Monday, January 30, 2012

Conceding the Field to Fundamentalism

One of Facebook's least endearing behavioral features is how it kicks up "Bullhorns for Everyone!" to a new level. There are numerous "friends" whom I've eventually silenced in my Facebook feed because of their constant stream of political cheap shots and other announcements of their fealty to True Causes. One would think that politics and religion are, to the Anglican upper class, not seen as fit subjects for the internet parlor.

And yet we have this making the Facebook rounds: another entry in the annals of "worshipping the Lord with a slight air of superiority," and not an especially innocent one at that. Whatever truth there is to Mark Noll's notorious opening observation in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, namely that "there is not much of an evangelical mind", for Episcopalians the scandal is our infatuation with our own supposedly superior theological sophistication. The sad truth, unfortunately, is that for some decades now the church has been dominated by two parties, each of which has largely taken its cues from secular sources. So on the establishment side, we have the continued drive to make the church safe for upper middle class liberals, and most especially their sexual appetites; the church rebels, on the other hand, seem as responsive to the words of the economic prophet von Mises as they are to the gospel. In the meantime, a somewhat beleaguered band of Anglicans resists, often futilely, with the sophomoric attempts at theology which appear to drive changes to the liturgy, not to mention yet another semi-official rebellion against the idea of even having a standard liturgy.

Perhaps the only church more prone to theological snobbery than us is the Church of Rome, or at least its more traditionalist partisans. We are bad enough: "fundamentalist" might as well mean "theological redneck", the way it appears in so much rhetoric, such as in this one-liner. Real fundamentalism, as Tony Clavier reminds us and as any student of theological history should be aware, came out of the Presbyterians, as a response to the, well, theological snobbery of the textual criticism faction. It has little to do with us, even if one of our episcopal heretics felt moved to try to rescue us from it. Instead, as everyone knows, "fundamentalist" means "narrow-minded, stupid, backward, mean-spirited literalist", or "someone who tells me I shouldn't have an abortion", or even "someone who takes their religion seriously enough to blow up themselves up for it." As Bryan Owen points out, it signifies the social class distinction between us and the Southern Baptists, whom we are prone to treat as nasty and brutish if not short. On top of all this is the presumption that we are in imitatio Christi through our resistance, as though there isn't something pharisaic in the fastidiousness with which we emasculate the liturgy and vote meaninglessly at church conventions to affirm this or that other secular cause over which the church has no influence, having spent it all decades ago. Indeed, if there is any favorable linkage to be made between us and the Pharisees, it is that we perhaps most resemble that exalted pair, Nicodemus and Joseph, who saw to the burial of Our Lord.

It is inevitable that we serve as a refuge for those fleeing what they perceive as the theological tyrannies and idiocies of other churches. If it is our only virtue, however, then we are lacking in virtue at all. Half a century ago we could point to a distinctly Anglican tradition of doing theology, in the academy, the sanctuary, and in the world; but of late we are increasingly reduced to that wretched "inclusion" and an increasingly limp and pale costume drama of a liturgy. And obviously we cannot include any fundamentalists; indeed, the campaign to drive them away is perhaps only beginning to fade a bit due to its manifest success.

The thing we need to resist isn't fundamentalism. It's the unbelief, the irreligion, the "spirituality" that is becoming the default religion of the social classes we so disproportionately represent. For all their faults, the fundamentalists now do a better job of calling the apostasy of Christendom to account. We can hardly be bothered; indeed, we seem more inclined to cater to the irreligious, for challenging them to real membership in the body would be, well, a failure of inclusion. And that's reflected in our own theological congress, where the only criterion that seems to matter is whether it would offend someone of vague or no spirituality who is committed to staying in that state. Can anything be more fatal to evangelism? We seemingly cannot call to the unchurched, but only to those who are on their way out the church door.

