Monday, December 24, 2012

What Our Lady Brought to Her Task

This morning's sermon was well-presented, at least, but I am afraid I must register a dissent against one image which figured prominently in it. If your parish was using the RCL, then today's gospel was the story of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. One of the tropes of the sermon was contrast between the two women, with Mary referred to several times as representative of unwed mothers. I think this calls for a bit of a scripture check.

Now Zachariah and Elizabeth were both descended from Aaron and are thus both from priestly families; they were, as the sermon said, people of some degree of importance. Mary, scripture also tells us, was kin to Elizabeth, and thus it is reasonable to believe that her social position was not too far off from that of the elder woman. Joseph perhaps could be held as having a lower status, but calling him poor is, I think, an exaggeration. A carpenter is a man with a skilled trade, not an unskilled laborer; also one must recall that he and Mary came to Bethlehem prepared to pay for lodging at an inn. One may reasonably number the newlywed carpenter outside the wealthy, but I do not think that scripture supports numbering the couple among the poor.

Nor, I think, does the unwed mother analogy truly obtain. Let us first address Mary's age. It is commonly supposed these days that Mary was barely post-pubescent, but again without scriptural warrant. This is extrapolated from medieval Ashkenazi practice and from the pattern of medieval nobility, but I do not believe this has ancient testimony, and in medieval Europe the pattern in the working and middle classes was for delayed marriage in order to accumulate the assets needed to set up a separate household. But in any case Mary is most conspicuously not a fallen woman-child abandoned by the child's father; indeed, quite the opposite happens, with Joseph taking up his fatherly duty to Mary and the child with a shove from the Spirit) even though the child is not of his seed. Thus, while we may take the prosperous interiors beloved of painters as something of a fancy, there is really no reason to take the holy family as anything other than a decently prosperous working class household, neither rich nor poor, and largely unstained by the peculiarities of its origin.

Nor do I think that there is any great contrast intended between the two mothers. The meaning is more found in the knowledge that Zachariah is of Levi (and indeed of Aaron himself), while Joseph is of Benjamin, and more precisely of Jesse's and David's line. John is therefore priestly, and Jesus kingly. Zachariah is skeptical, and Mary is not; Elizabeth's barrenness signifies, as does Mary's virginity. It is a great temptation to turn every point of scripture into some life lesson; and for an Epsicopalian these days, the lesson is often as not about social justice. But I do not see how the visitation gives such a message, and in any case, the text is plain enough that the story is about their tie: their common, strange situation in which these two unexpected and miraculous pregnancies places them together.

It is not the second great commandment which we are brought to here, but the first: to love God with all our heart and soul and mind. And in this case, our love is carried out through our acceptance of the miraculous grace by and through which we were given an incarnate savior. Mary said, "be it done to me," and Elizabeth said, "blessed is the fruit of your womb." May we also accept the advent of our savior with such joy and humility.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Other Advent

On the first Sunday of Advent the church lectionary odometer rolled over, and thus the lessons looked towards the dies irae to come. In the gospel Jesus proclaimed the other side of the kingdom: judgement. Jesus came the first time in a rustic tableau, the angels proclaiming peace; the next time around, the angels will bring, not tidings of joy, but trumpets of doom and bowls of wrath to pour on the world.

The last judgement is where everything in medieval piety is headed, with a stopover in purgatory. We moderns are neither so sanguine nor so terrified about our souls being weighed, but when it comes to others: well, that is a different story. Some sense of fairness recoils at the notion that a virtuous pagan or an innocent newborn might not see salvation, so we recreate God in our image, dethroning the frightening judge of the Apocalypse and replacing him with Super-Saving Jesus, who delivers everyone from the fiery pit. Perhaps there is a hell, they say, but it is surely empty and will ever remain so.

Humanity spent much time in the last century supplanting the devil, constructing hells of our own and superseding the lake of fire with our own ovens and killing fields. From there we proceeded to take the apocalypse into our own hands, so that there was a time when it was held quite plausible, if not inevitable, that the world might be scrubbed clean of humanity in a ball of thermonuclear fire. For now, such wholesale slaughter seems to have been set aside, but the world groans on under a burden of natural disaster, warfare, and wanton violence; it longs for the second coming as for the first, that all may be made well.

But we also must be made well. On Jordan's bank, John cries out that the kingdom is at hand. But what must we do, therefore? He calls out for our repentance! Instead, we trust in our own righteousness, and judge against God that he does not fix the world as our corrupt hearts would see it made whole. And the heart of modern man is, well, lazy. Jesus told us to send the gospel to the whole world, and baptize all whom we could; but we lean back and hope that his mercy towards those who were not reached will take up the slack. We expect our government to do mercy, rather than ourselves, or we rely on magical economic processes to do that. We take our sexual exploits as play rather than the bonds which they are.

Justice awaits us, but so does judgement. Surely we should not hope that grace abounds through our neglect. Divine salvation is at hand, but so is the divine purging which is related at such length in scripture. There are sheep, but there will also be goats; let us not be numbered among the latter.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Defrocking by Some Other Name

Her Most Reverend Majesty has issued a statement in which she "accepts" a renunciation of orders which Mark Lawrence, by any observation having the slightest grip on reality, surely did not make. The misrepresentation is so gross that even Lionel Deimel, hardly a friend of Lawrence, finds it hard to swallow. Not that the nicety of invoking the wrong process matters in the end, or even in the middle, though some perversity of my own hopes to see a gaggle of bishops concelebrating with Lawrence in the sort of defiance that as been a feature of liberal churchmanship for decades.

Lots of other liberals, of course, are overjoyed that the matter is now over, as though this isn't going to grind through the courts for some time. Tony Clavier laments this as a "refus[al] to make adequate space for dissent", but really, that seems to be precisely the point for a more severe progressives. The various "good riddance" remarks I've seen here and there bespeak the campaign, heavily supported in the church establishment, to push the wrong-headed over the side if they can't be barred from positions of power. As Bishop Martins says, and as I said earlier, this looks like a coup on the part of the diocese's dissidents, and the picture isn't improved by the revelation that the PB and her legal rep had been making preparation for Lawrence's deposition with the dissidents for months.

One would like to hope, with Fr. Clavier and others, that this whole crisis could be unwound and South Carolina be put back in place, and then some less destructive course chosen. But too many people have taken actions which they claim are irrevocable, and nobody could possibly admit that the only think that cannot be turned back is their intransigent pride. And besides, it's all according to plan, as both sides have cooperated in the departure/expulsion. So the plan moves forward and the lawyers start to burn the billable hours.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Maybe We Should Consider Other Qualifications

There is not the slightest chance that I will be allowed to post the following over at the Episcopal Cafe, so as to this reflection on the selection of the next presiding bishop, I would like provide my synopsis of the last three occupants of the office:
  • Edmund Browning: Sterling Holloway with a head cold
  • Frank Griswold: Frank, what exactly are you trying to say?
  • Katherine Jefferts Schori: Her Majesty
As you may guess from this, I don't think any of the last three PBs covered themselves with glory. And when George Clifford says that "TEC has cleared her decks for action," surely anyone not committed to the purge implied in those words must smile ruefully at his choice of metaphor. I'm not terribly surprised by Clifford's call for a Rehoboam, but I have to wonder why provoking further rounds of "to your tents, O Israel" is thought to be such a fine idea.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Importing Disorder

It was a bad and destructive idea in 1974, and it remains so today. Various progressives are bouncing around the idea of "solving" the Church of England's women bishop impasse by finding three bishops to consecrate a woman in defiance of canons. The prototype for this, according to the Rev. Nigel Taber-Hamilton (generally referred to as the originator of this idea) is the consecration of Samuel Seabury by the non-Jurors; but as should surprise nobody, the historical parallel is flimsy. The whole point of consecration by the non-Jurors, as anyone who has gotten through ECUSA 101 knows, is that they were not bound by the canon law that prevented regular bishops of the English church from performing the consecration. Anyone can read for themselves that consecration a woman without approval from one of the archbishops (which I wouldn't count on, under the circumstances) is patently in violation of Canons C 2.1 and C 2.5, so such a rite would be not a clever solution to a canonical conundrum, but a bald act of deviance.

But that's really what's wanted anyway, I gather. The vituperation directed toward those women who voted against the measure reveals the lack of progressive patience and tolerance coming from this side of the pond; but then their forbearance against their own traditionalists already says what needs to be said. Driving the troglodytes away is apparently the mission of the church.

