Thursday, July 30, 2009

ECUSA: The Not Thinking Church

One of the things that General Convention actually did (as opposed to the controversial resolutions, which didn't so much do anything as permit people to talk about whether they did or didn't do anything) was to pass the wretched kalendar changes put forth in "Holy Women, Holy Men". And if you want to understand ECUSA these days, you need to know that though this is taken from a hymn lyric, the source is in fact the emasculations of The Hymnal 1982. I imagine that one of the reasons it was picked was that "women" appears before "men".

I say this because reading the list of people they added to the kalendar reveals some profoundly questionable choices, and in particular leads to questions about the theology of even having commemorations. A fair number of those listed aren't Anglicans; several weren't even Christian. Three of them are Anglicans who crossed the Tiber. And then there's the collects, whose peculiarities wash over into the other set of supplemental liturgies brought before GC. As Dan Martins points out, the collects are highly adverse to the word "Lord". And a number of them ascribe lordship not to the Son, but to the Father. (They are also terribly written, but that's par for the course.)

Objection to this can be found all over the place. A friend of mine, John Robison, offers much the same critique. Yet this thing seems to have sailed through GC almost without consideration. Robison says at one point, "This [commemorating the atheist John Muir] is just one example of the "cool kids" making a decision and rolling with it." His next post discusses the "cool kids" further, in light of GC starting up eucharistic relations with the United Methodist Church and the failure of Forrester to gain consents. The latter is, I think, one of the most notable developments of late, because it indicates that, however weak, there is a core of orthodox belief about baptism and trinitarian theology. It is especially germane to the present point that objection to Forrester focused particularly on his tampering with the baptismal rite, as nearly every bishop and standing committee who gave a reason for withholding consent made that objection. Yet you would hardly know that from watching the output of GC; about the only orthodoxy-endorsing act was the bishops' reaffirmation of the virginity of the Theotokos. The UMC communion-sharing action simply ignores the differences in eucharistic theology between the two bodies, and while there are probably Episcopal priests out there who hold Zwinglian views (because there isn't any heresy you can't find in the church somewhere), by and large it seems to me that Episcopalians in this day and age hold to the high theory of substantial change embodied in the 1979 rites. Methodists, I gather, mostly do not. But it's what the "cool kids" want, so now we have it.

And that leads to Robison's central point: "Most matters of theological distinction are really rather unimportant to many in power in our Church. [....] Trivialities and feel good affirmations as well as sociology and political aphorisms have replaced the hard work of theology." I'd put it another way: the church does theology like a mob of Harvard undergraduates-- Harvard sophomores. Superficially well-informed, convinced of their own superiority to the point of considering criticism to be something akin to lèse majesté, insular, lazy, fond of a certain radicalism, and given to excusing all manner of coarse behavior among their own kind. So the Office of Women's Ministries puts forth a liturgy containing Old-Testament-condemned pagan practices, and their response upon being challenged about this is to go off on a completely (and ironically) irrelevant tangent about copyrights, when everyone else is wondering how a priest can defend being a druid on the side. And then the next liturgy they put out, once again, has verbiage that is conspicuously from pagan sources. Meanwhile the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music continues their decades-long campaign against God the Father, while dropping all sorts of theological novelties into the texts they want us to adopt. All of this is stuff to gladden the heart of an Ivy League academic (or even more so, one from the Seven Sisters), but it bespeaks a milieu that was passing from the University of Maryland College Park even in the days of my attendance there, thirty years ago. Yeah, we had our supply of radical feminists, but already they had a dated quality to them.

So this stuff comes onto the floor of GC, and rather than being picked over and sent back with a scathing rebuke, the, well, Harvard freshmen among the deputies and Harvard faculty among the bishops wave it on through. I mean, celebrating (and God, I am beginning to hate that word) Kepler and Copernicus in church is so cool! Well, perhaps the fight over homosexuality had them distracted. The next time around, when the homophobes have been more thoroughly routed, will they have that excuse? The next battle is plainly going to be over liturgical revision, and at present I don't think they're going to able to stand up to the "cool kids" who still think that clown masses are groovy and that the bible is so sexist and patriarchal and that having standards of faith is so oppressive. And thus, unless someone else rebels, we'll end up with a liturgy that is so "relevant" that the only thing it in't relevant to is religion.

