Saturday, August 27, 2005

Give Me That Old-Time Relationship

Some notions from a WSJ Opinion Journal review by Mark Noll of David Gregory's Dinner With a Perfect Stranger are moving across the blogosphere, leaving a trail through Christianity Today, The Christian Mind, Jolly Blogger, Pontifications, and A Conservative Blog for Peace, which is where I picked it up.

The question at hand is that evangelical catchphrase, "a personal relationship with Jesus". As usual, the issue with this is in two parts: What does it mean? and What does it signify?

The latter is easy. What it signifies, as the theologian in Al Kimel's tale states, is participation in evangelical Protestant Christianity. And the bishop's "I don't care if I lose a convert" answer can be just as well taken to signify politically as spiritually. Presumably if the question had been answered, the answer would have been "yes". The actual response is right our of the beginning of 1st Corinthians-- the bad part, the "I am with Christ" part.

Which brings us to the meaning. Googling for the phrase will keep you searching a long time, because unfortunately it is a catchphrase. But this explanation from "Christ's Ambassadors" will do nicely (unfortunately in the original it's way down the page):

The natural man (unbeliever) and his world can understand "religion". They can readily see how religious originations function, solicit finances, see the propaganda they use to proclaim prospective messages and religion's adherence to a belief-system.

Natural man can also understand statements of history, theology, ideology and even doctrine. And as it's proclaimed today by every so-called moral ideal religion under the sun, the term "Spiritually" is so misused that what spiritually means is blurred out of all relevance.

But it is not possible for the non-believer to understand what it means to "have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" The Apostle Paul explained that "the natural man cannot understand spiritual things" 1 Cor 2:14. Therefore, it is hard to adequately explain the meaning of this reality to a non-believer. That is because a believers relationship with the Spirit of Christ is outside of natural mans ability to understand on a purely rational, philosophical and scientific basis. He can't see, touch or hear it! It's only revealed to believers through our Lord!

Here is the clue to motives of the Florovsky's interrogator. "Personal relationship", it seems, isn't so much about itself as it is about theology. "Relationship" (a dangerous word in the hads of a mathematician) doe have to be qualified; not just any relationship will do. And it appears that the relationshp that is specifically bad is one that is strictly intellectual-- that is, founded only in theology.

Surely anyone who can take a step back from theology knows that its greatest peril is to end up talking about things of which it really knows nothing. Ironically, the most famous exponent of this criticism is also its most famous offender: Thomas Aquinas. Therefore it is pitifully easy to translate the theology student's query out of any specificly Protestant context, and read it as saying, "Is there any Jesus in the ocean of words you've just poured over our heads?"

The single biggest problem Christians have in talking theology to the World is convincing anyone that our words have any relationship to anything real. Indeed, as Jolly Blogger hints in his discussion of Harold Bloom's dissection of the SBC, in some respects the world likes it that way, because it makes it easy to dismiss the Christian message.

The irony, then, is that the revisionist plague is largely a self-inflicted wound, though no traditionalist is going to want to admit that. In a context where a theologian can blythely dismiss the question of such a relationship, a context where theology moves with great freedom, it is not hard for theology to escape from any such demands of relationship and being willing to live without Jesus. Evangelical "revisionists" collapse into mere vacuous spirituality, but it is the duty of epsicopal revisionists to seize the ecclesiological edifice and put it to work for their own ends, because (it perhaps seems) there is no Jesus there to act as the true landlord. The revisionists see every traditionalist bishop not merely as Saruman, but as a Denethor; and each one calls himself the herald of Aragorn.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Kew Continues

In Richard Kew's blog he has posted articles on why he remains an Anglican with Part Two here and the final part here.

I have to say that, while I agree with most of the sentiments stated, I personally don't find these reasons strong enough. I just can't think that comfort with the theological processes or liturgy is a good enough reason. I'll explain why in a later post.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Brand Loyalty - Round 1

Salty Vicar, about two weeks back, had a post about the decline of mainline churches. Now it's important to remember in talking about this decline that it's largely the decline and fall of the United Methodist Church. ECUSA in particular has been more stagnant than declining. I don't want to get into the statistics, but the argument can be made that, as it stands, the Episcopal Church is going to get some fraction of the upper middle class at a certain age, and its fortunes depend entirely on how many people are in the class and age group at any given time. I suppose Anglican production values are important in packing the pews at Christmas; I have to doubt that they ever did much to keep the extremely nominal in the pews during the rest of the year.

I'm wary of talking too much about how the other people look at church. Partly that's because of my own history: I've been closely coupled to church since high school-- even when I was in college-- and being thus religious, I've kept a close eye on my own church participation. By the same token, anecdotes about others are troublesome, especially when talking about people whose expression of how they view religion is manifestly unexamined.

I think the movement between mainline churches has always been pretty free. It comes with the territory. Certainly my father's sort-of-Methodist family has had no problem sliding over to Presbyterian churches when the local Methodists where unsympathetic-- or simply when the latter was more vigorous. And I think the possibility of movement between the (less-classy) baptist-polity churches and the mainline was always there too. But I think that, in general, the mainline churches tended to take their congregations for granted.

