Monday, April 27, 2015

Diocesan Convention: Reports and Resolutions

So I am the lay representative this year for diocesan convention (Maryland), and having looked over the convention journal with the rector and talked strategy, I thought I'd give a few thoughts about it and diocesan business. Now, to me the most interesting stuff is in the supporting material, where there is a lot of informative stuff that the average parishioner is completely blank about. For instance, there is a complete list of parishes, and by "complete" I mean that it includes all the closed an merged parishes too, with dates of demise. There are quite illuminating reports of what the bishop and the standing committee did in the year, and a list of all clergy including ordinations, transfers in and out, licenses, and the like. There are reports from various ministries, some of which are illuminating in perhaps the wrong way: did you know that there is a national white privilege conference?

It's a terrible temptation to snark mercilessly at what is an earnest attempt to do right on the part of (one hopes) well-meaning people. And yet, the resolutions. It's always the resolutions. So, we have six resolutions, one of which is the inevitable and necessary compensation resolution which sets forth expected rates for clergy and employees as well as the standards for supply priest pay. Two more have to do with rearranging the system of regions we have (something like deaneries in some other dioceses) and adjusting their function a little. These are the real business and can be discussed on their merits.

After that, however, comes the other part. The fourth resolution asks us to "[support] all such measures prohibiting the Department of the Environment from issuing a permit to authorize the hydraulic fracturing of a well for the exploration or production of natural gas in the State until April 30, 2023 or until a specified panel is appointed, convenes, and reports to the Governor and General Assembly on the safety and environmental risks of such activities." Well. I personally am extremely wary of fracking; the fears of groundwater contamination seem to me to be well-grounded even if they haven't (yet) been demonstrated, and if contamination happens, it's likely to be widespread and extremely difficult if not impossible to undo. That said, environmental effects of industrial techniques are not even vaguely in our core competency. As my very liberal daughter observed (more pungently than I shall express it here), this is about making ourselves feel good about doing something absolutely ineffectual. really, nobody in the diocese who wasn't at convention will ever know that we passed this, and nobody can seriously believe that such a resolution will have any impact when general assembly meets— and the governor is a Republican, and appears to be a Catholic.

Next up is a resolution which asks us to "support the adoption of state legislation for “death with dignity” in the 2016 session" and "encourages on-going discussion of the issues surrounding this issue". OK, well, this is a little closer to stuff we actually know about, but "death with dignity" is after all a euphemism for physician-assisted suicide in the face of terminal illness. It's not something that we, as laypeople, are up on as to the moral and legal nuances. Half of us will want to oppose on the grounds of our inarticulate moral queasiness, and the other half will want to support on the basis of some relative's painful and undignified final days. Both sides will sigh in relief when the first clause is struck and we pass an ineffectual but self-affirming resolution to talk about the matter some more.

Finally, we get to a resolution which "encourages Episcopalians to build bridges that will foster positive relationships between residents and local law enforcement officers who are assigned to police neighborhoods where congregations are located" and which states that "community engagement such as this is in line with the concept of what it means to be a parish." This takes a bit of unpacking unless you have been following the news recently of the death of a man in Baltimore City police custody apparently due to their brutality. It's a serious social problem, made all the more dire given developments since the convention journal was produced; but again, we're outside our competence, and the impotent wording of the resolution shows this. OK, so this is turning out to be a big issue, but I fail to see how we in convention can contribute much, especially since few of us live in Baltimore City. And note the phrases used: what does "building bridges" mean? How about "foster positive relationships"? What's "the concept of what it means to be a parish"? These vacuities are progressive church buzzwords, rhetorical filler; they are about saying the "right things" without saying anything. So what it actually says is "the situation with the police in Baltimore City is atrocious but we don't have any idea of what do about it but mouth platitudes."

So we have three resolutions which amount to nothing but self-congratulation, and meanwhile there are three very big elephants standing in the room.