What's going to happen instead, if the usual C of E political processes go forward, is that the provisions for the traditionalists will end up looking like what we have now under Fulham, and the first consecration will happen in the not-distant future. This is not a bad thing for anyone, really. The church should have women as bishops, but it isn't an emergency that England does not yet have one. Parity of numbers is not justice; it is entitlement. I would suspect that, over time, the number of surviving Anglo-Catholic parishes will dwindle to nothing, but I do not see the value of hurrying this along except that it gratifies those who want to see that movement destroyed.

And in any case, anyone in England can see the fruits of such sacramental defiance by looking to the American church. The failure of church discipline seen in Pike's acquittal and the regularization of the Philadelphia women has led to a church in which nothing is really prohibited except a lack of subservience to the hierarchy. Oh, there are a few hardheaded dioceses where bishops take action against problem clerics, but for instance no sane person can believe that the defeat of the proposal to commune the unbaptized means that the number of parishes doing so anyway is going decline, except through closure of non-viable congregations.

The Church of England has enough of its own peculiar problems without importing ours to add to them. Move consecration of women forward, but do so charitably and orderly.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Synod Flinches

There is a great deal of heat being generated in reaction to the rejection of the proposed system for introducing women bishops to the Church of England. It's quite clear that the narrow margin of defeat was produced, at least in part, because some progressives voted against the measure. And we have it from at least one such progressive that the basis of his rejection was that it didn't have adequate provision for the Anglo-Catholics and other parties who do not accept women as clergy.

Now, I viewed this as a positive sign. I particularly like Sutcliffe's realism in noticing that ordaining women has not had any apparent positive effect in getting people to go back to church. The C of E's position in society is rather different from ours, of course, but I don't see how that difference is going to make a woman bishop a more powerful draw there than here. To the contrary, one could just as well argue that, as the established church, the C of E has a more certain obligation to minister to those who are not totally with the progressive program.

And that's really the big hole in the same program in our church, when anyone stops to think about it. The Episcopal progressives have tended to act as if they were the RC magisterium whose authority to teach was naturally recognized by all, and that therefore there's no problem in the attempt to use the church as a political force to change society. What we see instead is that our "magisterium" has little or no theological traction except among the unwary. Therefore the increasing reaction to using the church polity to advance progressive positions is for the traditionalists to get up and leave, leading us to the Current Crisis in South Carolina. And increasingly, the church is caught between ensuring that no upper-middle class aspirant to the clergy is denied the ordination they so clearly deserve, and indulging the epatez les parents theological dilletantes.

Such a church is not fit to minister in an England where the parish might be expected to minister to the drayer as well as the squire and where making the upper middle class feel good about itself is not as high on the list of missional priorities. It may make certain people feel good that there are women bishops, but I am not convinced that making every diocese potentially have one is that essential to the Christian mission. I can understand the feeling of rejection that women clergy may feel in not being accepted everywhere, but I question the weight of that feeling as motivation for getting some ecclesiastical power to force these women upon the unwilling.

It's pretty clear that this is, in some sense, nothing more than a temporary setback, if the church's processes be respected. One hopes that Parliament will have enough sense not to kill the church by forcing a female bishopric upon them, for surely no other exercise of authority so demands disrespect. I cannot doubt but that the English can come up with some other compromise which will take. Perhaps Rowan Williams is correct in expecting that a lot of explaining has to be done, but to the degree that it is required. the proper response does not lie in apologizing for not proceeding, for those to whom such apology might be desired have already abandoned the church as a source of moral authority.

Monday, November 19, 2012

All According to Plan

So, it has happened as everyone could have guessed it would: the patently false abandonment prosecution advanced, and South Carolina quit the denomination, exactly, I suspect, as everyone wanted. I mean, the StandFirmites are quite joyful about it, of course. The Episcopal Cafe folks are all full of righteous condemnation, but given a choice between Lawrence enthroned and the loss of the diocese, I surmise that they'll settle for his deposition however they can get it.

And we all know what comes next. 815 will go to court to seize control of the properties and the diocesan corporation. Based on the precedent of the previous cases, this will drag on for years and eat a huge chunk of the national church budget, impoverishing both sides of the dispute to no great Christian purpose. Given SC law it's possible that the national church will end up with nothing other than the handful of parishes which decide not to follow the rest of the diocese. Another big notch will be taken out of membership and attendance (1% and 1.8% respectively) and if they win in court, the rump diocese may have a bunch of real estate which they can't fill and will end up selling to whoever will take it. A lot of angry words will be thrown about to no real purpose other than the gratification of those tirading. In three years it will be easier to pass the progressive program at GC because one more orthodox voice will be absent, replaced by someone congenial to the head office.

And to what end and purpose? I am sure that the average parishioner will continue to be kept in the dark by his priest, and that attendance at most parishes will continue to slide. Attendance at the other four rump dioceses will continue stagnant; their new "inclusivity" will not save them. I would not be surprised to see Quincy disappear (there are many, many parishes which have a higher attendance), and the Great Lakes dioceses consolidated. The continued panicky rejection of our liturgical heritage will continue to be proposed. Inclusion will more readily dictate the permission to use heretical language for God, because more and more orthodox people will give up the fight. 815 will continue to control the church in most places, if not in South Carolina, but the value of this control will continue to decline.

Sensible voices urging tolerance and reconciliation were raised, and ignored. Righteous anger prevailed, and those of us in the middle were left standing alone in dismay. Schism is, as Fr. Jonathan writes, always sinful; but the sin adheres no only to those leaving, but often enough, those who worked to drive them away. The fight against SC was spiritually unnecessary and spiritually dangerous. We are not really inclusive: we only really want people who share the values and prejudices of our liberal, upper middle class. And to do that, our hierarchy has increasingly demonstrated that it will sacrifice essentially any principle of our faith to gain the approbation of our secular peers. Meanwhile the schism-fomenting traditionalists work to destroy their old church, at whatever cost to their own souls.

Bishop Martins is right, and if he had been heeded, I think we could look to an Episcopal Church which had something to say about Jesus. But instead, one can run through the Sermon on the Mount and pick out, clause by clause, how Jesus has been contradicted. It is perhaps not too late for all parties to repent, and for South Carolina to be reconciled. But I cannot imagine that happening.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I'll Stay On the Curb, Thank You

I saw a few months back that Brian McLaren has a new book out, this one titled Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. I happened to see one on the shelf at Books-a-Million, but when I picked it up, I decided that $30 plus tax was really more than I could afford for a book that bid fair to drive up my blood pressure anyway. Or sprain my eyeball-rolling muscles, at any rate.

The main reason I've never been able to find much use for the whole emergent movement is the college bull session quality of its theology. It's hard to argue against it, not because the faults in the arguments are hard to pick out, but because the scope of the argument's failure is so sweeping it's hard to pick out a starting point for a response. Saying "no" or "not exactly" to every sentence, if not every clause or even noun phrase, is not the road to constructing a convincing argument. McLaren, like Rob Bell, is a restorationist of the emergents' characteristic type: the Churches (meaning a composite of movie medieval Catholicism and southern writer Baptist) have screwed everything up, so we (meaning he) have to rewind the tape of Christian history and start over again. Well, there are two problems with that. First, nobody can do that rewind; everyone comes into the project standing upon all of Christian history, and most particularly those parts which are most prominent in their tradition. Therefore the necessary amnesia does not occur; instead, there's a strong quality of reaction to the project. Second (and this issue is peculiar to the emergents) it's pretty clear that the emergents have spent some time reading the mainline liberals and the secularist compatriots. That stuff has its own restorationist issues, but the more important issue is that it is the antithesis of restorationism: it is the topmost floors of the monumental edifice of western theology. McLaren (and Bell as well) tend to present it as inarguable, but the truth is that it sits in a nest of controversy perched precariously on the roof of this construction.

One only has to look at the dilettancy that is the Episcopal Church theological process to see how the emergents aren't going to put us onto some sort of sound theological basis. Communing the unbaptized was turned back, but not without effort, and I would assume that (a) it's going to come up at General Convention again in 2015, that (b) in the meantime, the people who have been breaking the canons are going to keep at it, that (c) there's going to be no discipline against them, because (d) the bishops in question either don't care or are on the wrong side of this issue, and (e) theologically they've gone everyone to his or her own way. McLaren and the other emergents give the same impression of having escaped the fold, and they give off the revisionist "we have to reexamine everything" odor of speculation.

And so today I am pointed to a YouTube video of McLaren speculating as to whether the Holy Spirit is behind the rise in irreligion and disaffiliation. Well, I don't know: my Holy Spirit detectors aren't going off, one way or the other. But what matters is what we do about it, however divine providence figures in affairs. The temptation in such a speculation is deduce a condemnation of the churches, and then to set up your own church. And well, well, well, but here we have this church in Spencerville which has done just that, and here's the pastor emeritus on YouTube.