It's particularly obvious when you look at the Anglican "broad" tradition and its baptodisterian analogues. Social action preaching always had to rely on its members being something of a captive audience; priests and ministers assumed that they were in a position to lecture their charges on issues that weren't directly religious. I don't think this was a strategy so much as the natural expression of confidence in the righteousness of their teaching. But it was easily turned not only into self-righteousness, but into a conflict of interest. Clerics used the prestige of establishment churches to attack establishment values. The endpoint of this in ECUSA was Spong's reliance on his episcopal throne to sell books and papers attacking almost anything anyone had ever taught in the church, and finally attacking the creeds which are still said every Sunday morning. The same thing happened at the universities in the '60s. In the latter case, Harvard was thus reduced from the center of American establishment values to a mere stamp on the ticket to a place in the boardroom or the law office. Likewise, Episcopalians were reduced to mistrusting their church-- regardless of which side of any conflict they were on-- because their clerics ceased to have any loyalty to any precepts of their church.

It's no longer good enough to see the white-and-blue sign with the church arms. You have to find out what the rector is teaching; the sign doesn't tell you anymore. You cannot even be assured that the liturgy will reflect Anglican virtues of any era, because all too often "Anglican" means "the liturgical style against which we rebel". One might find RC Novus Ordo-style chaos, or some sort of liturgical theater which I find unbearable in its self-consciousness. There was, of course, some degree of churchmanship variation, though the trend for the entire previous decade was towards a fairly high and increasingly Catholic style of liturgy. But to be blunt: the average visitor walking into a mainline church understands that he has a pretty good chance of being subjected to the ministry of someone he considers fatally wrongheaded, if not an outright heretic.

The ministry of women in the church has enjoyed the parallel evolution of society to recognize the more general ministry of women in the world. The orthodoxy of the world is that women can do whatever they set their minds to do. (It also doesn't hurt that the theological arguments against the priesthood of women tend to be lame.) In this, the church establishment acts exactly as such, taking positive steps to supress the dissenters on this issue. On homosexuality, the situation is entirely different. All the turmoil over sexuality which can be swept under the rug when it comes to women must necessarily be revealed in an issue which is, after all, about precisely sexuality. The liberal side is trying to do what they did in the '60s with other issues, except that this time it isn't working, because they spent the last thirty years demonishing the edifice of authority which they are now trying to inhabit. The result-- open revolt-- should be unsurprising. Mainline churches are all caught between the desire to be the default brands of protestant Christianity, and the actuality of being the party organs of liberal factions.

What's remarkable isn't the resulting lack of growth. It's the stubborn resistance-- so far-- of ECUSA in a situation where numbers should have been dropping steadily for decades. Instead, the ECUSA of the fifteen years has maintained its numbers. Perhaps there is a sign here that there is a commitment to the Episcopal Church that runs deeper than mere choice of an acceptable church.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Why "Kings Lynn"?

The name of this blog refers to a hymn by Chesterton in the 1940 and 1982 hymnals that is sung (in my church, though not, I find, in all churches) to Ralph Vaughan Williams' tune "Kings Lynn":

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honor, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

It's an interesting tune as RVW arranged it in part because of the unusual cadence at the end: instead of the usual v-i or V-i cadence for a minor key, it has a iv-i cadence-- a grimmer sound, to my ear. Various sources say that it is related (through a Norfolk folk tune) to the American sacred harp tune "Pilgrim". You can click here to see/hear for yourself, though one can tell that the relationship is fairly distant. (For those unfamiliar with sacred harp music: the melody is in the tenor line.)

As for the choice: it's relevance to the current state of Anglicanism should be obvious.

A Few Ground Rules

I want to make a few rules clear.

First: the usual insistance on civil discourse. This is surely a hot-headed topic, but I believe we can discuss it without biting each other's heads off.

Second: Co-opting the comments to make sales pitches for your chosen church is going to be cut short. I've heard most of them already.

Third: I'm not a trophy to be hung on your Wall of Conversions.

Fourth: I'm not awarding points for repetition of the Standard Arguments/Claims, and I'm betting that God isn't either. Talk to me; argue with me; but don't posture.

Fifth: Absolutely no discussion of civil politics.

Sixth: I am not my church. If you feel you must denounce ECUSA, don't do it here. (Individual bishops and other clerics may be denounced within reasonable limits, subject to Rule Four.)

Take Not Thy Thunder From Us

For a few years now, I've kept a blog named Online Religion Discursus about some of the ways people talk about religion on the internet. I'm not discontinuing it, not yet anyway, but it has seemed to me that there is less and less to talk about-- or at any rate, less and less that I wanted to talk about. And apparently, not much that people wanted to read about. Writing a blog as a self-proclaimed expert isn't apparently very interesting to others, and I don't have the time to serve as the sort of neutral news-linker that Kendall Harmon so ably supplies in titusonenine.

But I've found that there is something I do want to talk about, very much. I'll post more biographical material in the following days, for those who really feel they want to know, but my problem in a nutshell is that I'm an Episcopalian.

These days, The Episcopal Church is a mess. You might not notice it from the church website, or even if you go to a decent middle of the road parish and didn't read the papers for the past year. Unless you are a liberal triumphalist, it's hard not to worry. But at the same time, I can't just jump ship and flee to some other church.

What I'm hoping this blog will do is allow me to talk about this spiritual struggle in a larger context than just my wife and (from time to time) my priest.