Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The TREC Report Is Out

I'm going to let the Young Curmudgeon Priest speak for the core issue this time:
I think I am stuck. I am stuck because I have decided that while structural change is certainly necessary and should always be ongoing; the real crisis in the Episcopal Church is not one of structure, it is one of theology and missiology. Is the purpose of these changes so that we can create and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ or are these changes so that we can make it easier to be social workers that mention God once in a while? I am not convinced that our shrinking numbers have much to do with changes in society, but has much more to do with the fact that we no longer stand for much other than being nice. We have replaced cries for Jesus with cries for Justice forgetting that justice comes with a life in Christ. Are these proposed changes for Jesus or are they for us? We can reimagine and restructure all we want, but until Jesus becomes the center of our lives again - all of this is a waste of time.
All the structural changes proposed by TREC are designed to make it easier to make change in the church, but given the history of things since 1974 it's hardly arguable that simply being able to change things is going to improve matters. More change, in the current theological climate, simply means more of the same. TREC failed to articulate a theology behind their work or which their new structures would embody, and that's pretty much what ECUSA is about these days.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Awaiting the Reckoning

preached on Advent 1, Year A, 2014

The day of the Lord; the day of glory. The day of wrath and mourning, when heaven and earth pass away, and the new, redeemed earth awaits the descent of the new Jerusalem. The day when the wrath of God is poured over the earth and is spent.

Years ago, before we we were married, my wife used to listen to a Christian radio station at work. And one day there was a preacher who said, in excited radio-preacher tones, “You know, the day of the Lord could be today! And wouldn't that make today extra special!” Somehow “extra special” feels inadequate as a description. A dreadful day, and yet each week we pray for its coming, the day when the kingdom is not only at hand, but is established finally and totally.

All through the fall we have heard the parables of the kingdom as they appear in the Gospel of Matthew:

  • “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slave.”
  • “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”
  • “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten maidens, five wise and five foolish.”
  • “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.”
  • “All the nations will be gathered before the Son of Man, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
Week after week, we have heard of a time of reckoning, when each of us will be called to account:
  • How have we handled our talents?
  • How have we treated our debtors?
  • How have we shown mercy and compassion?
  • How have we kept ourselves ready?
Week by week we have heard: it not just in our piety that we show our faith, but also in our acts. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, but also must you love your neighbor as yourself. Show God your works, and you will show him your faith, says the apostle James; faith without works, he says, is dead.

OK, so here we are. We settle into our pews, in this sacred and handsome place, and we give so freely of our wealth that our parish is able to budget a tithe of its income towards outreach into the community, supporting Guardian Angels' ministries and the Seafarer's mission; many go well beyond that in their participation in the projects of Habitat for Humanity and other such charities. Perhaps our flasks of oil are thus well-filled, and perhaps we risk some confidence in being placed on the right, among the sheep, when that latter judgement is at last carried out.

And yet, the years hang heavy. Decades ago it was easy to believe in an apocalypse of thermonuclear fire: a war whose pointless outcome would have been suffering of every kind for the survivors, and an invitation for the second divine revelation. More recently one might contemplate the militarism of a fanaticized Islam, or the ruination of the environment through any number of poisonings.

As yet, however, the armies do not gather at any Megiddo, and as it draws night to a third millennium of Christendom, we wonder at that generation which will not have passed away before the end. The earliest church believed it was their own generation which would be these witnesses, but it did not come to pass in that way, though they were put through a great tribulation, with the temple razed and Judah dispersed. And thus the urgency fades. Generation after generation has come and gone, and still the skies are unriven, and the earth tumbles on around its annual circuit, pain and joy dispensed in greater or lesser degree from year to year. We look in dread and hope for the signs, and do not see them. Some, heeding not Jesus' words, calculate the hour and day and month and year, leading to ridicule and doubt when their predictions do not come to pass. Some give up and say that the prophecies of the gospels were written after the fact, “predicting” the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the seventieth year of the era, because (they say) it had already happened. In our fascination with the end, we make and watch post-apocalyptic films whose desolations show no glory, but only a desperate struggle in which “Maranatha”— “come, Lord”— is futile and unspoken, and in which men and women seek, without hope, the nonexistent oasis of a dispirited gracelessness.

And so here we are, sitting in not too uncomfortable pews in our handsome church, hearing the words of the prophets which prefigure Jesus, and the words of Jesus which warn of the wrath which is to come, soon. Soon; soon to be two thousand years of “soon”. The great city Babylon reigns on, indeed seems to be growing, with its kings and merchants having naught to bewail. We wait and wait in our little quarter of this city, some comfortably, some distracted by their travails, while around us the ungodly world sins on, unheeding. How can the human spirit stand such a wait? Generation after generation lives and dies, and the expectation is wearied. The lamps are trimmed, and trimmed again, and maiden after maiden must venture out for more oil, in dread lest the bridegroom make his appearance. But he never comes, and our urgency is deadened. We pray, “even so, Lord, quickly come,” but our hearts are not in it. We rest content, our souls well-filled by the spiritual wealth we sense we have stored up around us. The harvest goes unreaped, for what is the hurry? The Father has waited for so many lifetimes, for centuries, for two millennia: surely He is in no hurry to close up the register of the book of life.

But the day will come, tomorrow, a year from now, a century off. It does not matter. The wrath of God will be spent, and Jesus will return, when we do not expect. And in our own lives, if we be spared the day of his coming, our last rest will overtake us, and the record of our lives will be writ in indelible ink. When the angels come to gather us in, it is that book which will be opened, and we will set to one side or the other, for life or destruction. And therefore we must live in expectation of that dread day, both in trembling and joy. The time is coming soon, for our time is coming soon. The day of the Lord could be today, and were we not ready, what account could we give? The day of the Lord could find us resting in a death that may take us tomorrow or decades hence, and what account could we give? It is that urgency which we must find.

Our time is limited, even among us who are fortunate to live out the fullness of years; the work is great, and the field vast. Does your life testify to those about you? Does it uplift your fellow Christians in their struggles? Then good; by grace, you may stand among the sheep. But year by year, the call goes out, and because the faith is not articulated, it is not heard; or because of lives which belie the Christian path, the call is spurned. Who knows how many could not be called back from the lake of fire, which is the second death? It is perhaps very, very many. And every day the time draws nearer, when the accounts are settled. May we be counted good and faithful servants, and not be left outside when the doors are shut on the wedding feast of the Lamb of God. To do so, we must do what is set before us: to live generously, and graciously; to witness to our faith; to stand strong in the face of persecution; and at the last, to commend ourselves to our savior. In these things, if we are steadfast, the salvation offered to us will be ours on the last day, and thus we may say “Maranatha!”— “come, Lord!”— with pure hearts, in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him, and to the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honor and worship, unto ages of ages. AMEN.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Next Round of Gnonsense

The scholarly world has been rocked by the need to rebut yet another round of breathless coverage of a questionable textual claim, this time by that master of biblical sensationalism, Simcha Jacobovici, and his partner in hype, Barrie Wilson. It's the old gnostic "Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married" canard, this time based on a supposedly obscure text in the British Museum which the pair of them (Jacobovici and Wilson, that is) have discovered and newly deciphered.

