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.