Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Another Reason not to Take Libertarians Seriously

Lew Rockwell on Anglicans:
There have been many arguments made against [Rowan Williams], but now his critics in Africa especially are making a libertarian one: that while the Pope is chosen by his private peers, the Anglican leader is chosen by the State.
Yes-- and what a disappointment that has turned out to be. Williams was plainly picked to be the man to safely lead the church into the pleasantly liberal future. Instead, he has forsworn liberal advocacy entirely, angering everyone who wants Canterbury to be a bully pulpit. Politicians do not always get the people they want in these appointments, as one saw in the Warren and Burger courts, to take American examples.

And as far as Anglican origins are concerned, it comes back to the same issue: the papacy of the time did not see itself as in any way distinct from politics. I shied from saying "state", as the development of such an entity was a feature of the era. But in any case the separation of the English church was not simply an act of Henrican willfulness, nor of theological innovation, but also a reaction to the manifest political and secular corruption of the papacy. Its current relative purity is a direct result of the forced powerlessness which its excesses brought upon itself.

Augustine's throne confers even less power than Peter's; but the African notion that Parliament stands in power above it is an argument of convenience. The GAFCONites are angry at Williams because he refuses to simply hand over governance of the church to their junta; but not only is the communion at stake, but his own church as well. The recent developments at General Synod had an ugly, American color to them. The Church of England has to be saved from the same forces that are destroying ECUSA. Williams is plainly not Parliament's agent; he represents a genuinely Anglican position that the GAFCONites assail in their rush to purity.

And Rockwell's remarks are a classic example of the failure of libertarians to understand how pervasive power is. It is anyone's guess who would have been chosen had the question been given to the English bishops rather than to Tony Blair; but Cantuar's meager authority in the communion was given to him by the communion, not by Parliament. Rockwell is apparently willing to take the GAFCONite complaints at face value, because they fit into his political theories; that is all.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Buddha Which Can Be Eaten Is Not the True Buddha

If you meet the Buddha on your plate,


(yes, these are cupcakes)

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Trinity Sermon

Yesterday, I gave my first "sermon" at church, more or less as follows:

How many of you have heard a Trinity Sunday sermon that began, “This is a Sunday about a doctrine”? Well, you can relax a little, for I'm not going to attempt to explain the doctrine of the trinity to you. That's rather the point, after all: the trinity is a mystery, and in the end, beyond our understanding. So I will leave aside the visual aids and analogies: no shamrocks, no diagrams, no icons. This Sunday, the mystery will remain a mystery.

The other Sundays of the year, we largely look at Jesus. In Advent, we look to his coming; at Christmas, his birth; during Epiphany, his manifestation of God in his life, and so on up to Ascension Day. The Holy Spirit gets a Sunday at Pentecost, and then starting the Sunday after this, we spend the rest of the church year considering Jesus' teachings. But today, we look at God Himself, and not in time, but for all time.

Now of late, denunciads against religion have been running off the presses again. I personally was cured of reading these things back when I had to read Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian for a philosophy of religion course. I found it unbearably sophomoric, and the latest examples seem more of the same. A lot of them seem to get really no further than the observation that people do evil in the name of religion, and I think that for a Christian, this is not a remarkable observation. But to stay on the subject, the picture of God that appears in these books is hardly better than a caricature of the image of an angry old tyrant on a throne. Their “god” is too small.

In today's lesson from Genesis, by contrast, we see God as he is very, very large: the creator of the universe. This morning I read that there are thought to be 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and 100 billion galaxies in the universe. That's big-- unimaginably big. And yet the old medieval image of God holding the universe in one hand and measuring it with the other is closer to the truth. “The heavens declare the glory of God”, it says in Psalm 19, and considering how big we believe the heavens to be, that's a lot of glory. We do not fully appreciate the scope of the divine architecture. And yet, the image of the great tyrant architect troubles some. The theologian Paul Tillich preferred the image of God as the “ground of being”, an image I have never found adequate, being too close to the pantheistic belief that God is simply the sum of all existence. For all that, it is better than the deistic image of the divine watchmaker, who simply starts things going and then steps away from creation; but it neglects the divine transcendence, reducing God to the foundation of the building, not the builder himself.

And it solves a problem which I think we no longer find very pressing. Yes, we believe that God is immanent in this place. He made himself manifest in the person of Jesus, and he manifests himself in the church and in the sacraments Her ministers perform. After two thousand years, we are comfortable with talking to God wherever we are and believing that he is there, and we accept that He may take up a seat in our hearts and minds and souls. The notion that God underlies all existence is comfortable to modern minds, but a transcendent God who is not only down here, but out there-- that has become difficult. The Anglican theologian Robert Farrar Capon, whom I first came upon talking about the revelation of God in cooking, also wrote that the Old Testament images of God reacting in wrath and raining down special effects on the world at least have the advantage of showing God as something active and involved in the universe. But often, it seems, men prefer their special effects in the movies. God parts the Red Sea, but it is only trick photography. God sends down fire upon the Nazis who have defiled his ark, but it is only model work. God raises Jesus from the dead, but of course the actor never died. The world looks at the screen, and knows that such things only happen in the movies.