Well, if you have been paying attention to the textual follies of the past several years, you already know the answer, one way or the other. They give the name "Ecclesiastical History of Zacharias Rhetor" to the text, but in fact they are only interested in one pericope within it: the Syriac version of The History of Joseph and Aseneth, which is also known in Greek. This is not by any stretch of the imagination an obscure text; on the contrary, papers on it are being discussed this year. If you want to read it yourself in translation, you can do so at Mark Goodacre's pages on the text. The point of the text is to get rid of the difficulty that Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, were the founders of two of the tribes in spite of their non-Jewish mother. The topic was of interest to post-exilic Jews who were tempted to take gentile wives, an issue which did not go away in New Testament times. The matter is not entirely settled, indeed, as to when the story was written, with a minority seeing in it a Christian cast.

What is certainly NOT in it, however, are the names "Jesus" or "Mary"! So the startling decoding is to simply substitute those names for "Joseph" and "Aseneth", and QED! There's your proof.

Of course, anyone who stops hyperventilating long enough to consider the logic of this can see that it falls under the fallacy of "just making stuff up". Using similar methods I can prove that Liberace was actually not gay and that James the I and VI was the lovechild of a union between him and Queen Elizabeth I. But that didn't stop reporters at virtually every major media outlet from falling for the press releases of a man whose track record (the Talpiot Tomb, the James Ossuary, etc.) is one long string of sensationalist but at best doubtful claims. It's hard for me to decide between surpassing incompetence, wish-fulfillment, or outright malice as an explanation for the willingness to repeat claims that are just not true and which would be shown to be so by consultation with anyone in the field (textual scholarship, that is, not cable channel "documentaries"). But in any case I would support making them appear in public with an appropriately worded T-shirt until Epiphany.

Meanwhile everyone who actually knows something about the field is doing a facepalm at the thought of having to straighten the public out again. None of these radical claims has withstood examination, and this one is far poorer than most. Indeed, it is so preposterous in its misrepresentations that it is hard for me not to entertain the thought of fraud. Yet year in and year out the mainstream press surpasses itself in its gullibility. The prudent man, Christian or no, doubts these revelations on sight, but among the masses, a culture of invincible ignorance grows.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

TRECing the Seminary

Surely everyone who follows matters in the Episcopal Church is aware of the struggle at General Theological Seminary. The dean has said things which in retrospect should not have been said, but more disturbingly has unilaterally made changes to the life of the seminary which have elicited objection from faculty and alumni alike. A protest in the form of a work stoppage on the part of most of the faculty has been met with a weasel-worded firing of the lot. The trustees have offered "reconciliation" in a form condescending and imperial while standing firmly behind the dean.

It is ironic that the one official seminary of a liberal church should be at the forefront of the move to reduce university faculty to peonage. Consider the direction that the TREC committee reports have taken, however, and contemplate their proposals to consolidate powers and reduce checks on those powers. This is how they want our seminaries to be run, and this is how they want the church to be run.

TREC's concern for getting things done is in plain conflict with the way church governance is set up to impede that. Voting by orders, consents to episcopal elections, the requirement to approve changes to the liturgy in successive general conventions: these are all mechanisms which slow change in the cause of greater review and consensus. Everything TREC has proposed about changing governance is in the cause of allowing action the face of objections. There's something almost Randian in their faith in forceful management, as though the Very Rev. Howard Roark and the Rt. Rev. John Galt are going to save the church once they have all those impediments to their free reign removed.

Those of us who still remember know this to be the antithesis of Anglican praxis, which of old tended indeed toward the anarchic, yet still grounded in a stubborn, charitable, practical center. We still have yet to see an ecclesiology or missiology expressed from TREC, whose language is rooted in business management. They seem to have no idea of what the business of the church might be, and indeed this amnesia seems to be a disease so widespread at the upper levels of the church as to nearly doom us. To me (and to my young adult children) it seems stupidly obvious that if the business of the church has no religious object, then there is no reason to be involved in its business, and no reason to attend to a pale non-worship of the oft-renamed god of the upper middle class intelligentsia.

It all keeps coming back to recollection and repentance. I do not know the circumstances or the precise substance of the dean's remarks, and to some very large degree I do not care. What I do care about is the mentality where he comes in to unilaterally upend the spiritual life of the place to no clear purpose. I do not care whether he is empowered to do so (and there is plenty of complaint that this is not how this is done in academia, anywhere); appeal to the raw exercise of power is not something I find in the New Testament. It of the same destructive ilk as the currently fashionable theory about how the interim is supposed to come into the parish and shake things up so as to make it easier for the new rector to impose his regime on things. My experience after four of these transitions is that more humble respect of the traditions and character of the parish would result in a stronger congregation instead of one weakened by the dispersal that is the result of such deliberate disruption and disregard. I have to think the same holds true for our seminaries, but more so; reducing them each to theological and liturgical Laodiceas is the road to having their graduates spewed from the mouth of anyone seeking the savor of Godly spiritual food.

No, what needs to be done is to remember what being Anglican entailed, and turn back to it, rather than to look to schemes whose hidden premise appears to be that we need to become less what we are as fast as possible.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Numbers: 2013

Well, the 2013 statistics are out, mostly. I say "mostly" because the overall by-diocese numbers have not yet been published. But the overall totals are here, and they show the familiar story of decline: reported domestic membership is down 1.4%, while domestic ASA is down 2.6%. (Overseas numbers are croggled by a change in Honduras's reporting which has cut their numbers in half.)

Only it isn't this good. Last year I remarked that this would be the year when the South Carolina departure would be manifested in the losses. The overall reported numbers for the diocese, however, are strange, showing a decline in ASA of only 366 attendees, which would represent no more than one good-sized parish departing. It's not a plausible number.

So what is going on? Well, the parish charts have been updated, and here we see a major discrepancy. The ECUSA remnant has a list of parishes largely consonant with the parishes listed on the national chart, with a number of omissions, most of which appear to be because the parish/mission is brand-new. There are also four parishes which plainly represent the remnant of a large departure. Add it all up, however, and there are at most thirty-four parishes and missions with a total ASA of about 3,200, as estimated from the parish charts; and eight of these either don't have charts or aren't even listed on the national site. It is a huge drop from the seventy-two parishes counted in 2012.

So where are the rest? Well, the schismatic diocese, it turns out, keeps detailed statistics too. And their 2013 report shows forty-nine parishes with a total ASA of 9,223. Add this to the ECUSA parishes and you get eighty-three parishes, which when you take out the non-reporters and doubly-counted splits, is pretty close to seventy-two.

Nine thousand plus three thousand, however, gets you surprisingly close to the 12,005 reported in the overall totals, suggesting that reported ASA is inflated. Add the schismatics' ASA to the reported domestic drop of 16,451 attendees, and suddenly things look noticeably worse: the 2.6% loss turns into a 4% loss. Membership losses almost double, to 2.7%.

It is not terribly obvious why these numbers are being reported, which is a polite way of saying that, by all appearances, the numbers have been substantially fudged. Revisions have be made in previous years, however, and it is possible that these numbers may likewise be updated. Even without that, however, we are still in the same rut: 3% losses per year, every year, for over a decade.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

One Heck of a TREC

I have been alerted by Tony Clavier to the release of a letter from TREC which presents a mixture of observations, conclusions, and proposals. So OK, not every thing they say is wrong-headed, maybe. But once again we are presented with a fundamental failure to remember what a church is all about.