Now, I think the emergents are right in thinking that affiliation is not the selling point it once was, though I don't think the shift is as great as they want to think. Catholicism, whatever its other faults, is always going to be able to sell itself as the One True Church, and affiliation is not that important in the polity of the politically conservative hyper-Protestants (meaning the baptists, not the anabaptists). But none of this gets at the more basic problem about "nones" and theology. The problem is dealing with modernism, which after two centuries we still haven't got right. The one side is absolutely oppositional, leading especially to the formulation of fundamentalism. The problem with this stance is that to maintain it, you have to be absolutely right, and they cannot be so. The other side is subservient: they let the secular tell them how to think. The destination of this liberal religion is to give up on religion as anything more than empty ceremony.

We Anglicans have had a chance to make a post-modernism in this that actually works, by maintaining a position of authority over matters religious and pushing back against the secular, while responding to the secular's just criticisms with repentance and correction. But we blew it. We glow with the toxic radiation of a loss of nerve, of snobbery, of contentiousness, and of enslavement to secular political parties. We are in the world, and increasingly, we are of it.

If we really wanted to "emerge", we would quit trying to fix the world through empty gestures to ourselves. We would accept our disagreements over sexuality and quit trying to fix each other by jamming worlds in our mouths. We would accept that our liturgy isn't perfect and quit "correcting" it for each liberal fad. We would abjure commentary on politics until we were strong enough to make anyone care. We would take our church cultural heritage as a strength instead of a liability. We would talk to the emergents and everyone else, but we would cease chasing after some movement to save the church. We would look to our own theologians instead of anyone but our own.

But honestly, I don't see that happening, not without a repentance on the part of the ascendant parties which surely is not to be seen in the near future.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Episcopal Coup

The latest wrinkle in the South Carolina "abandonment" crisis is a couple of curious meeting notices sent under the letterhead of the diocese. It quickly came out that neither of these letters came from Bishop Lawrence or the diocesan standing committee, but were instead promulgated by the same rump group which is trying to get Lawrence thrown out. Indeed we find out that the reason there were two of these notices is that the rector of the parish announced as a meeting place in the first letter discovered the misrepresentation and balked.

Anyone can see that the pattern established with the four previous departures is being worked through again: a new bishop is named from above, a competing corporate structure is erected, and the battle to claim the property is commenced. The first wrinkle in this case is the move to evict Laurence before he can leave, and the (in my opinion stupid) suicide clauses in the SC canons. The problem with the latter is exactly that, had they not been enacted, the fraud of claiming to be the real diocese wouldn't be even remotely plausible.

But there is a second wrinkle, which has come to light in this review of the affair from the Anglican Communion Institute. There is rather too much evidence, not utterly conclusive to be sure, but strongly suggestive that the whole action is something of a coup against the diocese, mounted with the approval and assistance of the presiding bishop's office. Apparently all the mechanism for replacing Lawrence and the standing committee has been sitting ready for some time, awaiting only the moment when abandonment could be claimed; and that claim was made possible, it may appear, by the change in the composition of the disciplinary board. And in all of the this preparation there are traces of the presiding bishop's influence if not direct action and assistance.

And that leads directly to the other hole in all of this. One of the peculiarities of the Episcopal Church governance is a lot of checks and balances against clerical power. As a rule, parishes and dioceses pick their own bishops, and while there are counterbalances to prevent them from picking someone too objectionable, normally they cannot have someone imposed on them, and once they seat someone, it is difficult to dislodge that person, either from the inside or the outside. There is even less control over laypeople. The loophole, however, is that when there is a vacancy, some interim appointment must be made, and this is the hierarchy's entrance into control from above. The only thing preventing the naming of so inmicable a character of Jack Spong to the South Carolina throne is that he is unlikely to accept the appointment. And not only that, but a whole new standing committee may be named, populated of course from the list prepared by Lawrence's enemies.

It's hard to look at all this and not see some traces of a scheme specifically to oust Lawrence and the standing committee, and to replace both with figures more acceptable to the progressives and thus steer the diocese on a more acceptable (to them) course. And given the ACI timeline, it's extremely tempting to suspect that this was done with the knowledge and even connivance of national church offices. And once again, we're back to the four-decade-old problem: church governance only seems to work when it helps the progressives, but not when it would hinder them. Is it any wonder the SC expected to have to leave?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

After the Electoral Apocalypse

I try to avoid writing about secular politics here, for reasons which long time readers may have already puzzled out. I emphatically reject the mantle of prophecy which way too many people in my church don when they talk about politics. It's all too obvious that they speak, much of the time, for man, and not for God. Thus, in the Episcopal Church we get the conservative blogs repeating neocon talking points, while liberals proclaim the Gospel According to Al Gore (with Adam Savage [shudder] serving as a sort of deuterocanon). Don't get me wrong: fiscal responsibility, in the abstract, is a good thing; so is environmentalism and conservation. But economics and climatology are not our fields of expertise.

That doesn't mean that anyone else agrees with me, and naturally there has been a lot of commentary on the consequences of the recent presidential election. Now a think a rational person would interpret a re-election as a continuation, not as a radical change. Also, a rational person might look at the rejection of a series of marginal to hopeless candidates in favor of the very moneyed establishment Romney as not reflecting favorably on either the process or the will of those who drove it. But apparently either my standards for rationality are way too high, or much of the conservative world has lost its senses. The trope of the last week has been that in (re-)electing Obama, we've driven off some sort of cliff, that we've been faced with some sort of stark moral choice.

I don't see it. Yes, on some issues I would prefer the supposed principles of the Republicans, but on others, I think they suffer their own deficiencies. In particular they need to step away from shilling for the powerful rich; I also can't take seriously their promises about reducing the public debt considering that every time they've held the presidency in the last thirty years, they've run huge deficits. In any case, this was not a contest of moral absolutes, but of two men who both, to my mind, left a lot to be desired.

But I also see another message: the churches have pretty much reduced themselves to utter irrelevance in the political arena. Sure, some of them can get a lot of their members to vote as they advocate, but they have no sway over anyone else. The churches are instead being judged as to whether they hold the Right Positions on the Issues of the Day. And that leaves them, and us, overripe for corruption as tools of the various secular political factions.

For a couple of more sensible responses, I would commend Bryan Owens's thoughts on the overreaction and its peril to our souls, and Matt Marino's commendation to stay the course and continue the work of the church, come what may at the polls.

Friday, November 02, 2012

A Couple of Lawrence Observations

...not from me, but I wanted to point them out. First, from The Living Church we have Dumbing Abandonment Down about the questionable canonicity of the current forced abandonment process. Taking a bit wider (and more pointed) look is Tony Clavier, who writes of Lawrence's "evaporation". There is little that needs be added to either analysis; I would only comment that it seems likely that the whole sorry process will be made moot by the diocese's and national church office's determination that the two shall be made twain.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Change and the Passive Voice

Over at the Daily Episcopalian we have another one of those vague paeans to Dealing With Change that get on my nerves so. The problem that I always see in talk about Change is exemplified by the title of the piece: "Change Happens". Well, in church change usually doesn't just "happen". There is far too much talk of change in the passive voice, when most of the time what we come upon is people changing things. Sure, some processes produce change over time whether we do anything about them or not, but those who make changes need to accept responsibility for doing so and not talk about what they've done as if it were inexorable and uncaused.

Societal and church changes do not flow over us like lava from the earth or waves from the sea. Progress (or ruin, if you don't like it) in the church and the world is not something that happens; it's what we do. It is not inarguable and irresistible; it is what we will to do. To take two examples from the article: there is no way in which the sexual revolution was not brought about by people deciding to do things differently, under a whole range of influences. It isn't something that just happened; it's something we did. Copulating indiscriminately and aborting the results, divorcing our spouses one after the other: they didn't just happen, but were things people decided to do, and did. Likewise, we changed the liturgy, we retranslated the bible, we decided to look differently at stewardship and activism.

Or to be more pointed about it: people in positions of power changed things. Talk about Change in the liturgy is particularly questionable in the mouths of clerics, given that the words are worked out by church committees and then voted on by General Convention, and then adopted or ignored or altered again by the priest in charge. The liturgy didn't just change; indeed, unless services were interrupted by power outages or meteorite strikes or gunfire from passing cars, there is no sense in which the liturgy was not changed by those who direct it. But we keep getting people in power who talk as if they had nothing to do with it.

We are more subtle than they were in Eden: Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent, but we can lay the blame on the universe, on time itself. Nobody decided to erase God the Father from the liturgy; it just changed. Nobody decided we should invite the unbaptized to take communion; it just changed. And we can lay the blame on a world we have disavowed any responsibility for making, and to whom we enslave ourselves because, after all, change is irresistible.