Friday, April 24, 2015

An Unlikely Anglo-Imperial Union

My wife has been studying early 20th century Japanese history, and the advent within the household of a novel in which Hirohito makes an appearance brought me to the thought that he and the presiding bishop shared an interest in marine biology. The thought of them meeting and discovering their shared interests led me to flash upon the following:

I must however say that for all the regrettable vesture of her career she never wore a miter to compare with THAT. Further reading also informs me that while her interests turned to squid, his lay in hydrozoans. I should have known the relationship was doomed from the start.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Stability and the Liturgy

General Convention is coming up in July, and we now have a resolution to amend Article X of the church constitution to specifically authorize forms outside the BCP (the bolded material represents the addition):
But notwithstanding anything herein above contained, the General Convention may at any one meeting, by a majority of the whole number of the Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by a majority of the Clerical and Lay Deputies of all the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies, voting by orders as previously set forth in this Article:

a) Amend the Table of Lessons and all Tables and Rubrics relating to the Psalms.

b) Authorize for trial use throughout this Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof, a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof, duly undertaken by the General Convention.

c) Provide for use of other forms for the renewal and enrichment of the common worship of this church for such periods of time and upon such terms and conditions as the General Convention may provide.

This addition has become the focus of some small controversy. I think Tobias Haller is correct in pointing out that this regularizes the anomalous position of the Book of Occasional Services (and to a lesser extent, Lesser Feasts and Fasts: most of the latter is covered under clause (a) above) in the collection of our liturgical texts. But these are not the only books we have, and Enriching Our Worship is really the focus of most people's concern, together with the writing of same-sex blessing rites.

Historically, western liturgy was divided into several volumes, e.g., missals, ordinals, psalters, each of which fit into a different context of worship. In the reformation these were all wrapped up together in the Book of Common Prayer, which due to a certain paralysis has never been updated itself. The US BCP has always followed the pattern of its ancestor in terms of what it covers, but the need for a supplement was felt over a century ago, leading first to the Book of Offices and thence to the current BOS.

There's a substantial shift in content along the way, however. The vast majority of the 1914 book is devoted to dealing with consecrated things; the order for compline (which made its way into the BCP in 1979) is an exception. The 1940 offices show the same pattern, but the BOS adds a whole new category of services, listed there under the heading "The Church Year". This section contains, in large part, services people were already doing, mostly keyed to the church year. One can argue the need for some of this, as anyone who wanted to do Lessons and Carols at Christmas already had copies of Carols from Kings 1 (in order to do the Willcocks descants if nothing else) and therefore had the order laid out for them, but the section as a whole reflects the high-and-wide interest in recovering all these seasonal liturgies as part of the official cycle of things (which, by the way, the Anglo-Catholics were already doing without benefit of GC authorization).

Some of the material promulgated of late by the SCLM fits into these two patterns, whatever the merits of the texts in question. By and large I don't think much of it, but that's not the main issue here. A lot of the most egregious stuff from the last round is material that nobody is every going to be subjected to unless the rector gets bored with the prayers in the BCP and goes on a hunt for novelty. Thus we got a devotional cycle of prayer which I found it hard to tell whether the theology or the writing was worse, but I would venture to guess that it would never appear on a Sunday morning, so no doubt the average parishioner will never be exposed to it.

But that leads to Enriching Our Worship, which is not a prayer book supplement. Indeed, when it was first promulgated, it was set forth as material for the future revision of the BCP. These days, it's an alternative service book, except that it has never gone through the trial process because it is permanently stuck in it. And it has a lot of problems, bad enough to where I won't take communion if it is used. It enjoys no permanent approval, and yet it appears to be the basis and standard for all of SCLM's other output— not the BCP, the supposed standard for our worship.

That's the problem in this resolution: in authorizing whoever writes liturgies for the church to produce whatever anyone feels they need, it follows the spirit of exactly what's being done wrong now. I suppose we ought to amend things to allow for extra-BCP work, but that material also needs to go through the same kind of review as the BCP itself, including sunsetting of trial liturgies.

Friday, April 03, 2015

God's Dreadful Plan

Preached on Good Friday, 2015

So this is where God's plan takes us.