And is it not so? These days, we do not see the special effects God, the God who, it is said in the Revelation, will pour out the seven bowls of wrath upon the earth. If God is acting in our lives, for the most part it is subtle, secret, and often in silence. Often we can only tell after the fact that He has touched us. Remember some weeks back how the disciples in Emmaus did not recognize Jesus until after he had broken bread with them? That is how, most of the time, it is with us. Vague spirituality and frank unbelief come easily to modern people; but belief in a God of power and divine will do not. Saying that a hurricane or earthquake is like the wrath of God has become an archaicism. The god of the world has become small to the point of vanishing in mist; there are very many who believe that god is present, but that he doesn't doing anything more than make people feel good.

And who should worship such a triviality? It would be like worshipping the comforter on one's bed, or a teddy bear. We are moved to worship the awesome, the God whose full presence is terrifyingly unbearable. In Isaiah, the angels hide their faces from His presence; in Exodus, God will show only his back to Moses, but not His face. When the temple in Jerusalem is consecrated, the glory of the Lord settles on it, and the priests cannot enter it to minister; and on the mountain, when Jesus is transfigured, the three disciples are confounded. We, gathered here, have not seen these things; but if we remember them, if we listen to scripture and commit these things to our hearts, we can keep the taste of the God in our mouths and the fear of God in our hearts.

So I'm almost to the end, and I've hardly mentioned the Trinity. And yet it too is a scandal, because the complexity it hints at in God is also offensive to many. The picture of the perfect, all-sufficient God affords to many no room for three persons unified in one God. Judaism could not accept it; Islam rejects it. In our history the Unitarians turned away from the doctrine. And yet, for today, I point to it as the sign of God's transcendence. It is not something we could work out for ourselves, save that scripture testifies to it. Monotheism: that we can grasp; a pagan pantheon of gods and spirits for this and that principle: that we can see devised in myriad places and manners. But a god who is both unified and divided: that we had to be taught, and that we have to remember-- just as we remember the titanic acts of God, and his creation of this universe whose wonders we never seem to reach the end of. So today we are taught by Jesus himself, that we baptize not just in the name of God, or of Christ, but in the Threefold Name.

The mighty God of history is a God whose story must be retold to each generation. Indeed, remembrance is the central act of our worship. In a short time, the priest will take up the bread and wine, and will recall Jesus' words at the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me.” The church is assembled in recollection not only of the divine promises, but of the divine's mighty acts. So let us remember our faith, and remember to worship the immanent and transcendent, triune God— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Privileged Oppressed Are Heard From Again

Back in December, it was the gay black Harvard theologian. This time (courtesy of TitusOneNine) it's the female Maori dean of a college in New Zealand. Back when KJS was elevated to presiding bishop, I wrote that "[a]t least one of those symbols is positive by anyone's standards: no longer need I suffer self-indulgent hand-wringing about the need for further empowerment of women in the church." And here we have a powerful female officially-certified member of the establishment wringing her hands about female empowerment. When are these people going to catch on to the irony (not to say self-parody) of their situations?

Which leads immediately to the other irony: that the communion-level flap and the resistance to covenanting is manifestly about making sure that those third world bishops in Africa, South America, and East Asia do not get any power over the rich, self-satisfied, enlightened first world. In an earlier decade, this would have been called "racist". Whether it is truly thus is for others to debate, but the elitism is unmistakable and blatant.

In saying this, I would not belittle the real suffering of any particular woman-- or man, for that matter. Real oppression, real privation, real suffering are all easy to find, in past or present. But university professors and college deans are not oppressed, and do not suffer desperate want, and do not risk bodily harm simply by showing up for work. It is unseemly that they summon up those grim prospects in defense of their own license and power.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Is the Creed Sectarian?

Over at Sarx Huw has edited together Richard Fabian's rationale for omitting the Nicene Creed from the liturgy used at St. Gregory of Nyssa. My reaction to this explanation is turning out to be not especially positive, I'm afraid.

The central word in Fabian's explanation is "sectarian". It's a word which is pejorative to the point of prompting the obvious question: What exactly are the sects? Well, this rather over the top remark gives a hint:
I advise ordinands that if they must use the “Nicene” Creed in their parishes, they might march about waving American and Episcopal Church flags, while their church wardens tear up photographs of the Mormon Tabernacle: these gestures would express the custom’s fundamental spirit, and employ beloved Episcopalian paraphernalia lately fallen into disuse.
When I was in high school, we used to process the flags in and out, but I think that was mostly to soak up three more acolytes, not necessarily to make some sort of statement. It's the Mormon Tabernacle, though, that's the phrase to note. The Mormons are certainly among the excluded when put to the test of the Creed, and so are the JWs, and the Unitarians. Officially, though, that's about it. Oh, and the Orthodox, because of the filioque. But if we were to take that clause out, one suspects that the Catholics would object, so it's rather a "can't win" situation.