It is time for us to repent of vague talk about Change, which is all too often intended as an anesthetic to deaden the cries of complaint over the rector's latest fancy. Yes, some people resist any change, but others hate any stability. Humans, in their contradictory nature, need both stability and novelty. We need to address both on their merits, and not shrug off the responsibility for choosing either.

Monday, October 29, 2012

On the Shores of Melita

As I write this, the rains of Hurricane Sandy have been falling on us for about fourteen hours, and the main band of rain is just to our east. Our roof is sound, courtesy of some hurried work from the contractor fixing the damage from the derecho, when one of our maple trees fell. Fortunately our house was built to withstand a nuclear blast (literally: we also have a bomb shelter), so the damage was comparatively minor. But the from roof over the carport had to be rebuilt. Unfortunately, there wasn't time to replace the front gutter, so at the moment we don't have one. And we know from previous experience that if too much water fall around the from door, we'll get water in the basement. I've taken some steps, but we are still vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the Delmarva and New Jersey shores await a direct hit from the worst storm they've ever seen in modern times, while New York City awaits a storm surge which could flood the subway system. Keep us all in your prayers.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Keep Trying Until You Fry Him

In the ongoing campaign to find a griddle for bishop Lawrence, the most conspicuous problem is the process. Here it would seem that Bishop Martins of Springfield and I are in agreement: the charge of abandonment is utterly preposterous, and I would go further and say that it should be disregarded as a fraud intended to avoid the unpleasant task of putting Lawrence through a trial in order to oust him.

But there's another element to the history of this which didn't occur to me until I saw this analysis by A. S. Haley. If one looks at what happened the last time, you will see that the accusations were put forth around the beginning of October last year, and that Lawrence was exonerated at the very end of November. OK, so we take a look at the certification this time around, and we can see that every act used as a basis for the charge happened before the last verdict was delivered. It would appear that this is nothing more than a repeat of the previous investigation.

So what gives? Well, as Haley spells out, we have a different set of people on the disciplinary board, with three of the eighteen members being replaced after General Convention. One pretty much has to assume that some members were persuaded to change their votes, or that members who voted against deposing Lawrence were replaced by new members who voted for it. This would tend to imply that it was a relatively close vote the first time around, unless there were a lot of changed votes. But it also shows, as Haley also points out, a big double jeopardy issue. Basically, at whomever's instigation, they got to keep rendering judgements against the bishop until they got the one they wanted. And it's obvious that the they includes the presiding bishop and a lot of other liberal clergy.

I do not feel moved to opine as to the merits of charging Lawrence with canonical violations. The current action, however, is such a gross violation of process that any Christina should condemn it. And of course, the likelihood of this backfiring is very high; given the previously expressed opinions of the SC supreme court, the departing diocese could very well leave with all but a couple of parishes, free and clear; the national church could end up with naught but a slightly better majority towards the revisionists, a pile of legal bills which we already cannot afford, and a mountain of ill-will.

UPDATE: Now that the identity of the accusers has been revealed, we can see the same old Episcopal Forum/St. Mark's Chapel gang at work. The latter group, in particular, have been trying to force a new parish on the diocese, for whatever reason; I'm given to understand that it's a group of dissidents from one of the major conservative parishes. So are they going to get to be the cathedral of the soon-to-be-formed rump diocese?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Looking for Golden Eggs?

Word has come down that the national church is going to depose Bishop Lawrence of South Carolina for abandonment. If you want to look, you can see the papers here. The form of the action looks, to my admittedly non-legalist eye, utterly invalid: the charges are a list of canonical violations, and therefore he by right must be tried for these violations in order to depose him. It's a nice shortcut not to actually take testimony from him or hold proceedings out in public or any of those other niceties, but Bishop Lawrence obviously hasn't gone off to join a different church or otherwise quit his post, and therefore the charge of abandonment looks fraudulent as all get out.

One gathers that the point of this is to set off the diocesan convention recently put into that diocese's canons. At that point the genuine legal machinery can kick into gear so that KJS can attempt to seize all the property and change all the locks.

On one level this is supremely stupid. SC is not a huge diocese, and surely not everyone is going to leave, but they have about 1% of membership and 1.8% of attendance, so booting them is going to hurt. SC is also pretty much the only diocese with a strong record of growth. Also, nothing that Lawrence is supposed to have done wrong, it seems to me, was going to have adverse consequences unless the national church pulled a stunt like, well, this. I have to think that it is going to increase friction in the House of Bishops yet again, because there are surely a lot of bishops who do not agree that this act is legitimate, much less that it is well-conceived. In the public relations department, it gives the appearance that the national church cannot let pass any insult to its dignity.

The joker in the pack is that SC case law may favor the diocese and not the national church. Their courts have already given indication that they do not have to accept the ex post facto rewrites from above of the diocesan corporate charter. Thus the national church may well be left with nothing.

It is really is long past time for this sort of destructive act to be set aside. Litigation is costing the national church a pile, and even if they get the real estate, they aren't going to get the people. The atmosphere of hostility is palpable, and we cannot afford it.

The Numbers: 2011

I didn't do a "numbers" post last year; I don't know why, but it's possible that they were snuck out because they were so bad. This year they are being announced with quite a bit of fanfare, because, for the first time in years, domestic dioceses other than South Carolina are showing gains.

Let's go to the fast facts first, because it is here that the most edifying numbers appear. Last year's numbers were terrible: all the gross numbers declined, including Plate & Pledge; this year Average Sunday Attendance bumped up very slightly, for the first time in many years, and P&P resumed its climb. That, however, is about the extent of the good news in the large. Membership and number of parishes both fell, at the same steady rate of 3%/year for the former and 1%/year for the latter. The 5 and 10 year trend numbers are essentially unchanged across the board, with the percentage of churches reporting over 10% loss of ASA in five years still staying well above 50%. The membership and ASA loss over ten years continues to worsen. The median parish continues to shrink, showing a loss of 10% in both membership and ASA in the past five years. P&P continues to fail to keep pace with inflation, even considering the decline in parishes.

The diocesan and provincial statistics present a slightly rosier picture. Membership rose in many dioceses, including almost all those in Provinces 7 (lower midwest) and 9 (Latin America). A lot of these gains, however, were infinitesimal, and only Province 7 among the domestics didn't show a net loss. And membership numbers are less accurate due to the infrequency with which many parishes clean their rolls. ASA increased in most provinces, though the increase in Province 2 can be attributed entirely to the Diocese of Haiti; Province 9 showed a substantial loss due to a large drop in Honduras and a smaller but still large loss in Colombia.

And then comes the other asterisk: this was a "Christmas bump" year, because Christmas Day fell on a Monday, and therefore Christmas Eve attendance counted towards ASA. It's reasonable to expect, given the consistent long term losses, that next year is going to record another set of across the board losses.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Enheresying Our Worship

So I was trapped into participating in what I can only assume was a rite more or less from Enriching Our Worship. I mean, I haven't seen a physical copy of the current round of revision, but, for the sake of argument, I'm going to assume that this has some vaguely canonical source, rather than being something that someone just made up. And it seems largely consonant with the faults of the proposed same-sex blessing rites. But taking that as a given, let us count the deviations and heresies.

And we can start with the first sentence, because while there is nothing obviously heretical about saying "Blessed be the one, holy, and living God," it isn't what the BCP prescribes for ordinary time, or any other season. Why not? Well, the next change shows that quite plainly. For whatever reason we got a mashup of two different rites, one of which was baptism without a baptism. Therefore we started with the series of versicles and responses which opens the 1979 baptismal rite, but with a change: the response to "One Lord, one faith, one baptism" was not "one God and Father of all," but was instead "One God, Creator of all". OK, the opening sentence is not necessarily an issue, but this change is, because the passage is a direct quotation of scripture. This V&R exchange is taken from Ephesians 4:5-6, and every version I can find quickly translates it exactly, word for word, as it appears in the 1979 BCP. And if you can puzzle out Greek at all, you can see that "εις θεος και πατηρ παντων" can hardly be translated any other way. What's the problem? Well, the F-word, obviously: "Father".

We also seem to have some degree of trouble saying "Lord", if not to the same degree: the lectors were made to say "Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church" rather than "The Word of the Lord". I would disagree that scripture is intended to speak only to the church, but I also note that the new version is, rhetorically, less punchy. The 1979 book, at its strongest, either simply updates the older language, or speaks boldly and concisely. We seem incapable of that any longer, and every new rite is plagued with a puffy, precious style.

