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so here's the real imagining problem: we're stuck with a social model of the denomination which is forty-some years out-of-date.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

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