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.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bring Back the Old Lectionary

I wholeheartedly support Bp. Martins's Resolution B009 which would restore the option to use the 1979 BCP lectionary instead of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). And I agree with every one of the reasons he gives for the change, plus I would add these:
  • Use of the RCL is incompatible with the use of the BCP psalter. The RCL psalm selections are notoriously prone to skipping lines and other practices which make it difficult to read the psalm directly out of the BCP. By contrast, the canny observer may notice that there are breaks in the BCP text where the psalm selections begin and end, helping to nudge the reader into reading the correct verses. Service sheets have their uses but there is also something to be said for getting the laity to actually crack the prayer book and read it.
  • Commonality is not what it was once cracked up to be. The Roman church has demonstrated, with their new mass translation, that they have ceased to care about a common liturgy. Yes, other churches are using the RCL, but I'm not sure that getting the more liberal elements of a bunch of Protestant denominations together to work out the details is such a good idea. We need to stick more to our own identity.
The RCL probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but its many quirks show that it was insufficiently reviewed. And at this time I would prefer to hew more closely to our own prayer book. Therefore I support the availability of the old lectionary, and furthermore would advocate returning to its use if it is once again authorized.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Communing the Unbaptized from the Outside In

Derek Olsen notes another run of posts in "The Daily Episcopalian" in support of communing the unbaptized, which he describes as coming "from our self-proclaimed liturgically-conservative non-theist, one from the site’s village atheist, then one that I can only kindly characterize as theologically confused." Well, yeah, and that's why I dropped "go start your own church" responses on the first two and threw up my hands on the third. What I wanted to note, however, was this response:
Besides that: this is itself, in fact, a completely “in-group” issue and only of interest to people already involved in the church. That, to me, is what’s fascinating about the thesis in that piece, in fact – that it seem to see this in exactly the reverse way.

People who aren’t Christian aren’t really interested in participating in Christian religious rituals; I personally had no interest in even stepping foot in a church for most of my life. And I think that most people believe – quite reasonably – that religious rituals are about faith, and that taking part in them has some meaning. Particularly when priests say things, and people respond; that’s serious stuff.

And this, to me, is exactly what’s wrong with CWOB; people probably think that we’re in our right minds and won’t involve them in something that might compromise what they may or may not believe. But of course, we’re not; we’re using the “full-initiates’” version of the rite on people who don’t know anything about what’s going – the version that assumes understanding and assent.

And to this, I can only say, Yes, exactly so! The supposed appeal of communion to outsiders seems to me to only work on the utterly clueless but easily informed "I'll just follow what everyone else is doing" crowd, who can be educated with a sentence, or on those syncretes who are so muzzy-headed as to be immune to our persuasion and whose participation is necessarily a profanation. The message I'm taking away from all of this is that a lot of the push for this is coming from people who are also effectively outsiders on the inside, who are nominal members but who have abandoned the historic faith. And that's why I want them to go found their own churches, rather than wrecking mine.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Anglicans ARE Doctrinal (but not overly so)

Bryan Owen has called attention to a trope about Episcopalians that I seemed to have missed hearing outright, in this case stated flatly by John Westerhoff in A People Called Episcopalians:

Orthodoxy for us is right worship and not right belief.

Well, hogwash. At least, back in 1976 it was hogwash, and as I am going to insist in some sort of continuity of nature, I'm going to stick by that.

But let's start from the reality that we have four big liturgical submissions to general convention this year, plus changes to remove baptism and confirmation is requirements, plus SCLM's desire to "revise" the hymnal even though it's quite clear that the laity (and especially the young) don't want it changed. Add to that Enriching Our Worship (the prayer book that is not our prayer book) and the common experience these days of going to an Episcopal church service on a Sunday morning and hearing all manner of alterations to the liturgical text, and one ought to conclude that if it is "right worship" that characterizes our orthodoxy, a lot of the people in control cannot agree that the church's designated worship is right. I will return to that thought, but for now, let us just say that "right worship" is not a unifying principle, as it stands.

Let us continue to that worship. Westerhoff claims, on the page following the above declaration, that "if anyone wishes to know what Anglicans believe about issues of faith and life, he or she needs to turn to The Book of Common Prayer and engage in the process of interpreting this document." Let me be blunt: this isn't true in the ECUSA of the present. In the first place, there is all the deviation and change I just mentioned, which testifies to degree to which the 1979 BCP does not reflect current worship. But beyond that, if one follows the various discussions it becomes clear that there are various principles floating around which the prayer book which does not state, and which are the true dogmas determining the trajectory of the church. Thus I would not look to worship nor to liturgical texts to find our beliefs; as a rule I would look first to the social and political organs to which our membership belongs.