It is time for us to repent. We need to cease this stupid war against our fellow Christians and return to doing what we ought to be able to do best: harvesting those outside the church whom these other churches fail to collect. We need to appeal to the unchurched and apostate, and give them a reason to join us, not just to be comfortable visitors. And we need to look inward at our snobbery, and root it out mercilessly. Then we can consider again whether what we do is the work Christ set us to do.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Negotiating the Book

As I remarked last time, the pressure on the 1979 BCP is growing in the land of liturgical revisionism. And generally, the pressure is bad. Here's an example from some prayers used recently:
That we may discover God's Word in every sound of our world, God's touch in every embrace, and God's redeeming love in the love of others, let us pray to the Lord.
People: Lord, have mercy
One can belabor the faults of this: that it is precious, vacuous, wordy, and proud of its political correctness, and that it fails to satisfy the rubrics for the prayer of the people as they are set forth in the BCP. More to the point, however, is that so very much of what I'm seeing here is not prayerbook revision at all. One can of course criticize the 1979 book on that same basis: Rite II is not, for the most part, a revision of the 1928 and earlier books so much as it is a wholly new rite which uses some of the same material as the old. However I would say that this project was, for the most part, more successful than the Prayer Book Society let on.

But this time around it seems to me that the accusations of theological innovation, dubious in 1979, are not dubious at all this time around. There is, for instance, the continuing insistence on inserting a phrase in the confession of sin, having us confess our sins against ourselves. Can we really do so? Well, isn't a lot of discussion required on that before we stick in such a change? The same thing goes for the emasculation of the God-language which is a signature feature of every attempt going forward; it is quite controversial.

But even beyond that, here it is, thirty years after the most radical rewrite of the liturgy effort, and it seems to me that so much of the material being proffered owes nothing at all to older liturgies except that the structure of the 1979 rite, for whatever reason, seems to be almost immutable. When the rewrites do address the actual current BCP text, the changes almost never have to do with fixing infelicitous phrasing or the like; they are almost always introductions of theological novelties. And on top of that, in practice, doing what the book actually says has in some districts become increasingly uncommon. There are places where one can expect a straight up Rite II with hymns from the 1982 hymnal and nothing either omitted or added; one can even find places where they still kneel at the prayers, and perhaps where they even still stand for the psalm (though I haven't seen the last in a couple of decades). But increasingly the Anglican traveller is well-advised to become a connoisseur of parish websites, looking for the tell-tale signs that the BCP liturgy will be tampered with to some lesser or greater degree, for expediency or because the rector does not want to say what the book says to say. And increasingly one finds on church websites doubts about anything and everything that we might do, all to be set aside in the name of Inclusion.

That someone who is an Anglican might find this excluding is entirely the point. And the signs are disturbing. Derek Olsen throws down the gauntlet, saying that commitment to the 1979 BCP is non-negotiable, and on the one hand the various concurrences (from, among others, Bryan Owen and Tony Hunt, as well as the many comments on the article itself, and a separate opinion from Tony Clavier) are gratifying, giving hope that preservation and true revision of our book may prevail, I also have to fear that, in spite of the vigorous opposition, the church establishment will see to it that this opposition is dismissed as regressive and that problem liturgies will be pushed through because they are objected to. And I would assume that, should this not come to pass, the current pattern of widespread disobedience as to the rubrics and liturgical canons will see even more tolerance (and implicit promotion) in this or that diocese and parish. Obedience, after all, is only for traditionalist and conservative dissidents; progressives are authorized by their sense of righteous progress to break any rule that stands between them and Inclusion. It indeed hardly seems necessary to develop liturgies for same-sex marriages, for instance, given that they are already being performed without benefit of canon.