TREC spends a great deal of time talking about how to get more change, but the rhetoric of its bemoaning the supposed inertia of the present structures is quite telling. Consider the following: "The Episcopal Church’s structures and governance processes reflect assumptions from previous eras that do not always fit with today’s contexts. They have not adapted to the rapidly changing cultural, political, and social environments in which we live." Now, I would wholeheartedly agree with the very first clause of this: the church's priorities do reflect a mindset that is some forty years old, at least from July 29th, 1974.

So let's back up and talk about the actual problems of this church. The main presenting problem, of course, is numbers: we don't baptize enough babies to make up for all the people we bury, so we need to recruit enough adult members to make up for the difference, plus replacing the people who leave. This we are failing to do, to the tune of a 3% net loss per year. That's an objective, inarguable problem despite the occasional attempt to deny it. But consider this: is better organization going to fix this problem? Almost certainly not. The thing, first of all, is to have parishes staffed with effective clergy to raise up laypeople who attract other laypeople; and second of all, a national church which fosters this, and doesn't do things to make the parish priest's life hard. But this is first of all a matter of the church's will, and this remains sharply divided in spite of efforts make it otherwise.

Let's start with the way they talk about General Convention. Their first statement is that GC "has historically been most effective in deliberatively discerning and evolving the church’s position on large-scale issues (e.g., prayer book revision, reform of clergy formation and discipline canons, women’s ordination, same sex blessings)". Well, that's what they are constitutionally tasked with, all right. But let us talk about how GC has evolved in dealing with these issues. A great deal of time and introspection went into the 1979 BCP; the issue of women's ordination was discussed with some deliberation. But the latter issue was decided by two votes, either of which could have brought the proposal to naught. From there the quality of deliberation has declined, so that same sex blessings were "discussed" by parading speakers from either side before microphones where each speaker got to say his (short) bit and then sit back down. This is a parody of deliberation, a whitewashing of the tomb of discourse; there is no way in which it represents a conversation within the body.

The record of narrowly divided votes on major issues and presenting theological crises doesn't point to something that can be resolved by organizational efficiency; nor was the church heretofore arranged to facilitate such easy resolution. We have voting in orders to make change difficult, as with the requirement to approve changes to the prayer book at successive GCs. The push towards efficiency in this wise is a vote for unrestrained change, as is the centralization of power in the person of the presiding bishop, whose office of old was barely more than to hold the gavel in council, and whose person was selected by fickle age. At the same time, they propose nothing that is going to do anything about problem clerics, which is at least as big a problem as our numeric decline. My reading of all their materials is that they do not consider this a problem in the first place, which as far as I am concerned puts them squarely against the side of the angels.

All in all I see no need to continue into the details of what they propose. Their imagination is too small to encompass anything that will do any good, and I'm brought back to the observation I made in my first outing on the subject:

If re-imagining doesn't mean repenting of the theological deviance and litigiousness which have characterized the national church of late, then I don't want any part of it. I imagine a church in which its clergy and people stand together each Sunday and unite in stating the Creed without reservation. I imagine a church where I don't have to go over the service leaflet in order to decide whether I will be able to take communion in good conscience. I imagine a church which has the confidence in its liturgy and music to not change everything for fear of offending some unnameable person. I imagine a church that can speak truth to liberal as well as conservative power. I imagine a church whose preachers can speak knowledgeably and confidently from Anglican tradition. But I don't imagine that I'm going to get that any time soon, except through benign neglect.
Imagine a church where I get a priest in my parish who is orthodox and an effective preacher, and a bishop who is not a theological embarrassment, and then get back to me.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Monday, August 04, 2014

In Moments Like These

Back in Cursillo days, there was a particular song that began like this:
In moments like these I sing out a song,
I sing out a love song to Jesus.
Love songs to Jesus, it turns out, are their own little genre, and apparently they've evolved into, well, romantic ballads. At least that's what I'd heard, but being a stalwart 1940/1982 kind of guy, I hadn't really been exposed to these that much.

So this morning we, er, people at church sang a song for which I have provided the word cloud at right. I didn't sing it, at least not after a line or so, because I noticed that (a) it was a love song, and (b) it wasn't to anyone in particular. As you can see, there's no reference to Jesus, God, Christ, salvation, the cross, or indeed anything even slightly religious. You could sing it to your wife or your boyfriend or your pet monkey or even you favorite well-padded armchair without changing a word. Oddly enough, the one missing word in all of this is, well "love".

But it hardly seems to matter. Lyrics don't get more generic than this; whether it is a hymn of adoration to the godhead or an ode to one's romantic interest, it's vapid and trite. Why should we sing this kind of this rubbish?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Maleficent Redemption

Over at Stand Firm, Timothy Fountain has an excellent analysis of how the recent Disney film deals with themes of love and redemption in ways that step way outside the classic romantic paradigm. His conclusion:
These three big themes - fallen people in a fallen world, repenting of the evil that looks for excuses to take us over, and expressing highest love in sacrificial care for others - are messages of the Word of God. I found Maleficent thought provoking, surprisingly fresh, and, God willing, an opportunity to articulate the Christian message where it might not otherwise be heard.
I can only add that some of the same ideas show up, albeit less well-executed, in Frozen. True love, in these stories, is agape, not eros, not even philia. It will be interesting to see if this striking turn continues as the new Disney message, and whether it also appears in the output of the Pixar side of the house.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

On Sermon Illustrations

Kendall Harmon has today linked to a CT post on bad sermon illustrations. Now, if you are a glutton for punishment and have read through my sermons, you may have noticed a total lack of anecdotes, and a relative paucity of factoids. There are a couple of reasons for that. Part of the reason is simply that I do not have a ready source for them. Yes, there are books and websites full of them, but I do not care to own the former nor search through the latter.

Which brings me to the other main reason: Calling these stories "chestnuts" is being rather kind to them. One of the commenters refers to them as "just so stories", or "urban myths". They circulate as a kind of liturgical glurge to pad out inadequate exegesis.

I don't oppose them entirely. A good illustration is a powerful thing to engage the hearer. But scripture comes first; the teaching of tradition comes next; the preacher's insight after that. The stories are a condiment, a seasoning, to spice the story, not to overly sweeten it or substitute for spiritual meat.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

So What Now, Since We Are Freed?

preached at St. Mark's Highland on 29 June 2014

This week continues the long series of readings from Paul's Letter to the Church in Rome which began last week, and this week's text is the complement to the previous, in which Paul began working through the implications of Jesus' atoning sacrifice versus our present sin.

I have remarked, on occasion, that the all-pervasiveness of sin is the one empirically verifiable doctrine of Judaeo-Christian religion. Everyone does things they know are wrong; anyone who observes the world honestly can see that. The LORD God gave the law to the children of Israel, and even as they had seen the fire on the mountain, they sinned a great sin before Moses had even descended. And I don't know about you, but if Awe-Inspiring Special Effects isn't enough to convince people to put their trust in the LORD and behave, I don't know what would be. We are perverse beings; or rather we are slaves to our broken nature—slaves to sin.

Or at least we once were, before we came to the water of baptism and were reborn in the new life. So what now, since we are freed from that bondage?

Last week Paul began with a question, which appears again this week: why not keep sinning? After all, he said last week, more sinning means more grace; this week, he suggests that being free of the law, we might think we may live as we please. It is a rhetorical question, of course, which Paul answers with his favorite comeback: By no means! We were held in thrall by the rebelliousness which goes all the way back to Adam, but that bondage was broken on the cross. But the freedom we gain is not license; indeed, at the very beginning of this long argument, way back in Chapter One, Paul identifies licentiousness as one of the marks and signs of our sin.