And it gets a lot worse. We were subjected to a litany which I didn't recognize, and which began as follows:

Holy God, in whom all things in heaven and earth have their being,
Have mercy on us.

Jesus the Christ, through whom the world is reconciled to the Father,
Have mercy on us.

Holy Spirit, source of both unity and diversity,
Have mercy on us.

Athanasius would have had a fit; Nicholas would have been moved to pugilism. Can we not begin with a straightforward and orthodox trinitarian formula?

We then moved on to "Eucharistic Prayer 2 from Enriching Our Worship 1". I'm so used to the mucking with the Sursum Corda that I hardly notice anymore what they've substituted for "him" in the third response, and since we sang the Sanctus, it was impossible to make the alteration prescribed, so at least that went off according to the BCP. At any rate, since "the one who comes in the name of the Lord" is Jesus, the aversion to "he" is hard to justify.

But then it is all hard to justify, except perhaps the attempt to fix Prayer C, which this prayer does not do convincingly. However, I have not come to talk about the (lacking) poetry of the text, but to complain about its errors. And here, in the institution narrative, we hit another. Now, I see no reason to deviate at all from the 1979 text on this, but I can see a certain wiggle room given that this is a scriptural composite. But there's no justification for misquoting Jesus! These people have inflicted upon us the old "pro omnis" error of the now-rejected RC novus ordo translation, saying:

This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is poured out for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.
OK, folks, the second clause of this is taken from Matthew and Mark, and they both say "poured out for many". Universalism may be very nice, very cozy, but it isn't what Jesus is recorded as having said.

And that's the running theme here. It isn't just that we have what seems to me to be an unnecessary and badly written addition to an already fat prayer book, but that they specifically are making changes that the church fathers would loudly and justly condemn. Our liturgists can't stick to the Nicene formulas; they edit scripture to suit their theological taste. And furthermore, the setting of this was, in my opinion, extremely questionable. This was a unified, special occasion service for the entire parish at once. We already have a guitars-vs.-organ problem in doing one of these to begin with, but to use such an occasion as an opportunity to push theological novelties on the congregation is unfair. I took communion with qualms, only because I couldn't see how not to make a scene; at least one other person told me they abstained. If you want unity, you use what is common, not what is novel; you use the BCP text, Rite II straight up, and with no emendations to fit your personal theological quirks.

As I've said before, I'm not utterly opposed to revision. It would be really nice to fix up Prayer C, and it would nice to make the ordinal less, well, wimpy. What I oppose is the theological revisionism. Scripture is what it is, and there is no license for altering it. The Nicene formulas are, well, were, the one unifying principle of Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox; they are not up for unilateral modification. I'm not inclined to ever take communion under these rites again, and if they start showing up regularly at my parish, I guess I'll have to work out some permanent means of avoidance.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Shreds and Noise

You may or may not have heard the publicity noise over a supposed gospel fragment which may or may not suggest that Jesus had a wife. Well, the upshot is this:
  • Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School announced that she had examined a papyrus fragment from a private collector, and had determined it to be genuine. The recto side of the papyrus was translated from the Coptic to read "Jesus said to them, 'my wife'..." at one point. The fragment, which she dubbed the "Gospel of Jesus’s Wife", was dated to the 4th century, and claimed to translate some lost 2nd century Greek version.
  • Not surprisingly, the MSM jumped on this, and not at all surprisingly, Laurie Goldstein of the New York Times was first in line. Others followed, all with the usual breathless "will this change everyone's understand of early Christianity" pseudoquestion.
  • Surprisingly, though, there was a major pushback the next day, which also appeared in the some mainstream publications. The most prominent story was this AP wire story, in which there seemed to be almost a line of other early text types queued up to cast doubt upon the text. It seems that the lack of provenance of the fragment is a problem in itself, but many of the scholars quoted were dubious about its authenticity.
  • Also making a "day after" appearance was this NBC news blog post, which stepped up to deal with some of the historical and theological context familiar to those of us with at least a passing knowledge of the field.

It's clear that, if it be genuine, we're looking at a gnostic text: that it is in Coptic is a warning bell to begin with, and one of the phrases in the text parallels a portion of the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps the best known gnostic text. And as such it fits the type pretty well: these texts say a lot of odd things about sexuality and Jesus, and it isn't clear that any of them are to be taken literally. These texts are all, as a rule, pretty late (typically 4th century), so their relationship to ante-Nicene patristic Christian is controversial. For a long time the picture of gnosticism we had was largely formed out of patristic condemnations; it wasn't until the Nag Hammadi discoveries in 1945 that we could really begin to pull together a solid picture of gnostic writings.

And this is the point at which the plot thickens, because Dr. King does not come into this with clean hands. She is part of a group who doubt gnosticism as a category, which is not entirely bad. Far more problematic is her willingness to sit as part of the Jesus Seminar, which is anathema to real scholarship as far as I am concerned. And there is a far more damning problem, beyond the doubts about the paleography. Here is Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica:

[T]his fragment is exactly, exactly, what the Zeitgeist of 2012 would want us to find in an ancient gospel. To my mind that weighs heavily against its authenticity. Of course I hope I'm wrong and that it is genuine, and that is certainly a possibility, but this is equivalent to winning big in the lottery and that should make us nervous. It is too perfect. As Larry Schiffman put it, "The most exciting things are the things most likely to be forged."
It is far too reminiscent of letter to Harry Potter's mother that he finds in the last book, which has been truncated at a point which allows a reading wildly divergent from the text read as a whole: how convenient that we get this tantalizing phrase, cut free (literally) from any context, which fits so nicely into the restorationist tropes of mainline liberalism with their vision of a purer faith captured by those, well, patriarchs and then enslaved by the Constantinian state.

If I were a betting man, I could put my money on this coming to nothing. Orthodox theologians are not going to be disturbed that the corpus of gnostic writings has gotten one text larger anyway, but I would lean towards counting it as a fake. What is more significant is the will to believe it, and possibly to create it. If you want a snarky read of this, you'll prefer Thomas McDonald's analysis, but I would also recommend this longer and more dispassionate take from Smithsonian magazine. But one should also consider, on one's own, the rush toward any text which stands outside the particularity of orthodox Christian faith. Where is the need to have faith in these scraps coming from?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What Does It Mean to Do Theology?

Like sands through the hourglass, nothing seems so relentless in the Episcopal Church as the continual effort at eroding any kind of notion of doctrine. Thus a discussion of catechesis at the Episcopal Café set off, as anyone might expect, a run of responses deriding the notion of a catechism as being a vehicle of "old-school" "authoritarian[ism]". Well, as usual this immediately abandons any real sense of Episcopal Church history, as everyone knows that we didn't even have a catechism until 1976. And that book actually says this concerning the catechism:
This catechism is primarily intended for use by parish priests, deacons, and lay catechists, to give an outline for instruction. It is a commentary on the creeds, but is not meant to be a complete statement of belief and practice; rather, it is a point of departure for the teacher, and it is cast in the traditional question and answer form for ease of reference.

The second use of this catechism is to provide a brief summary of the Church’s teaching for an inquiring stranger who picks up a Prayer Book.

It may also be used to form a simple service; since the matter is arranged under headings, it is suitable for selective use, and the leader may introduce prayers and hymns as needed.

I submit that there is nothing much authoritarian in this, other than the apparently now antique notion that the Church teaches anything whatsoever. A perusal of what our catechism actually says should reveal nothing that is controversial to those who have set aside the routines of modernist revisionism. Obviously people who value questioning more than answers are going to have a problem with such formulas, but someone who is going to question traditional answers has an obligation to know and understand those answers. A catechism is a pretty easy route to to that understanding, be it memorized or not.

Behind this emphasis on questioning, however, is a more or less utterly false picture of Christian history. Or at least, it stands as an utter rejection of Christianity as a historical religion. The trope is religion as a Journey, in which God has to be sought out; but that's not Christianity as the Church teaches it. Seeking takes us to baptism, and baptism (as the sacrament of incorporation) brings the crucial seeking to an end. Doctrine is part of the map giving direction to this, and one of the Church's roles is to keep this map whole, and to make sure it keeps getting passed on to the next generation.

By contrast, the modernist version seems to be that the church really doesn't know much about God, at least nothing worth listening to; in fact the message seems to be that one can basically assume that everything they say is wrong. A quote from one response: "'[R]evealed' truth [...] is nothing more than a prior consensus opinion of some particular group." This isn't a "healthy skepticism"; it's skepticism of a certain sort elevated to dogma. The modernist catechism, were one to be written, would say that the church is nothing more than a political body, that it has no historical teaching worth passing on, and that the purpose of theology is to mine the tales of scripture so as to best ratify the moral impulses of upper middle class liberals.