Meanwhile, in the irony department, the Episcopal Church is about to be converted into a sect of Anglicanism. There's more than one way to be sectarian, after all, and one of those ways is to break faith with the whole. And one of the American church's persistent problems is that there are clerics and even bishops who dissent from the Creed. We cannot, of course, reduce the sectarian walls between us and either the Mormons or the JWs, so there's no point really in trying. And there's no real reason to, unless you want to believe that it doesn't make any difference that the dogmas of those sects are in blatant contradiction to the Creed-- and to each other.

I'm not a believer in the theory that one can root around in the history of a practice and apply that history directly to the present. In particular, I do not agree that one can apply the meaning of the remote past as if it were intended in the present; that meaning must be found in the present, independently of the past. And it seems to me that the main power of the Creed in the present is unitive, not sectarian. The vast bulk of Christianity holds that it does matter what one believes about Jesus; repeating the Creed each week can be taken as an act of solidarity.

I'm not going to say that omitting the creed is in some way invalidating, and I'm not going to step up to the question of how well it fits in liturgically. And I'm not going to condemn the Gregorians outright for omitting it. But I wouldn't do it, and I would be uncomfortable at a parish were it was always omitted.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Crunching the Red Book: 2006

So today the 2006 red book numbers are out, and everyone has to do the appropriate posturing.

Looking at 2005, and considering domestic dioceses only, we see immediately a decline of 50,000 in active baptized members, and a decline of 22,000 in Average Sunday Attendance (ASA). That works out to a 2% decline in the former, and a 3% decline in the latter. Not good, but I suppose it could be worse. ASA/parish went from 110 to 108, a 2% decline.

When we look at the other numbers, however, things start to look really bleak. Paradoxically, it's because the other numbers are good. Baptisms outnumbered funerals by about 8,000; adding baptisms to receptions gives a net gain of about 15,000 over burials. And when one includes adult confirmations (many of which are for converts from other denominations), the gain may be as much as 29,000. (I'm ignoring child confirmations, but surely many of these can also be counted as gains in membership.)

So why is this bad? Well, because of that 50,000 member decline. That decline is caused by people leaving the church; so putting it all together, it seems that somewhere between 66,000 and 80,000 members left. That's 3% to 3.5% of the membership. Forget all the mythology about ECUSA dying off; the problem isn't that people are getting old, but that they don't want to be Episcopalians any more. And that suggests that we need to take a stronger look at retention. Classically, the churches saw growth in terms of evangelizing, and took child baptism for granted. As far as the latter is concerned, child baptisms outnumbered burials by a significant margin. But departures outnumbered burials by at least two to one, and outnumbered conversions by at least two to one-- maybe as badly as six to one.

The ratio of child baptisms to deaths isn't wildly out of line with national demographics; either young adults tend to stick around long enough to have their 2.1 kids, or the ones who stay are having big families. What it does suggest, however, is that the crucial source of departures lies in people who have had kids. There are other numbers that suggest this is a problem. Child confirmations are a third of child baptisms, when they should be close to equal; even total confirmations does not come close to equaling child baptisms. Now this suggests that a lot of people simply never get confirmed, but it also suggests that a lot of departures are coming from people who have kids and then leave. If one assumes that everyone who stays gets their kids confirmed, then it's not inconceivable that as many as half of the families who have kids baptized leave before their kids start high school.

I will note in passing that marriages are a little under half of child baptisms, and about half burials. This again implies a certain stability: people do get married and do have children at about the right rate. If there is a big drop in the high school to marriage group, it isn't registering in the statistics yet.

That leaves the big unknown group: the middle-aged. These people don't appear in the statistics in a way that can be directly identified, because they do not personally participate in the rites that get recorded. Thus we are left to deduce how they figure in the numbers. Now, one possible source of discrepancy could come from people who are struck from the rolls because they move to retirement communities; it's conceivable that a lot of these people are nonetheless buried out of their former parishes. We've explored the case of those who have kids but leave before the kids are grown. That leaves the late middle-aged, and the various factors examined so far suggest that they are substantial contributors to the exodus-- perhaps as much as half.

As for why people are leaving: well, it is hard not to look at the trend starting in 2003 and draw at least one conclusion. But the numbers suggest that the problem is not as simple as getting young people to come (back) to church. Keeping older people there is a large part of the problem, and needs further study.