No, the freedom we gain is that we may again take up obedience, that we may become (as he says) “slaves of righteousness”. Now, this may seem to us paradoxical and unbelievable. We are free, but only through being bound to God. We are free, but we yet continue to sin. Fifty-four years after my baptism, and I am still slothful and intemperate, and those are my good faults. The most damning accusation the world levels against us, as representatives of Christ, is that we are hypocrites.

That accusation Paul does not answer this week, but another—that we are no fun—is at the heart of this week's argument. We are stuck in church on Sunday morning, listening to (they say) dull music and being lectured at; we frown on sex and drugs and every other pleasure. But as Paul says, all this freedom to frolic through life is illusion, and that the adultery and fornication, the double-dealing and exploitation, the violence both in word and deed are all signs of the bondage to sin which leads, in the end, to destruction. For those who lack another hope, the payoff, the wages of this sinning may not be held a raw deal, though I see that what the old serpent promises is never really what sinners get.

But this is Paul's message: we do have another hope, through Christ Jesus. We do not have to settle for the wages of sin, but have the gift of new life made available to us through grace. And since sin came as disobedience, so life and freedom come as faithfulness to what God commands of us.

Jesus gave us a new commandment: love one another has he loved us. We know the measure of his love, stretched out on the arms and post of the cross. Paul says that we are not to yield our members to sin, but Jesus yielded up his hands, his feet, his side to those who crucified their Lord. Therefore we yield our members to righteousness, even as they remember their old habits of sin. Take up the bread and cup in remembrance of his sacrifice, and then take up the acts of service to the LORD, living in Godly harmony, in charity, and in worship. Thus we show in our lives the free gift of the Father, in the Spirit, which is life and hope for the age to come.

This Puny Cosmos

So, a week or so after the end of he the new Cosmos series, Trinity Sunday rolled around, and we did Prayer C, with "the vast expanses of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile Earth, our island home." Not one of the BCP's more felicitous texts, but its heart is in the right place. And it is surely most suitable, in its comprehensive story of salvation, for this culminating day of the Easter and Pentecost season.

Those vast expanses, those galaxies and suns, and that fragile Earth all featured prominently in Neil deGrasse Tyson's scientific story. I do not recall Tyson specifically referring to the mediocrity principle, but it buttresses his cosmology. Earth is unimportant, unremarkable; there are held to be uncountable earths populated with innumerable races. There must be: probability dictates it.

But the story of earth is anecdote, not data. We don't know how uncommon earth-like planets are, or how commonly they evolve some form of life, or how often that life evolves toward creatures like unto ourselves. Indeed, more recently the oddness of earth within the solar system has been heightened by suspicion that the formation and existence of our rather-larger-than-typical moon is important to the development of life here. The hope of those who want to believe that there is nothing remarkable about our human existence is that the unimaginably numbers of galaxies and stars within galaxies and planets around stars are sufficient to overcome any conceivable rarity of our situation, but pitting the unimaginable against the inconceivable is on the order of multiplying zero times infinity and expecting to get an answer.

The motivation behind this is Genesis, Chapter One, or rather, a distaste for it. When Stephen Hawking asserts that "the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies," the several value judgements (including Hawking's exaggeration of how common the sun is) are, after all, his judgements. God was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, so there is no reason to look for him in the gas giant, the supernova, the galactic core, or the black hole, or in any number of cosmic vastnesses or exotica.

If it offends that the creator of all should have created all but the most infinitesimal portion as mere backdrop to the divine earthly drama, well, that reflects on our aesthetics, not on God. The "pale blue dot" is a question of perspective, but in the end, it is the divine eye that matters.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Numbers: 2012

So another year's statistics are out, and the five year fast facts summary brings the cheery news that domestic membership is down 1.5%, same as last year, and that domestic ASA, after last year's interruption, has resumed its steady decline, not quite the traditional 3% this year. overal summary informs us that in a decade we've lost 24% of our ASA, and that not only did half our parishes lost ASA, but that over half had lost at least 10% of their ASA over a decade.

On a diocese-by-diocese basis, I note first of all that 2012 will be the last year that all of South Carolina is counted; as the 19th largest diocese by ASA, its loss means a decline of up to 1.9% of the total, alone. That year will also see the disappearance of Quincy into Chicago, but given that it was the smallest domestic diocese (Navaholand, which is a mission, is smaller), around 4% of parishes each have more ASA, and its membership is less than the typical error in that number. It's also a sign of How Things Have Changed that Quincy was not merged into Springfield, which in the old days would have been a far better fit; but most of the diocese having passed on to ACNA, I suppose Springfield would represent, to the remnant, that which they wished to avoid.

At any rate, the diocesan numbers are somewhere between "not as bad as they could be" and "well, pretty bad actually". Nineteen dioceses recorded gains in ASA, San Joaquin squeaking in with one, that's right, one extra attendee. Only three relatively large dioceses recorded gains: Chicago, Southeast Florida, and (oh well) South Carolina. Four of the gainers were overseas, including three of the top four by percentage gained. Lots of dioceses scored big losses, topped out by Los Angeles, whose loss was 10% of the total domestic ASA loss. Ohio also did quite poorly, with a 14%+ loss.

Then we get some other cheery numbers. In the domestic dioceses, burials outnumber child baptisms by 2300 ex-people, or in the 8% range of the total of either. Receptions alone are enough, for now, to make up the difference, and presumably some adult confirmations also register an increase, but again, the losses show that the attendance problem is caused in large part by people just not coming anymore. Overseas dioceses did better, as usual.

Next year's numbers are sure to be bad, what with the departure of most of SC. A continuation of the 3% ASA decline is a near certainty. And it will be a sad day when the best we can come up with is the observation that, well, at least our financial investments increased.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

What Can I Do to Avoid "Thinking Liturgy"?

Via one of Facebook contacts I came across the news that the Thinking Anglicans website is starting a new blog titled Thinking Liturgy. They say that "[I]n this new blog we shall look at the link and explore how our worship can reflect the social justice that we have proclaimed, and at the continuing relevance of this in the second decade of the twenty-first century." But before that they talk about what does get done in church:
These things are intimately linked with what we do in Church. We gather around lectern and table to hear and receive the Word of God; we share forgiveness and peace with our neighbours, and eat with them, recognizing the presence of Christ as we do so. We are the body of Christ, not just in Church, but in the world. Our table fellowship is not just a symbolic table fellowship existing only within the confines of the church building; rather, all these things are one.
Anyone see what they left out? To be a little fair, they do mention "worship" twice; but let's go back to 1 Corinthians 11:26: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes."

It's that whole anamnesis thing again. Worship of and communion with God is the center of the liturgy; this is why we repeat the creed, and why one of the crucial elements of communion is a recitation of Jesus' words and acts on that final night. I do not see how social justice figures in this, except as an excuse for messing it up or forgoing it entirely.

One of the Facebook respondents waspishly remarked, "Personally I'm very happy with my unthinking Liturgy." Personally I am too exhausted to be waspish, and can only manage raw denunciation, unfair though it may be to snipe at them before they have even really gotten started. In the name of Social Justice, which is to say, progressivist politics as practiced by the college-educated class, I can only expect Father-free liturgies and the kind of self-congratulation I encountered at Trinity, Copley Square. I expect a lack of real theological (much less political) engagement. I expect giant paper-mâché Calvinist puppets of doom. I do not expect to be taught even the most basic Christian dogma.