But let us look at the actual texts on the presumption that they do have some normative content. Well, as anyone who has every read through the Eucharistic liturgies knows, the following rubric is to be found in both Rite I and in Rite II:

On Sundays and other Major Feasts there follows, all standing

And what follows begins, "We believe". It is, of course, the recitation of the Nicene Creed, so following Westerhoff's principle it could be concluded that Episcopalians are supposed to believe all those doctrinal statements made in the creed. Thus saying that our orthodoxy does not include Right Belief is untrue, even if one only relies upon what the liturgy has us do. And really, if one looks to the gospels the statement is preposterous. What did Jesus teach about worship which only mouthed the words without believing them?

Historically, Anglicans have always held to some doctrines, not that it is possible to avoid doing so anyway. What was distinctive about our approach was our refusal to make every issue a matter of doctrine. The classic example is our approach to Eucharistic theology, in that we have always insisted that it is sacramental and not merely symbolic; but we did not insist on a particular theory beyond the insistence on real presence, unlike the Roman official theory of transsubstantiation. This "not right belief" theory is a plain abuse, and it is used to justify a lot of plainly abusive behavior. C.S. Lewis, who is about as inarguably Anglican as they come, caricatured the modernist Anglican cleric perfectly in The Great Divorce, but his apostate bishop is found in large numbers in the American church, mentally crossing their fingers throughout the liturgy. Bishop Shannon says that we should not persecute "those who are seeking to engage imaginatively with modernity", but perhaps he forgets that Fundamentalism itself came to existence out of that very engagement. Or perhaps he means that "engagement" signifies bowing down to the Spirit of the Age and accepting the precepts of the secular, modernist world uncritically. I insist that this engagement must include pushing back against the dogmas of modernism where they conflict with our core beliefs. So for instance, when someone doubts the doctrine of the Virgin Birth (which we've got there in the Creed, so according to our worship, one is obligated to believe it), proper engagement consists of challenging that doubt, not accepting it uncritically.

I do not think that Bishop Douglas is entirely correct when he says that "the Episcopal Church is not a church that readily thinks in terms of 'doctrine.'" It would be more accurate to say that there is a large segment of its membership, and especially of its clerisy, who readily subjugate theological thinking to secular doctrines. They do not like the notion of theological doctrine, for various reasons, but there are many points which they treat as inarguable, and insofar as these things go in a largely powerless organization, they persecute and marginalize dissenters. Saying that we don't do doctrine is really no more than a tactic in that marginalization, a justification for driving from office those who want to maintain the integrity of the institution. We DO do doctrine; what we don't do is approach its justification with any kind of intellectual integrity. Reasoning about what we do is governed by prejudices and emotions, not by deduction from scripture or our tradition. What we need to do is repent of this, and return to taking seriously the doctrinal statements we make every Sunday morning.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Next Sacramental Target: Confirmation

Derek Olsen has called my attention to several resolutions to get rid of confirmation as a requirement for ordination and other church offices. As Christopher Arnold comments, this is part of a "an across-the-board devaluing of our rites of commitment." It fits right into the push to commune the unbaptized as a blurring of the pattern of church membership. Personally, I think that someone who cannot bring themselves to be confirmed or formally received into this church has too many reservations to be trusted as one of her officers or ministers.

Now everyone who has been paying attention in ECUSA knows that confirmation has been caught in a bit of a sacramental bind resulting from the emphasis on baptismal membership in the 1979 BCP. Marion Hatchett's Commentary on the American Prayer Book says nothing on the rite other than to refer the reader back to the section on baptism, in which confirmation is hardly addressed. The addition of chrismation to the baptismal rite also confused matters because that Eastern element is typically held to be the equivalent of western confirmation. That said, there are traditional understandings which those of us who are old enough remember, and rather than simply dismiss them, it seems to me that there is something to be said for trying to synthesize them in light of the baptismal emphasis of the 1979 book.

I personally was confirmed into the church as a teenager, having been baptized as an infant into the Presbyterian church and made a communicant there some years prior. My connections to that church faded, and in any case I was sent to an Episcopal high school in which I was given a pretty good theological and sacramental education. Indeed, when I skipped forward a grade, the only course I was not permitted to skip was fifth form (junior) sacred studies! I came to understand that I needed to become a member of this church, and having approached one of the chaplains, it was arranged that I would be one of the confirmands in the spring. My understanding of this, for myself, combined the change-of-membership and bar mitzvah aspects, for it was in that act of conversion that I took full responsibility for my faith.

And I don't see this as problematic, thirty-five years on. When Olsen says, "baptism is full initiation into the Body of Christ; Confirmation is full initiation into the Episcopal Church," I might not use exactly the same words, but the sense is sound. And that is also why I think the rite is best reserved to the bishop: connecting us into this church is, within our polity, expressed as connection to her bishops. And indeed it's ironic that, for all the growing vagueness about membership and its rights, the one thing the progressives do tend to get dogmatic about in church structure is that hierarchy.

Overall, this reinforces my support for a do-nothing general convention. Here we have yet another big theological revision, hidden within a procedural change at that, which cannot be properly discussed--and particularly so given all the other weightier topics on the floor. This is perhaps the biggest challenge to the church as an organization: we have to find a way to deal with these issues which isn't so patently dysfunctional. And personally, I think that way is to accept our traditions and stick by them.