My reaction to this is to observe how Christian precepts inherited from the church are central to the moral dogmas of the liberal intelligentsia. It seems to me any reason they can give for rejecting church tradition goes on to provide a ground for rejecting liberal moral teaching; any compelling reason to think that Jesus is of any importance eventually relies on the authority of the church as a witness to the faith. And besides that, the picture they give of church history simply isn't true. It is possible to say the most utterly unsupported things about church history and scripture without the least shame, the product of a restorationism so extreme as to retreat back before any record we have, enabling what comes down to simply making up proto-Christianity as needed. But there are a lot of records, and it's pretty clear working from the materials we have that Nicene orthodoxy wasn't something made up at Constantine's behest.

That orthodoxy may not sit easily in some modern minds, but so what? Surely what is most congenial to the secular, irreligious, or "spiritual" world around us is what we should be most suspicious of. It is those precepts which we who hold ourselves worldly are most inclined to rationalize. And I should add at this point that the neo/paleo-con conservative political religion of a lot of American Protestants is as easily criticized on the same basis.

Moderns don't like Jesus as the Real divine revelation who acts in history to save us, because it's so, well, particular and exclusive. Well, so what? If that's the way things are, then it's up to us to learn to live with it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

I Talk to the Snakes, But They Don't Listen to Me

It's hard for me to get past the title of Elizabeth Kaeton's latest missive on the conflict over marriage. When she accuses her opponents of "listening to talking snakes", it's easy to get the message that serious response to their objections isn't on the program. It's also easy to get the message that grounding in scripture isn't a component of her theology. Or perhaps the temptation of a snappy and contemptuous comeback has overcome the recollection that it is God in those early chapters of Genesis who is providing the instruction.

And indeed, that's the rub, for if she isn't going to listen to God speaking in scripture, it might well be asked to whom she does listen. It's all well and good "to talk about the traditions of mutual love, fidelity, intimacy and mutuality that are at the heart and soul of Christian marriage," especially when that talk comes from scripture. That talk, in scripture, is found in the context of an explicit acceptance of all that stuff in the book with the talking snake. And back when I was discussing the lessons for the proposed same-sex blessing rite, I noted how all nearly all the lessons addressing marriage were dropped apparently because they all started from the "man+woman=godly intent" theology of Genesis, except for one passage of love poetry, a lot of general lessons about agape, and a couple of slash re-readings out of the OT.

So where is the instruction coming from? Well, without regard to the opinions of the DSM, it isn't coming from science. Permit me to turn my religion off for a second: the teaching of biology is that homosexuality among humans is a sexual aberration which fortunately hasn't been common enough to interfere with the continuation of the species, at least perhaps until recently. That's about what we can get from that, and it's obviously not a good basis for a moral mandate of any kind, for or against. No, it's pretty obvious that the starting point is in some respect taking the material in Genesis 2 and maybe adding a few extra verses after verse 25, and maybe filing the gender off Eve, and dropping verse 24. The argument is that homosexual relationships are just like heterosexual ones, but the latter continue to be informed by the same set of verses (except some of what Paul says), and therefore someone like Kaeton is listening to the talking snake just as much as anyone else in the church is.

The point here is not about listening to talking snakes, but about listening to other people. My interpretation of Kaeton's remarks is that anyone who explicitly goes to scripture as an authority in opposing her program is going to be dismissed out of hand. I also interpret them as expressing contempt for those people. So, really, there's no point in even talking about talking, because it's pretty clear that the only talking that's supposed to be heard is her talking. And you know, I'm not willing to sign up for that.

It's hard to find any discussion of "alternative sexuality" of any sort and not hear at least a whisper if not a droning mantra of "it's what feels natural to me, and it's not hurting anyone else." Why on earth should anyone take that seriously? It's nothing more than the voice of appetite. Meanwhile I look at ordinary, procreative heterosexual sex, and I see a lot of people who hurt each other, themselves, and especially the kids they bear because they cannot control their appetites. It seems to me that same-sex relationships shouldn't get a pass on these issues, so that I think we can step up to getting rid of the same-sex blessing rite simply because we cannot possibly justify having an opposite sex relationship blessing. Instead, it's easy enough to figure out that we countenance endorsement of marriages-which-aren't-marriages simply as a tactic toward insistence on the acceptability of homosexuality.

Kaeton thus comes across here as a classic "[w]e know better than you on this topic and we’re going to have a 'dialogue' until you see the error of your ways and agree with me at which point our dialogue will be done" liberal. Personally I have better things to do with my time.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Church and Chicken

As pretty much everyone in the country knows by now, the president of Chick-Fil-A had an interview with a Baptist organization in which he stated support for the "the biblical definition of the family unit" and made other statements essentially rejecting the notion of same-sex marriages. Apparently the LGBT rights lobby, with the help of those friendly to them in the media, decided to make a test case out of this, to the point of getting a few big city mayors to make rash statements about how they would try to keep CFA out of their cities. So someone (it might have been Mike Huckabee, but he certainly played a key role in organizing it) decided to respond with an Appreciation Day: basically an eat-in. Well, CFA was swamped, and media from all over reported on the crush of people, albeit often grudgingly. A LGBT "kiss-in" protest, by comparison, made little impact.

So what does it all mean for us in the church?

Matthew Paul Turner, I think somewhat inadvisedly, titled his analysis "5 Reasons Why the Church Failed Yesterday. I think perhaps it would be more accurate to talk about how the churches failed, given that different churches reacted in contradiction to each other. I do think that Turner is partly right in his third point: this was not about people, but about issues. But beyond that, it's also about the institutions which exemplify these issues, and here is where I think it is more profitable to focus. It is the done thing, from the liberal side, to throw around the word "hate" a lot, the better to identify the opposition with those who tied Matthew Shepard to a fence (and yes, it was only a day or so before I saw that connection made). It seems to me to be more about anger than hate, and I think the target isn't so much homosexuals as it is the liberal establishment that's pushing this cause. Which isn't to say that there weren't a lot of people in this who, put on the spot, would not have strong negative reaction to homosexuals as a class.

But the thing that really lit this off was how the MSM and the mayors jumped behind a boycott. That set off American antiestablishment reactions in a big way. The message that should be taken away from this is how intense the resentment is against being lectured over this issue, not about how much America hates homosexuals. The liberal establishment put their influence on the line, and failed spectacularly.

Obviously the Episcopal Church ended up on the losing side of this. Oh sure, we got to indulge in our feelings or righteous persecution, but we had no effect on the course of the event. The usual Episcopal liberal voices said the usual things about how hate-filled the sandwich eaters were, and maybe it's just me, be there was at least as much anger expressed there as in a thousand chicken sandwich lunches. Outside of our own little world, nobody cared. We got dismissed as just another bunch of liberals, subspecies a bunch of heretics who've pretty much forsaken the faith.

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.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Numbers Matter

One of the tropes heard in the discussion over the future of ECUSA is a certain dismissiveness of the steady-since-2000 declines in membership and attendance. Occasionally people cast doubt on the statistics-gathering, which I would hold to be unjustified. The membership numbers have certain problems which are well-known to those of us who study them; the attendance numbers are perhaps subject to a certain imprecision, but they are immune to the record-keeping issues which affect membership values. But beyond this, all the problems with church statistics tend to minimize decline. To the degree that the numbers are wrong, they are almost certainly inflated. There is no reason to disbelieve that the decline is real, and at any rate the closure and departure of parishes testifies to the trend well enough.

Given the reality of decline, the forces of tradition naturally want to attribute it to the church's deviancy. And again, on some level this is inarguable: one can match up much of the decline over the past few years to departures of dioceses and parishes over theological issues. This of course doesn't immediately imply that the issues should have been resolved the other way, nor does it imply that this is the sole source, or that sticking to traditional teachings on the issues at hand would have avoided declines.

On the other side there is a certain perverse pride in driving off the troglodytes, and a certain stiff upper lip about dealing with the losses. But that brings us to the point: the losses DO have to be dealt with. To take an example close to home: Back twenty-some years ago, around the time we married, our parish was nearly literally bursting at the seams. We would have to open the windows so that the people standing outside the building could see and hear the service. And this happened at Easter, and then when the bishop visited; but when we had people standing outside on an ordinary fall Sunday, we knew we would have to build. And while being stuck in a school lunchroom for nearly a year was pretty annoying, the idea that we were growing was energizing and helped carry us through. Twenty years later, we are in the throes of our third rector change, and attendance in 2010 was down to the point where we probably could fit into the old, unexpanded church, and my guess is that 2011 will prove to have been worse, and this year is looking worse still. There is a constant drumbeat about making budget, and anyone who watches can see that we have gone from spiritually prosperous to living under a constant level of strain.