Meanwhile, in an Anglo-Catholic parish in slums on the banks of the Thames, the rector carries on the work of the church by reviewing the church school lunches to make them less institutional. Their ritual is arch-traditionalist, and their theology, age-old; I cannot imagine that they do not teach their children the basics of the faith, nor would I expect that the preacher stands in the pulpit at the major feasts and hedges on the gospel narrative. By contrast, my experience of social action liturgy is that it consists of making empty gestures whose effect is to reward the participants and even onlookers with the self-congratulation of having done something Significant.

Therefore I do not want liturgy that "reflects social justice". I want liturgy that recalls and recollects and repeats the age old acts, with dignity and solemnity, liturgy that acknowledges our own sins and not just those of others, liturgy directed to God in worship. I'll even settle for worship conforming to the rites of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America as they are recorded in the Book of Common Prayer.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Like Papyrus Fragments in the Desert Wind

I've once again stolen the title, this time from where I do not recall, in honor of what appears to be the denouement of the whole Jesus Wife Fragment. Once again, the scholarly focus is more on the Gospel of John fragment that accompanied it, which appears to be in the same hand and has suspicious parallels to a modern edition of another text whose language is inappropriate for the period. But another detail has emerged in further examination: there's a hole near the top of the page, and on one side the scribe as written around the hole, while on the other, he has not. Now, it's not unread of for a text to be written on a damaged page, and for the text to be fitted around the damage; it's extremely hard to justify, however, that on one side, there was damage, and on the other side, there was not.

More details about the supposed origin of the document have also turned up in Owen Jarus's article on the LiveScience site. Supposedly these texts came out of the collection of one Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, who supposedly obtained them in Potsdam in 1963. This story, it turns out, has many difficulties. It does seem that Laukamp was living in West Berlin at the time, but Potsdam was then in East Germany, and Laukamp could not have travelled there. But in any case, Jarus was able to contact the executor of Laukamp's estate, and Jarus was told that Laukamp, a toolmaker, had no interest in old texts and did not collect antiquities. Another acquaintance gave the same story. Further investigation revealed that the German antiquities authorities had no knowledge of the parchments.

Thus the legitimacy of the text continues to dissolve. And finally, the major media, those who pushed this story, are yielding in their defense of the fragment. The Wall Street Journal ran a story on the story; other negative stories ran in Slate and the Daily Mail. Even Laurie Goldstein of the New York Times, who was one of the chief media advocates for the text, came out with an article recounting the extent of the doubts. Far from delivering revelations about the early church, or even about Gnostic heresy, all we are left with is revelation of the gullibility of those who long for such exposes.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Gospel of Jesus' Brother-in-Law

So, in the last few days the whole "Jesus Wife Fragment"/"Gospel of Jesus' Wife" episode has taken another twist. Christian Askeland's article title this time is a bit too not nice to use but I had to come up with something. Anyway, here's the story: the mainstream press articles haven't said much about the context of the JWF, but those who have followed the story more closely know that it arrived with several other fragmentary texts supposedly from the same collector. Well, one of those has been now shown to the world, and it is a bit of the Coptic Gospel of John, in what looks like the same hand as the JWF, and on papyrus of comparable age.

And according to some scholars, it looks to be forged, in the same manner that the JWF is thought to be forged.

The problem is this: the text matches that of the Qau Codex. But not only does it match, it even follows the set of line breaks of a specific modern edition in an eccentric manner, to the point of having a glitch at a page break, and this edition is (like the Gospel of Thomas edition thought to have been used to compose the JWF) available on-line. This, however, presents another problem: the Qau Codex is in a dialect of Coptic which, by the date this appears to have been written, had died out.

So why should a churchman care? Well, on one level, all of this fuss ought to be immaterial. Whether the JWF represents a modern forgery or an ancient gnostic text, it stands well outside the orthodox canon; in a sense, the question is whether it is a modern or ancient forgery. It's all about the world-changing hype. King, whose baby this is, has connections to the Elaine Pagels/Jesus Seminar/"we can learn about early Christianity through the gnostic material" people. But this fragment has now been cut loose from this because of its late date, to the point where its importance in that wise would be indicating a significant survival into a time around Charlemagne's reign. The mainstream media is looking, for whatever reason, for another Coluphidist "well, that just about wraps it up for Christendom" wildly overstated story, and Harvard and Company played off this desire and got an endorsement of King's claims that was emphatically undeserved.

If you want a non-hyperventilating mainstream story reviewing the whole thing you can try this one from the Weekly Standard. And if you want a larger perspective on the novelty of these claims, you can see this column by David Jenkins that came out after the first round of JWF stories. But you can just as well ignore the whole thing, and dismiss anyone who tells you that this or that find challenges orthodox doctrine. Sure, you'll get called a traditionalist (as if that were a bad thing) and accused of burying your head in the sand, but you'll save yourself a lot of grief sorting through the nonsense.

Friday, April 18, 2014

TRECing to Calvary: Part 2

OK, so here's the real imagining problem: we're stuck with a social model of the denomination which is forty-some years out-of-date.

Or maybe the problem has been with us longer, for courtesy of Joe Rawls I read these words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer back around 1930: "The theological atmosphere of the Union Theological Seminary is accelerating the process of the secularization of Christianity in America." He complained about the lack of understanding of dogmatics, the trivialization of sermons, the obsession with the fundamentalists, and so forth: his complaints are all so familiar. But the current driving mindset of the denomination has added to it a schizophrenic quality stemming from a far more recent social conflict.

The core of this can be found in how conspicuously inaccurate the old "Republican Party at prayer" line has become. Republicans these days are Methodists (at least that's what the Valpo maps imply) or Mormons or Southern Baptists or megachurch evangelicals, but given that, for the first time, the Supreme Court has no Episcopalians on it and that the last really prominent Episcopal politicians were George Herbert Walker Bush and the Rev. Sen. John Danforth, both well outside of the Republican mainstream today, it's extremely safe to say that the policy connections between the political party and the political church are basically nonexistent. At the same time, however, that sense of establishment prestige and entitlement lingers.

And we are still wealthy, and (by some standard at least) well-educated. But it is not the moneyed upper class which is our core, but the upper middle professional class. And most strongly expressed are the sentiments of one corner of academia. Let me be quite blunt about this: there is nothing about the current cant which passes for ECUSA theology that I don't recognize from my days as a college student in the late 1970s. The obsession with sexuality, the politically correct radfem monkeying with the God-language, the dabbling in leftist progressive politics: I heard it all, first, at the University of Maryland College Park, coming out of the various leftist activist groups and their professorial sponsors. But it predated even that, as anyone reading about the fads of 1960s "mainstream" theology is aware; before that, one must remember that fundamentalism is the reaction to modernism, and not the other way around.

In any case, the driving forces of Episcopal Church theologizing, for some decades now, have been stuck in this boomer time warp, and caught between the pretense of outsider "prophetic speech" and the reality of church establishment power. This church is a political power center for advancing leftist progressive causes, while at the same time dabbling in fashionable skepticism about our own teachings and equally fashionable credulity toward secular spirituality. And it's no great secret that deviations are winked at or just ignored, if not even exalted by our guardians of the faith, while commitment to age-old tenets is dismissed and deemed irrelevant.

