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.