Monday, July 20, 2009

VGR and the Numbers

Courtesy of GetReligion we have a NYT interview with V. Gene Robinson (breathlessly described as "Episcopalians’ First Openly Gay Bishop", as if he has never before given an interview) in which Robinson, well, not to put to fine a point on it, essentially lies through his teeth about the statistics of his diocese. Now, mostly he doesn't say anything that can't be absolutely pinned down as a lie, but when you look at the official statistics, they paint a completely different picture from the one he presents.

Let's start with the statement that "Our diocese grew by 3 percent last year." I don't know where he got that number, but it didn't come from Kirk Hadaway. Official church numbers for 2008 aren't out yet; 2007, according to the church, showed a 1.3% decline. Lest you think that is an abberation, let's review the numbers:
  • 2002: 16,698 members
  • 2003: 15,621 members
  • 2004: 15,531 members
  • 2005: 14,725 members
  • 2006: 14,347 members
  • 2007: 14,160 members
or if you prefer it in percentages:
  • 2003: 6.4% decline
  • 2004: 0.6% decline
  • 2005: 5.2% decline
  • 2006: 2.6% decline
  • 2007: 1.3% decline
Even if you believe VGR's 2008 numbers, there is a cumulative loss of 2100 members since 2002, or about 12.7% of membership; using the 2007 numbers gives a loss of 2500 members, or about 15% decline. Oh and when VGR said, "There are 15,000 people in the diocese of New Hampshire," he was not telling the truth either. Membership in the diocese hasn't been that high since 2004.

But on to the spin:
Q: Who are you pulling in?

A: We have received so many Roman Catholics and young families, particularly families who are saying, “We don’t want to raise our daughters in a church that doesn’t value young people in our church.”
Again, not to put to fine a point on it, but this isn't what the numbers say. Robinson's earlier statement in the interview that there was only one parish he had to close down may be true, but it's also misleading: 49 parishes and missions amounts to a loss of 280 members per parish from 2002 to 2007, or about nine whole parishes. He may not have rebellious priests and vestries, but he has plenty of departing laymen, far more than enough to offset the supposed RC influx. The fantasy that disaffected Catholics are going to pour into our more inclusive church is simple wishful thinking; four decades past Humanae Vitae, and it still hasn't materialized. Looking at that, and John Kerry, and Catholic Europe, I'm inclined to postulate that at this late date, Catholics have become adept at combining papal allegiance with routine disobedience. Perhaps having to sing all four verses of a hymn is a big turnoff. But the fact is that nobody really knows, that I can tell. Statistics on these conversions simply do not seem to exist.

What is real, by contrast, is the steady decline, year after year; the last year in which the church grew was in 2000, and since then the domestic dioceses have lost 213,000 members, or 9.2% of the 2000 total. And the 2007 membership of the four seceding dioceses amounts to about 2% of the domestic total, so it seems likely that 2008's numbers, when they are released, will show continuing losses.

Addendum: I don't mean to imply here that Robinson, with malice aforethought, stated what he knew to be false. There is nothing here that could not be attributed sloppy math on the one hand or unreasonably rosy thinking on the other. The important point in the end is that the bishop's demographic statements cannot be trusted, whether he is lying to us, lying to himself, or he just can't do math.


Well, the real numbers are out, and diocesan numbers can be found here. There is some fudge/smudge between Robinson's numbers and the official tallies. Membership grew by 2.4%, not 3%; there's a little lily-gilding in that, though at least the basic fact of growth panned out. The five year loss is 7.2%. A bit more disquieting is that ASA continued to decline, with a loss of 1.1% from 2007. Calling 14,501 members "15 thousand" is really pushing the limits of rounding up, but not technically inaccurate.

So my doubt on Robinson's expression of vigor must be tempered. He does have more members, though not quite so many (either by percentage or in toto) as his round numbers would lead one to believe. On the other hand, the drop in attendance is as discouraging as ever.

I'll have reactions to the 2008 numbers in a later post.