In the context of such juvenile attitudes it is hardly surprising that one sees a movement towards a more juvenile liturgy, in which solemnity is fled from and in which anything that might be found burdensome or offensive to some hypothetical person is omitted or bowdlerized. Meanwhile the pattern of textual revision brushes aside ancient theological concerns in favor of a kind of linguistic totalitarianism in which it is believed that if patriarchal language is taken from the congregation's mouths, they will be forced to take a more feminist view towards their fellow humans, so that we come to church to find that the words of scripture cannot be spoke for fear of offense. The effect is of meddlesome older siblings who nag like the parent they most assuredly can only pretend to be.

I am not the only churchman to see this. Robert Hendrickson said much the same in his Assize Sermon reflection. And the observations cut across the conservative/troglodyte-progressive/heretic battle lines which defend the field of discourse. And there is some hope of a turn-around to be seen in the outcome of the last GC, in which Communion Without Baptism was rebuffed and the proposed Holy Men, Holy Women was sent back for more work. But of course, it is a sign of the times that everyone know that CWOB will continue with the tacit approval of many bishops, and that unbelievers and apostates will continue to be lifted up here and there as Christian exemplars, because their politics were Just. That's what rebellious college students do, after all.

But that time is past. It is time to take up the mantle of adulthood in full, not just its powers, but its responsibilities, and particularly those to what has been passed down through the ages. It's time to admit that the ancients did actually know something. It is time to admit that there is no establishment to rebel against any longer, but only ourselves.

And most of all, it is time to admit that the church's job, first of all, is religion. Social action is important; social justice is demanded by faith and scripture. But even the heathen do as much. Only the church can administer the sacraments; only the church can evangelize; only the church can worship. And only the church carries the anamnesis, that which it remembers of old and (if the rubrics be followed) repeats and reaffirms each Sunday.

Today, the cross stands before us, not shining in brass and silver, but crudely, brutally, the rood of the glorious sacrifice cloaked in earthly shame and agony, unto death. Once again it is given to us to turn away from the world and sacrifice the approbation of our supposedly more enlightened peers, and to speak back to the world the truth of Christ crucified. Will we? Can we? Or shall we turn away, like the rich young man, because we hold the social wealth of the world?

Monday, April 14, 2014

TRECing to Calvary: Part 1

I must confess that I have paid exactly no attention to the whole re-imagining the church restructuring project. "Re-imagining" alone is enough to put anyone of even vaguely traditionalist leanings off their feed, with its promise of jargon-laden platitudes. Besides, Anglo-Catholics, and probably most of us central churchers of sufficient age, do not have to re-imagine the church: what we do is recollect the church that was held as an ideal of old.

The emphasis on "re-imagining" instead of recollection (or, heaven forbid, repentance) points at the real difficulty, but Derek Olsen's first thoughts about TREC's first outputs point at the issue from a different direction. He writes:

As a liturgical, sacramental Christian, my main need from the Episcopal Church is a functional worshiping community. Thus, I primarily need:
  • A healthy clergy person educated in the teachings of the faith and in the proper conduct of its liturgies
  • A sound liturgy with roots in the apostolic and catholic and Anglican tradition shared in common with other worshiping communities
Well, I have the same needs. But as anyone can read here, these expectations aren't being met even now. When I travel, I have to sift parish websites as to whether the priest is going to deliver an orthodox sermon in the context of a prayer book liturgy, and even then it's fairly likely that I will be subjected to some greater or lesser aberration unless the parish makes a point of proclaiming their traditionalism.

What is "re-imagining" likely to do to make this better? I have to think, "less than nothing." If re-imagining doesn't mean repenting of the theological deviance and litigiousness which have characterized the national church of late, then I don't want any part of it. I imagine a church in which its clergy and people stand together each Sunday and unite in stating the Creed without reservation. I imagine a church where I don't have to go over the service leaflet in order to decide whether I will be able to take communion in good conscience. I imagine a church which has the confidence in its liturgy and music to not change everything for fear of offending some unnameable person. I imagine a church that can speak truth to liberal as well as conservative power. I imagine a church whose preachers can speak knowledgeably and confidently from Anglican tradition. But I don't imagine that I'm going to get that any time soon, except through benign neglect.

And that doesn't even begin to address the structural questions. Susan Snooks has, in a series of blog posts, stepped up to the financial consequences of the suggestion to reduce the national church asking to 10%; in her concluding post she describes the proposal as "utterly unrealistic" and brushes up against many of the other ideas being floated along the way. For example, she mentions the notions that the number of delegates per diocese be reduced and that retired bishops be taken out of the voting in their house. Well, OK, and she points out that neither of these proposals would save much, nor would they reduce the unwieldiness of GC. So what would they do? Well, she raises as a question the likely consequence: it would be easier to push innovations through GC because smaller margins would be needed in the Deputies. One must also assume that part of the reason to unseat the retiree bishops is to reduce their ability to slow change, not they they are effective in that wise now.

Excessive inertia is part of the church's problem, but it isn't church structures that cause that. The real inertia is how we are stuck in a certain 1970s mindset, which I will discuss in the second post.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Jesus's Wife Resurrected from Dead

In honor of the subject I'm stealing Christian Askeland's title and one of the net's favorite memes. As everyone who hasn't stuck their fingers in their ears on the matter is aware, Harvard Theological Review, just in time for Holy Week, has published an issue dedicated to the authenticity of the so-called "Gospel of Jesus' Wife", a parchment fragment purporting to be from a gnostic text from antiquity. The first time around on this, after the first few breathless days in the major media, the scholarly community issued forth with a great deal of skepticism and indeed confidence that this scrap was a modern forgery. After that, a great silence ensued.

But now the issue is back, courtesy of radiocarbon testing and who knows what else. Laurie Goldstein at the New York Times at least was circumspect enough this time to couch her article so as to reveal the continuing doubt in the scholarly community and to give the facts baldly enough to where someone who remembers the original claims can judge what has changed. Others were not not careful, leading to many articles giving the impression that these tests vindicated believers in authenticity against skeptics.

The reader of these articles, however, needs to be aware of those old claims. Most important is that the original claim was for a fourth century parchment. This has been undermined by the tests, which gave dates ranging over nearly a millennium and a half. This is important because, of course, the historical context is utterly different in the two periods: the late date puts it as a testament to gnosticism under the caliphate or late in byzantine history, not a glimpse into early Nicene Christendom or perhaps earlier, and the earliest dates would imply that an ancient author must have used a papyrus several centuries old.

But the big issue continues to be that the initial doubts did not rely upon the authenticity of the medium upon which the text is written. Leo Depuydt's response, which has been reprinted with some additions in HTR, states that "I find nothing in these documents that could change in any way the fact that I am personally 100% certain that the Wife of Jesus Fragment is a forgery. I have otherwise never deemed ink or papyrus tests necessary or relevant in light of the evidence set forth below." Francis Watson's initial response to the test reports states that "It has never been doubted that the Jesus’ Wife fragment may well have been written on a piece of genuinely ancient papyrus, using ink whose composition followed ancient practice."

