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.