Revision" but in practice working editor of the new book, wrote the liturgy one summer evening in his office at 815.

Much of it is good; as a proper for Trinity Sunday its basic structure of recounting the history of salvation from "in the beginning" to our present day is sound. It has its infelicities as well: the responsorial form sounded like a good idea back then but has not worn well, and the final paragraphs, with their (oft altered by feminists) invocation of the patriarchs, do not live up to those grand opening words. But chiefly are we bound to remember it for the passage which inevitably earned it the sobriquet of "the Star Wars prayer":

At your command all things came to be,
galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,
and this fragile Earth, our island home.

Forty-odd years later, and those words still draw a snicker from many a liturgist; in their earnestness they call forth recollections of bell-bottom pants and huge lapels, not to mention guitar masses and "hip" clerics celebrating in blue jeans. And for me at least they also recall the overheated activism of the turn-of-the-decade. Us pre-teens of the time (I went off to high school the fall of that year) got to see how it all actually panned out: not in glorious revolution against the Establishment, but in gas lines, shoddy polyester clothes, the AIDS crisis, student loans and finally, Ronald Reagan. But in 1974 it was still barely possible to maintain a "tin soldiers and Nixon coming" hysteria— barely, given the course of the Watergate investigation, which by that point had yielded its first indictments.

As for the fragility of the earth: consciousness was certainly raised, and we enjoy the benefits of that, so that the bald eagle, reduced to less than a thousand, has recovered in great numbers. But at the same time the sense that the world was in imminent danger of being snuffed out in a chemical cloud has faded. The world has turned out to be a sturdier place than that, for all the injury done to it. And thus we passed from the threat of chemical apocalypse to the 1980s obsession with thermonuclear doom, which has in turn moved on to the current threat of global warming.

But the same time, America's social structures were simply falling apart. Family structures among whites were torn up, and in the black community they all but collapsed, so that it is now the rule that blacks are born out of wedlock. It's pretty clear, as this Brookings report summary argues, that the abrupt endorsement of abortion by the Supreme Court played a very large role in that: men could and did dump responsibility for a child back on the woman, who after all could then be expected to exercise her newfound control over her body and evict the unwanted (by the father) child. And yet, here is where this church is on the subject: the official position as put forth by General Convention explicitly condemns abortion "as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience," but if you can find anyone actually teaching this I have to think that it's going to be in a pretty conservative parish. I don't recall ever hearing an Episcopal sermon touching on abortion, and I have to think that only the most foolhardy male preachers would dare. Marriage doesn't present quite the same peril as a topic, if only because Episcopalians tend to be in the social classes in which marriage still prevalent.

Environmentalism, on the other hand, is reasonably safe. Sure, the rector may lose some of the few remaining Republicans who are paying attention, but a seminary professor after all need not be exposed to even that consequence. And besides, much of the blame for environmental crises can be laid upon those Republicans, or better still on Corporate Interests. Our retirement funds may rely upon the moneys those corporations take in, but what of that? We can always push for a ineffectual solution like carbon credit trading which monetizes the transfer of responsibility.

Likewise, given the events of the past few years it is going to be a tremendous temptation to make our liturgy somehow less racist, whatever that means. And that last phrase is particularly important because a lot of people without an investment in the matter are going to look at the 1979 book and say, "what exactly is racist about it?" As far as sex is concerned we do not have to speculate, because the erasures of the masculine characteristic of Enriching Our Worship and the other recent products of SCLM trace right back to the 1973 publication of Mary Daly's seminal work (if you will pardon the pun), Beyond God the Father. This was an important work, no doubt about it, but it was very much a product of its time and place, where Daly could say "When God is male, the male is God" (p. 19 of the original edition) and not be ridiculed for the gaping logical hole in the claim. She eventually was effectively apostate; meanwhile back in PECUSA we had the sorry spectacle of the Office of Women's Ministry, years later, promulgating a bizarre liturgy which I described thusly: "It almost sounds like a seminary assignment: 'Write a liturgy contravening at least the first commandment. Use ritual acts denounced by at least two OT prophets.'" The weird neopagan cast of these alterations seems to have faded (or at least is kept in the closet) but the continuing attempt to minimize "Father" and "Lord" and to wipe away every male pronoun still comes across, for those of us who were academic onlookers at the time, as the product of a decades-old anachronism.

What we don't need in 2015 is to bring the liturgy of 1976 up to the academic fads of 1979. I will not dare to speak for the young man or woman of 2015, but in 1979 I was not in the market for a "contemporary" or "relevant" service, and I did not have to worry about being subjected to "inclusion" only because the obsession with homosexuality had yet to build up to a fever pitch. When I stood with all the old ladies at the 11:00 service I called up the image of people across places and ages turning to the altar to profess the ancient doctrines. Perhaps there are young people today who are pleased to join in the same antique declaration. But I cannot imagine that many of them want to recover the fashionable faith of the 1970s.

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