The basic problem beyond a general suspicion of so convenient a document is that the text itself shows signs of being a composite of phrases from the Gospel of Thomas, excepting the few words which have attracted all the media attention, assembled by someone with an imperfect knowledge of Coptic grammar and syntax. Indeed, one error in particular has suggested to some scholars that the forgery is dependent upon a particular scholarly edition of Thomas. Doubts have also been raised about the possibility of fitting the fragment into a larger text written on a page. Indeed, a number of scholars object to referring to any "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" given a complete lack of any evidence of any such larger work.

But even ignoring all these problems with the authenticity of the text, the big offense in all of this is the hype. Even with the seemingly carefully hedged statements from Dr. King it's really hard to avoid the conclusion that this affair has been managed by both her and her university to attract maximum publicity from media outlets who are credulous and sensationalist. Goldstein's headline, given enough page space, could more accurately have read "Unimportant Gnostic Text Apparently Written On Old Parchment; Textual Problems Unresolved". Even if the text is genuine (and I'm going with those who think it's forged, for now) it has no implication for orthodox Christianity. It's just another oddball Gnostic text. The takeaway, no matter how the authenticity debates wind up, is in what this tells you about the biases of the major media outlets who are culpable of promoting this.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Limitations of Being ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’

Rabbi David Wolpe nails the fundamental weakness of the "spiritual but not religious" notion:
Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world.

To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror.

No one expects those without faith to obligate themselves to a religious community. But for one who has an intuition of something greater than ourselves to hold that this is a purely personal truth, that it demands no communal searching and struggle, no organization to realize its potential in this world, straddles the line between narcissistic and solipsistic. If the spirit moves you to goodness, that is wonderful. For too many, though, spirituality is a VIP card allowing them to breeze past all those wretched souls waiting in line or doing the work.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Next Problem Bishop

I held out hope in the whole Gene Robinson consecration debacle that perhaps at least the question could be confined to the Donatist question of his presumed sexual sins rather than having to confront idiosyncrasies of his theology. Well, now he is retired, and I have heard the news that he is now to have a column at The Daily Beast. And I have found out, via Bryan Owen and Peter Carrell, that Robinson's opening column makes some quite problematic statements:
God is infinite, and it comes as no surprise to me that there have developed, over time, many credible and faithful approaches to understanding God. In the end, no religion holds a lock on the reality of God. Each religion grasps only a part of the infinite God and offers insight into God’s reality, and we would do well to exercise a good measure of humility in claiming we know God’s will. Better to begin each pronouncement we make about God with “In my experience…” or “From my perspective…” or simply “For me….” At the end of the day, no matter how much we believe we know God’s will, we must acknowledge that each of us is only doing the best she/he can.
Well, Lewis said something similar, and yet utterly different. I don't accept this "blind scholars and the elephant" theory of religion and theology; to the degree that other religions may have something to say that is "valid" (i.e., accurate), that validation can only come from comparison with the Christian revelation. To try to assemble the "parts" of God each religion grasps is to construct an idol, the inevitable outcome of such syncretism. In Robinson's case he will, if unknowingly, make God in the image of upper middle class liberal American mores.

Likewise, his plea for subjectivism is against everything the New Testament teaches, and never mind the Torah. I say this over and over again: anamnesis is central to Christian theology and ecclesiology. The Mystery of Faith that we state on a Sunday is not three personal experiences or perspectives: it is three statements of the reality of Christ's salvific acts. We are not here to preach what we feel; we are here to remember what Jesus did, and to tell all the world about it.

But instead, we get the dreary, routine (and I will presume political) moralism which has been part and parcel of liberal Anglicanism for decades, buttressed with the platitudes of American religiosity. I sense that the retired bishop can do no more for his church than reassure a certain class of "seekers" (especially the "spiritual but not religious" set and the followers of moralistic therapeutic deism) that the faded religion of American Episcopalianism is no threat to their anemic faith.

But to stand up each Sunday and profess the tenets of the Creed: that would be a quite different matter. But at this point it seems safe to say that those tenets are not going to get play in the bishop's columns.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Theology, and the Poverty of the Virgin

This is one of those years when Candlemas, AKA the Feast of the Presentation or of the Purification, falls on a Sunday, and therefore even the run-of-the-mill Episcopal parish observes it (at least if they haven't forgotten what it says on page 16 of the BCP). It's an interesting juxtaposition considering that we are in Year A and therefore (in the RCL) the story of Jesus at the temple also appears in the lectionary, so that we hit most of the first few chapters of Luke (Holy Name/Circumcision being the exception, it being impossible to get any but the most dogged A-Cs to show up to church instead of watching the Tournament of Roses parade on New Years Day).

And it presents an interesting problem for the preacher, who finds Jesus' teaching, as a rule, a much more congenial topic. These early stories demand treatment as theology and not moral advocacy, which seems to be a problem in this church. In that light I would like to commend Tobias Haller's sermon for its investigation of connections which I had forgotten or did not put together before. The presentation, after all, is about the satisfaction of two mosaic commands: first, for the purification of Mary after giving birth, and the second, for the presentation of Jesus, the first-born. And it is about the fulfillment of promises, to Simeon and Anna. One should take a moment to consider that, some few months earlier, the aged Elizabeth had stood among the younger women at this same place (John being Kohanim and therefore not being presented).

The specifics of these rites leads me to another issue. Leviticus specifies, for the purification offerings, a lamb and a dove, but allows a second dove to be substituted for the lamb if the latter cannot be afforded. Mary, it is recorded, offers two doves. This is taken as an implication of poverty, which in my opinion is overstated. Consider the larger context, and never mind that, as far as I know, we don't have a good handle on the price of lambs at the temple. First, Joseph: he's a skilled tradesman, not a laborer or a subsistence farmer or fisherman. By the standards of most eras, this makes him a working man, to be sure, but not poor. Second, Elizabeth: she is a high status wife, having married into the top priestly class. One gathers that both marriages, before March 25th, were unremarkable and didn't strain at class boundaries.

It's significant at this juncture to note that Jesus' teachings about money presuppose a set of class divisions that beings to look modern. We fail to notice that all his talk about salvation as an investment is too familiar, and that merchants and bankers are, in the world of his parables, people of considerable status, and that working stiffs of all sorts also play prominent roles. Joseph and Mary, as the marriage plays out, are not the poor to whom mercy is to be directed; they are at the lower reaches of those of whom mercy is expected. Millais's notorious (at the time) image of Jesus as a child in his father's shop creates a new modern scandal by setting Joseph among the sort of people who in this era might vote Republican— but then again, maybe they would join a union.

The point is that not everything in scripture is about social justice politics. Mary is, in the end, not an unwed mother, and Jesus was not reared in abject poverty. Paul's "bourgeois" directives simply bring home the point that in the early church the good news was not just for the destitute. And that gospel is theological first. The early chapters of Luke, the beginning of John, the early words of Matthew: all of these emphasize how Jesus came into the world as a spiritual act, and they demand a religious response.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Liturgical Footnote

OK, people: who will be the first one to point out what's nostalgic about standing for the Gloria?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

All Stand

It's a scene which instantly transports me to high school chapel: the congregation stands, and all turn to face the altar for the Gloria:

In my day we never used Rite I or for that matter the 1928 book; until the first 19-, er, 1976 BCPs arrived, we used pamphlets which I believe were based on the Green Book. But the ritual postures in this video are utterly familiar and slip on my worshipping body like the oldest and most familiar of clothes.