It is easy enough to say that numbers are not of themselves a sign of spiritual health. But the church is a spiritual institution, and the numbers are surely a key measure of institutional health. They do not show that the institution is in some sort of healthy, controlled contraction: they show a church which is being forced to retrench at the mercy of demographics and as a reaction to its dogmatic changes. In context, the dismissal of the numbers' relevance isn't confidence; it's denial. Parishes (and now cathedrals, for two were closed and one was sold off in the past year) are forced to close, and few on the progressive side are willing to face up to the obvious truth that the institution cannot keep going like this.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Let Us Now Praise the Late Sixties

Today, in recollection of the uncanonicalirregular ordinations in Philadelphia back in 1974, we have been given a paean to their ilk by Louie Crew. It is praise afflicted with a certain nostalgia, not to mention some self-exaltation: Dr. Crew, as a founder of Integrity, surely must be numbered among those whom he praises.

And perhaps some did sit in jails; but nobody involved in those ordinations was at any risk of that. The worst that could have happened was that a bunch of women would continued to be numbered among the laity, and a few retired bishops might have had some ineffectual discipline directed at them. I eventually realized that what I was seeing was not a group of isolated rebels, but a more or less organized coup.

Dr. Crew's part in this was carried out during his rise through the academic establishment. In the same era, women's studies enjoyed the same elevation (the department was established at UMCP before my arrival there in 1977). The protest establishment still waxed nostalgic over "four dead in Ohio" (ignoring the two dead in Mississippi), but the inconvenient fact that these six constituted the entire scope of the carnage was giving way to the more prosaic reality that the next generation wasn't going to get to live as well or with such noble causes at hand. It was easy enough to see that the church was being taken over by liberals who intended to use the structures of the church to push their views on everyone else. Or in other words, they just wanted to supplant and become their supposed oppressors.

But beyond that, the attitude fostered (and which the conservatives unfortunately picked up from them) was that being a jerk for Jesus was not only perfectly OK, but that it was the way people should act: contemptuous, loose with the facts, power-hungry and, well, self-righteous. When I look back at 1974, I think about how much more civil and mutually respecting the church might be if they had waited for GC's approval. And a little remorse for the damage they did to church order would also be in line. But humility, it appears, has passed away.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Teaching the Church

No passage so symbolizes the impasse of the church today than the British prime minister David Cameron lecturing his own church on their sexual ethics. Of equal note is the context of the speech: a reception at 10 Downing Street for "the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-sexual community" (to quote the Church Times article on the event). OK, so here is where it is at: a man who is a churchman listens to pressure groups, and presumes to pressure the church on their behalf, as though the church has nothing to teach him on that matter.

But then, the church has ceased to speak with one voice on the matter. Anyone who guessed that the CT article is graced with a photograph of the event could also guess that said picture shows perennial episcopal aspirant Jeffrey John, who is transparent as glass about his desire to make whatever diocese he attains dominion over as a power base for dictating approval of people, well, like himself. Church teaching becomes thus something to be captured and made to serve his views. But then, what's the point? The PM has already shown that church teaching is held inferior to, well, whoever it is that taught him. Or maybe it is simply his own urges and calculations which rule him.

There has been a lot of going on about Ross Douthat's doubts on the prospects of liberal Christianity. A lot of the rejoinders don't seem to be able to get past the adolescent observation that the conservative denominations are also on the ropes. But really, considering Cameron's remarks, it's hardly surprising. The various churches are all having a hard time getting people to care, I think for somewhat different reasons. The Catholic Church's problems in the USA, for instance, are plainly derived in part from reaction to the high-profile sex scandals. But the secularists are also getting their wish: it is they who are setting society's agenda, and the churches are, by and large, simply buying into the programs given to them by worldly authorities.

This corrupts the conservatives and liberals differently, because they are in bondage to different secular authorities with different aims. The conservatives are controlled by business interests who are uninterested in theology, and this means that they are free to adhere to basic theological doctrines while at the same time their moral teaching is contaminated with neo- and paleo-con economic and social dogmas. The liberals, however, are enslaved by the academic and social bureaucratic establishment, and these people are notoriously adverse to Christian tradition. The irreligion of the academy produces a derivative irreligion in their ecclesiastical followers, so that the result is that, as Douthat says, "the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism."

There remain centrists, of various political views, who are not beholden to the outside, but they are conspicuously beleaguered. Their faith that scripture- and tradition-based theology is the starting point for moral reasoning and "lifestyle" (as though one works out how to live in the same manner as one works out how to get one's hair cut at the barber or salon) is dismissed as antique. If they represent the best foundation for a church going forward (for they do make an argument for religion above and before their moral teaching), they are also crippled by institutions which abuse their otherwise commendable loyalty. I have tended to have little use for the "emergent" movement, because too many of its proponents (Brian McLaren, I'm looking down the road at you) are object lessons in the corruption of hitherto conservative non-denom evangelicals by the same intellectual forces which ruined mainline theology. But as it stands, the only hope going forward is to break free of existing institutions, and indeed perhaps to see institutionality itself in different terms, because of the obsession with church power which so drives liberal Christianity.

That said, I'm not abandoning the Episcopal Church this week. But right now its claim to my loyalty is based very weakly on being able to find a sufficiently orthodox parish, and nothing else.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Rules Are For Other Dioceses

A letter has been set forth from the bishops of New York authorizing their clergy to conduct same-sex marriages beginning September first. OK, so what has changed to permit this? Nothing whatsoever, unless you want to count the change in New York state law which took effect over a year ago. General Convention didn't authorize use of the "provisional" blessings rite until Advent, and did nothing to change the church's theology on marriage at all.

But that's the pattern of progressive Christianity, isn't it? Rules are not for them; they're for the troglodytes who refuse to get with the program. Bishops Sisk and Dietsche aren't going to face any serious discipline for stepping way outside the canons; indeed, I suspect they will be lauded for their courage in doing so. If anyone bothers to bring this as far as a presentment,I predict that the matter will be placed outside domain of "core doctrine" and dismissed. But I don't see a presentment in the offing, really.

One wonders why we even bother with GC any more, except that I know the reason: we have to pass all those self-affirming resolutions about political issues over which we have no influence. So when a diocese authorizes communing the unbaptized (as opposed to merely ignoring the abuses rife in the church) it will be lauded by the "cool kid" progressives, but in spite of the recent rejection at GC, nobody will ever be disciplined for inviting pagans and atheists up to share in the Body and Blood.

Such is the state of order in this church.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

General Convention Postmortem

It's all over but the application of the Secret Episcopal Procedural Decoder Ring to figure out exactly what didn't pass. And the results aren't pretty.

Hardly anything bad was actually entirely rejected. Holy Women, Holy Men got sent back for another round, but there's no reason to believe that the standing committee is going to straighten out and get rid of the questionable entries. Communion of the unbaptized at least was not authorized: Eastern Oregon's resolution did get tabled at the start, but North Carolina's study resolution was gradually mutated into a completely different statement that baptism before communion was "normative". At that, it took until the last possible moment for the bishops to get rid of a sentence essentially authorizing communion of the unbaptized through the trapdoor of "pastoral sensitivity"; it's not clear whether or not the deputies were able to readdress the final version. So the best that was perhaps achieved on this front was the status quo: that places where it is being permitted will continue to invite unbaptized people to the altar.

The big news-making issues, of course, were the transgender protections and the approval of same-sex blessings. The latter was pushed through by terming the rites "provisional" rather than "trial", in order to get around a supermajority provision in the church constitution. I see no reason to take the difference seriously: the words are, in context, essentially synonyms, and nobody can surely believe that the next GC will be able to say, "no, that was a bad idea; we'll stop doing these." Furthermore, the authorization to reword the rite according to local laws surely will be taken in some dioceses as grounds to use the rite to do same-sex marriages.

The transgender resolutions are something of an empty gesture in light of the two such clerics who spoke on the measure. One can do the math and consider the possibility that every transgendered person who has considered ordination is already in a collar; the impediments which supposedly already stood were surely naught beyond the need to move to a different diocese.

I lost track of the other liturgical junk. I think we still are stuck with pet funerals (though without assurances of our dogs joining use in heaven) and some of the other rubbish from SCLM, but mostly they stand as symbols of unorthodoxy rather than as present threats to what goes on in church.

The usual round of political posturings was enacted, an enormous time-waster considering that nobody cares what a church of less than 1% of the population thinks.