The Idol of Inclusion, it appears, demands as a sacrifice any kind of institutional character; and our liturgies, it seems to me, are about all that is left beyond mere organizational bonds which hold us in a common religious consciousness. It is time to topple this false god. Christianity is not about inclusion, but about incorporation; and in our church, incorporation is through being bound in common worship. And in that worship is bound, not just across place, but through time. I cannot say it enough: anamnesis is the core of Christian worship, and constant change and constant deviation work against memory. When our church cannot remember what to pray from one town to the next and from one week to the next, we forget who we are. We are not here merely to make people feel good about coming in the door; we are here to change those who enter into Christians. And for us Anglican Christians, part of that change is being bound into the cycle of liturgy that dates back to our founding as a separate church, and which has roots as deep as liturgy goes back in time, all the way back to that upper room and through every sanctuary since.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Ordinariately, Part 1

As the ordinariate continues to take form and the new year rolls over, we have the usual annual outbursts of triumphalism from the various sides.

Things are more muted from the ECUSA establishment side, possibly because the likelihood of triumph in the courts is set against the relentless decline in numbers. And then there are these issues:
  • The obsession with homosexuality: In the Diocese of Delaware they started off the new year with a civil union in church, notwithstanding that I don't see where the canons or the prayer book actually authorize any such service. But hey, Delaware wasn't the first to jump the gun. Of course, it's a very safe bet that the next General Convention will push that authorization through, now that threefour dioceses have been chased off. Which takes us to:

  • Inclusion and the march of heresy: A big topic in the past year has been the push for Communion WithOut Baptism, or more accurately described, the offering of communion to non-Christians. Now, the restriction of communion to those within the church can be traced straight back to St. Paul, and really the arguments seem to boil down to the rather thin belief that we might offend someone if we say that communion is reserved for members of the church. So as usual, inclusion means not standing for anything besides, well, inclusion, which really means only including other people who don't have standards either. This is ultimately the route to driving off anyone who has an any connection to the tradition of the church, so I don't see this reversing the decline. And it puts even more people in the position of struggling with the hierarchy. And looking further afield:

  • The covenant and the communion: In spite of its rejection by most liberal churches and dioceses in the communion, the liberal organs continue to obsess about the Anglican Covenant. They hammer away at the autonomy of the national church while at the same time it is quite clear that the national polity will be used to direct the church away from traditional, orthodox positions. The response from abroad is becoming increasingly negative, as witness the recent disinvitation of our presiding bishop by the Episcopal Church of Sudan. It's hard to see how the communion can hold together. But that's OK for an ECUSA loyalist, because:

  • It's General Convention time again, and that means that no Episcopalian's liturgy is safe. Or for that matter, pretty much any church teaching. It's been long acknowledged that GC is highly dysfunctional, and in spite of the many complaints about, for example, Holy Women, Holy Men, it's hard to see how the many questionable commemorations it proposes will fail ratification. The principle proposals for reforming it seem to me designed to make this sort of process failure even more the norm, by expediting the innovations coming out of the bishops and removing the brakes that the deputies had hitherto applied to them. And beyond that, the materials I've seen towards prayer book revision have been wretched: vapid and polemic at the same time. The best thing that GC could do about most issues this year would be nothing at all, except to repudiate 815's policy of refusing to deal with departing congregations. But that's unlikely to happen, because of:

  • The contempt: the continuing rock-headed hatred of both extremes for each other has meant entrenchment in their respective sins. It doesn't help at all how they are in thrall to their politics. The notion that we could act like Anglicans and try to live together is out the window, at least in the places of power. And power seems very much at the core of the matter. And never mind:

  • The declining numbers. Even after losing the threefour dioceses, we are seeing a decline of some 3% a year in membership and attendance.

There is an obvious message here: what we are doing now is not working. And fixing that is not a priority of our leadership. The temptation to do something alienating at GC is strong, to the end of making at least some people in the church feel good about how right-thinking they are. Actually making the church a place of worship according to the principles our own documents set forth is not only not on the agenda; the current rule seems to that principles themselves are a bad thing, because they are not inclusive. Instead there is a sort of suppressed institutional panic. The one thing that cannot happen is that the church establishment admit that they must make some concessions to the rest of the church, lest they keep driving their existing membership away as they did the three dissenting dioceses; but they realize they must do something to arrest the fall. Thus any kind of alienating change is acceptable, but conceding that they need to respect the orthodoxy said every Sunday: that is not acceptable.