So much of what was done then was set aside: the "Episcopal aerobics" of old, where one constantly moved from sitting to standing to kneeling, have been toned down, so that indeed in many parishes there is little if any kneeling, and hardly anyone moves at all for the psalm. Increasingly the seating arrangements mean that nobody turns toward anything except the gospel if it be brought into the nave. But one does find places that remember the old ways and doggedly stick to the old postures.

So, this morning I was at Trinity, Copley Square, the queen of Boston parishes and the pinnacle of Romanesque Revival, for the 9 o'clock service, Epiphany 2, Year A. The choir was huge, numbering upwards of forty, adults and children; the church was comfortably full but not crammed. If I had not read the bulletin, all might have seemed well at first, though the tell-tale avoidance of "him" in the opening sentences gave an early warning to those who have memorized the BCP text. And it was odd to skip the epistle (about which omission a word later), but up to that point all was done in the grand style of an urban parish justly proud of their musical program and their spectacular worship space.

But then the preacher began, and he spoke not in the triune Name, but in the name of that old Father-denying modalist formula. Great, I thought to myself, another heretic, and tried not to dismiss his social action sermon, which ignored the lessons (the first of which was not according to the lectionary, though I do not recall that the change figured in his message). And when we got to the prayers, instead of one of the six standard formulas we had this paean to the works of Martin Luther King Jr., whose secular feast is observed tomorrow. Once again I found myself running through Form III sotto voce in order to touch those topics prescribed by the rubrics, and I thus also found myself reviewing the confessional (another novel-to-me formulation) to gain assurance that I could say it in good conscience.

And from that point I was caught in a struggle between competing scruples, for I approached the altar to find the preacher about offer me the Sacred Elements. I assuaged my conscience with the thought that another acted as celebrant, only to be "blessed" by that celebrant (the rector, who also had managed to skip over the Sanctus--it was Prayer C, you knew it was going to be Prayer C, and he went a response too far) in the Modal Name. Unsurprisingly the bulletin invited all comers to partake, in violation of current canon and ancient tradition.

Trinity is an astonishingly beautiful place, if you are comfortable with its High Victorian fussiness, and the music is as good as it ever gets in an Anglican parish. People around me did sing. And yet as religion the thing was deeply rotten. In retrospect I'm surprised that they didn't mess with the opening sentences for a modalist three-fer. Jesus said to Andrew, "come and see", but the message I got from the sermon was, "come and see what wonderful work we are doing in the world, in our noble efforts against racism." Worship was taken for granted; theology could not be done right, for fear of being accused of another -ism. I wondered at the time whether the epistle had been set aside because it is the words of Paul which so often offend our revisionists. And this is what I find in all places. Looking through the parish websites I saw that most within range of my hotel promised (to the canny Anglican reader) that I would be subjected to this, and perhaps might even use Enriching Our Worship or some even more egregious emasculating bastardization. I almost went to the Old North Church simply because their website made no promises at all about what I would encounter there; in retrospect I should have swallowed my preference for a sung service and worked out the logistics.

This is what the travelling Anglican has to put up with. Unless one is completely indifferent (in which case one might well look to the first steeple in view, and risk a Baptist or Catholic service), one has to check websites or other clues for signs of aberration. The blue and white sign might as well say, "the Episcopal Church welcomes you, but we don't promise you'll get an Episcopal service." All the predictions of how abandoning the centuries-old Cramnerian language would result in collapse have been acted out in the interest of making upper-middle class and aging parishioners feel good about either their clerisy's liberal politics, or their own self-righteous resistance to the same. We burn the accumulated capital of our tradition to keep our own hearts warm.

And nothing will come of it. It is possible that homosexual marriages will have a better record than the ordinary sort if only because children are a major source of marital stress. Those ordinary ones are not doing so well, and it is not credible that we should instruct the other classes to eat wedding cake as we do. Indeed, we barely bother to speak to our own on the matter. Yet the problems of ordinary family life of of far greater import. It is possible that we may instill a greater awareness of the morality of running a corporation, but I doubt it: we are too wedded to Mammon for our retirement accounts and for the corporations who employ the lawyers in our parishes, and the likes of Steve Jobs and other such irreligious magnates have long since ceased to heed us. Our superior social conscious is not enough to save, not on earth, and perhaps not in heaven.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Word of Scripture Hath No Authority, Apparently

So here we are with another run around the track of the modernist raceway, in this case loftily brushing off the "authority" of scripture. I suppose the reason these tracts get published is so that the textual liberals and modernists can rehearse their tropes so as to have them on the tip of the tongue when the equally ancient objections are raised anew.

This round used as a pretext an incident in which the "bible" used for an oath as recorded in an iPad app, with (I suppose) the physical iPad and its display as proxy. Now, the author of our tract quickly lost interest in whether this was an appropriate act, and so do I; it seems a less than ideal symbolic act, but in the end it doesn't have a lot to do with Christian ideas about scripture. But at any rate our author turns immediately to disparagement of the "existence" of the bible at all. What this turns out to mean isn't that it doesn't exist, but that it isn't one single inarguable reference, like the standard kilogram. Well, uh, yeah, but what's the point? Translation isn't an exact science; textual criticism is required to resolve the variety of variant texts; even the original language doesn't always seem to have survived without damage. But this is, in the end, overstatement. This is the kind of thinking that leads to spurious claims such as the notion that the Great Commission is a late addition to the gospel text when in fact there is no evidence for that at all. It's just a passage that someone wants to be late, so they can dismiss it.

And thus we are led off into a dream world in which there is no "authentic" text, but only a "process of engagement between a human psyche and the narrative contained within the text." OK, let's start off with the fact that not all of scripture is narrative, and never mind that there a different kinds of narrative. The trope here is heading off into the direction of reducing all of scriptural text to parable. As an Anglican I would agree with the notion that interpretation is an element of the scriptural reading process that has to be accepted as such, but there is more to what's going on then that, and the words traditionally used to talk about this are less abstract and less inviting of abuse.

Our author does go on to talk about one of the other key elements: the need to interpret the text within the community. But this community is not just present and proximate, but historical and spiritual. You cannot just read your favorite modern theologians or talk with your peers; you must know what the church fathers said and what theologians through the ages have said. And "within the community" has some specific content. If you are an Anglican, for instance, the creeds have a canonical function circumscribing the community. If you deny the creed, then to some degree you aren't fully within the community.

Likewise, going back to the narrative, it has to be admitted that there are certain parts of the scriptural narrative which force strongly divergent conclusions if different readings be taken. The crucial one, if you will pardon the pun, is of course the passion and resurrection narrative. The testimony of the church was and is that Jesus is actually no longer dead, and that the disciples and the women were direct witnesses to this. It is unsurprising, however, that the comments to the article in question are full of denial of the whole idea of authority in the first place, so one presumes that they do have a problem with the church teaching any such thing using scripture as a reference.

I on the other hand see no reason to respond to the text in this manner. I may argue with it, or may talk about various kinds of readings. But the obvious and only alternative to taking scripture and its accompanying tradition as a point of authority is making it up. Scripture is not a palimpsest, an erased manuscript over which I may write what seems best to me: it is canonical, a standard against which theology may be tested. It is testimony to how flaccid official theologizing has become that this kind of thinking is put forth routinely be clerics and others connected to the hierarchy and church institutions, but this is not the theology of the prayer book, which still upholds a standard of belief and faith which this debased reasoning fails to meet. It is only as it is read, wrestled with, "inwardly digested," that the narrative takes on reality, life and meaning.