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.