And finally, restructuring. The WSJ article that has attracted a lot of attention is nearly as wrong-headed as people accuse it of being, but there is a kernel of truth at the bottom of it all. It is hard to imagine that restructuring these days will not encompass means to continue to drive the traditionally orthodox out of power. What should have happened to the liturgical resolutions is that everything except same-sex blessings should have gone down in flames, and the blessing rite should have been brutally overhauled to remove all the anti-dominical heresies embedded within it. That none of this happened indicates that orthodox believers don't have much of a future in this church.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

It Isn't STRUCTURAL Reform We Need

It's striking to look at the list of resolutions up at General Convention and see how many of them are ostensibly about "structural reform", and to contemplate what that reform seems to point toward. Now, I think there is a need for reform, but it's hardly the central problem besetting the Episcopal Church. No, as one can see from the rest of the resolutions, the two central agendae of the church are once again (a) making upper middle class liberals feel good about themselves, and (b) indulging in a taste for theological adventurism. And therefore the direction that "reform" is trying to take is to centralize power in an administration to tell the conservative dissenters to shut up and get with the program.

Consider all the fuss about transgenderism. In reality, this is vanishingly rare, especially among women: even the highest "I get to make up a number by assuming this is wildly underreported" values are only a couple of tenths of a percent, and more reality-based numbers give a few hundredths of a percent for men and and another order of magnitude less for women. Yet this is a big cause at GC, with special bathrooms which have been the cause of a few amusingly embarrassing mistakes on the part of the unwary. It's an ideal cause for us because it's nominally transgressive, pseudo-clinical, and cheap. Meanwhile my quite liberal daughter has gotten thoroughly annoyed at all the people in the cosplay forums she frequents who go on and on about how remarkably out-of-the-ordinary their sexuality is. One would think that people who pick a single person of the opposite gender, make a legal commitment to them, and get down to breeding are, well, a vanishing breed. And certainly the agenda of GC takes them for granted, ignoring the much more disruptive issues of divorce and unchastity. But to deal with those issues, they would have to take a very large part of their liberal membership to task, which isn't going to happen.

And consider the current path of the proposal to commune the unbaptized. This is really another "getting points for being ineffectually transgressive" project, at the cost of one of the most fundamental understandings of the church. And thank heaven, the original Eastern Oregon resolution has been set aside; yet in its place we have a resolution from North Carolina which, having been amended, is now proposing a committee to study the issue and make a report. If such a committee is formed, what's most likely to happen is one of two outcomes: either those in control will make sure there are enough heretics on the committee to guarantee a less than orthodox report; or when a less adequately packed committee delivers an insufficiently licentious report, it will be thanked and ignored, and the heretics on the issue will simply press the issue again and again until they've driven off enough orthodox to prevail.

And that's where structural reform is hitting the rocks. The obvious reform that is needed is to get the heretics out of control, and arrange church structures so they can be kept out of control. But where we are actually headed, it appears, is arranging things to entrench the heretics and increase their powers to suppress orthodox dissent. So right before GC we get a presentment against a group of bishops who had the audacity to file an amicus curae brief in some Ft. Worth case, objecting to 815's claims about church polity; and it turns out that this comes from the bishops of two of the rump dioceses. This kind of loyalty oath crap is the worst sort of hypocrisy in a church where every sort of praxis violation is routinely ignored (see under "communing the unbaptized" above: does anyone really think that is going away?). And of course the truth behind the truth is that these bishops were picked outside the normal process and seated by the central administration, so they are very much the agents of the centralization faction.

If these people get their structural reform, we are headed towards a tightly centralized church which enforces a paradoxical theology of deviance; which is to say, the one thing that won't be tolerated is any notion of orthodoxy. I won't be a part of such a church, but then, I don't think very many other people will want to be a part of it either.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

No Man's Prayer Book Is Safe

...while General Convention is in session. At least, that's the risk offered by one resolution, as Bishop Martins sees it. The offender is A059, which fixes an oversight in the authorization for use of the Revised Common Lectionary. Now theoretically putting everyone on a different lectionary should have gone through the prayer book revision process, which requires an absolute minimum of two GCs to put a change through. The problem is that when they authorized the change to the new lectionary, they forgot about the lessons for the proper liturgies, so that Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and Holy Week are still only authorized to use the 1979 readings. Well, OK, so they're proposing to spot fix this this GC. Well, as the Bishop observes, once this has been done for this, it's probably available to do for anything. So (to take his example) they could rewrite the marriage rite on the spot. And therefore the BCP could change pretty much every three years, instead of every forty years or so, as in the past. Also, being able to spot-"fix" the text makes attempting changes all that more inviting. And then it's a "Lord" here, a "Father" there, a "sin" in another place, and pretty soon those of us with some attachment to the 1979 book find ourselves stuck with the Enriching Our Worship tripe. We have all these people claiming that we are bound by worship, not doctrine; but of course there's a lot of doctrine in the BCP. And what better way to become even more unbound than we are in today's "what's a rubric" free-wheeling days than to simply change the book constantly. I'm with the bishop. What we don't need is yet another way to slip change into our worship.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

On Hiding Out in a Pre-Modern Church

Andrew S. Damick, an Antiochian priest, has put up a typically convert Orthodox posting on who's not a Christian. Now, I don't know the whole story of his conversion, but his capsule biography describes him as an Evangelical missionary kid; it's unclear on his degree of religiosity prior to his college conversion, though I am led to surmise that it was pretty high.

In discussing this I need to refer back to an earlier post of his on his personal blog, in which he discusses Peter Leithhart's "Too Catholic to be Catholic" criticism of closed communion of the Catholic Church. Orthodoxy of course is even more closed. Perhaps the center of all of this is in these words from Leithart:

Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? How is that different from Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles? Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist. To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus. To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptized. And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been “inadequately” baptized? Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I’m too catholic to do that.
In these discussions I find myself in the same position, minus the ordination. Damick responds:
As for how becoming Orthodox or Catholic reflects on converts’ former religious experience, Leithart seems not to be aware of something that is amply available in nearly any convert story out there. Most converts do not, in fact, see their previous religious experiences as wholly devoid of grace, as being defined by unmitigated darkness, but rather as having been in some sense a propaideia—a preparation for receiving the fullness of the Christian faith, a preparation for which they are usually quite grateful. I know very few who look on their former communions as Leithart fears they should. Of course they will look on where they’ve converted to as being better, else they wouldn’t convert. But Leithart would have someone whose convictions run that way stay where he is!
What I read in this is quite different. Yes, converts come up with these explanations for their past. The question is whether they are good explanations. The problem for someone who goes from being, say, a faithful Anglican to being a faithful Catholic is that a rationalization is practically demanded of him. The past has to be explained if it is to be talked about, and therefore there needs to be an explanation of the past that justifies the convert's former faithfulness. The other explanation, that the person was heretofore deluded by Satan into believing a false religion, is too dangerous to faith of any sort.

But if one's evangelical or Anglican or Lutheran churchgoing is a preparation for their Orthodoxy, then it would appear to follow that there is something providential in it. And this brings us back to the "who's a Christian" question, because in Damick's scheme the ersatz Christianity of the Protestants is only of merit if it leads on to Orthodoxy. But who can foretell such a thing? And I would note a subspecies of convert who is angry at his old church for its betrayals, and who indulges in the Cyprianite heresy in proclaiming that "there is no salvation outside the (that is, my present) Church." One can only get to this claim through a selective reading of the gospels, but be that as it may, often times these angry converts likewise take issue with their current church, and find some schism that rejects it, and so on through a serial Cyprianism of ever more questionable sects.

And it can work the other way. My sense of confirmation of where I am traces directly back the other weeks following Bishop Clark of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware laying hands on me in my high school's chapel, and is so strong that I am not tempted by any church which rejects the reality of that confirmation. Why shouldn't the standards of that church prevail, rather than preferring my own taste for Eastern or Roman theology? If one is to believe in the reality of the Church, then why not be guided by the empirical reality that people of faith and grace are found without distinction to rite or hierarchy? I do not trust that the reasoning of theology is a good enough guide for this, or else the One True Theology would have won out centuries ago. Reason isn't unimportant, but it's also obviously inadequate to the task. One's intellectual taste in theology is nearly as questionable as one's taste in music or vestments.

Pre-modern churches are attractive if one is tired of fighting liturgy battles or listening to supposedly postmodern rationalized doubt. But that very attraction is a potential occasion for sin. My reaction to the theological problems of my denomination is to want to reform it, to bring it back to the virtues it had when I joined it, and to perfect those virtues. I cannot hide out in the Eastern or Roman churches because I am not willing to purchase human assurances of salvation at the cost of my integrity. And I think that converts between denominations should, as a rule, be silent about their old homes, because they are too prone to a kind of slander.