But then, God's plan so often makes no sense, at least while it is playing out. God sets Adam and Eve in the garden as part of his creation, and right off they get themselves expelled because they will not keep the forbidden fruit out of their gullets. He picks, for his new nation, an ancient couple who can no longer bear children; their grandson cheats his brother and proceeds to bear a pack of sons who sell one of their own into slavery. That act in turn leads the whole “nation” into Egypt and slavery, and when the LORD God brings them out of bondage in a display of mighty wonders, their response is to gripe constantly about the rest of the trip, when they aren't raising up an idol of a false god. Skip forward to the kingdom, and they get as far Solomon—three kings in all—before the whole thing falls apart: the northerners are dispersed by the Assyrians, while Judah and Benjamin hold on for another two hundred years before going into exile. The prophets go with them, and mourn the lost kingdom while proclaiming a messiah who will come and set all things right.

Does this make any sense? Our sacred history tells us that the LORD, the Almighty, the king of creation time after time picks such weakness in men in which to manifest Himself. And then, in Roman Judaea, he puts Himself in humanity, the promised messiah; and heaven announces this to shepherds in a field and to foreigners who, having brought their gifts, disappear back into their own country. This God incarnate, this Jesus, then picks twelve followers who are apparently among the thickest of men. The chief, whom he could just as well have named Peter for his rockheadedness, is throughout a weak reed, prone to fits of enthusiastic faith followed by abject cowardice. Thus, on this Friday, we find the disciples dispersed, Peter's bluster betrayed in his three denials; of the lot, only John makes it to Calvary, to stand among the women.

And Jesus? There he hangs, nailed to the rood, tortured, bound in his humanity to mankind's death, expiring as we all shall. Is this any way to run a creation? Many rebel, and say, “no God could run things this badly.” But who are they to say? Where were they when the world began?

When the world ended, the old world before the temple's curtain was torn in half, it is easy to see where we all were. There is the God-and-man, hanging on the cross, and there is mankind: one with a hammer, another with a nail. One taking silver pieces, another handing them to the betrayer. One swearing lies about the messiah, another having at him with a whip. One dressing him and robes and mocking him, another washing his hands. A few helpless faithful stand watching; a multitude jeer. We stood moments ago in the midst of his passion, our hearts with the faithful, our lips with the spitting. And is that not our way in all things?

Perhaps it is unfair to lay upon us all the various outrages and neglects committed in Jesus' name. And certainly the godless have tortured and stolen and murdered with the best of us. And yet, the hymn puts in our mouths the truth: “Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.” Who among us can deny it? In a myriad of offenses, we hammer away at the cross, while we gaze upon it in sorrow.

And God presided over it all, enthroned in pain. Where is God when we suffer? He is in our humanity, for he joined the divine to the human in Bethlehem, and carried it to its end on the cross. And yet, we know, that is not the end. On the cross is laid all our sin, from the beginning until that latter day when all passes away. The world sees this all as foolishness: how fitting that the God whom they do not heed finds His end here! Yes, they say, how proper it is that this religion for idiots be put to rest in a rocky tomb! In a just world, they say, things would have happened differently; and there is the proof that justice is what men make it to be. And on another continent, the followers of another god fall upon Christians, and slay them, ostentatiously. Twenty-one are martyred in Libya; a hundred and fifty more are killed in Kenya. Islam cannot accept Jesus on the cross. He was replaced there by another, they say, or in any case he did not die. We, his true followers, know differently; the holy women, and after them, the disciples, testify that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, and on the third day....

But for now, in our weakness, we kneel before the cross, watching as the plan is worked out. And to what purpose is this plan accomplished? Because God so loved the world. He gave his only Son, and that son is how we see love, suffering and dying for us. God's love of itself we do not understand; or rather, we cannot see how it is carried out as the days roll onward. But his love in Jesus: that we can understand. It is a love in weakness, not in power; it is a love in sacrifice, not in trade. The paradox of divine purpose is in its revelation through the small, the scorned, the futile, even the perverse and evil: a man and his aged wife, a trickster father and his scheming sons, a nation of whiners and a pair of contending kingdoms, and finally, the god-made-man dying in public scorn, abandoned by his followers. Those same frightened disciples became the apostles who endured abuse and finally death or exile to spread the faith, joined by one of their chief persecutors.

And we live under the same commission: to spread the kingdom, not through worldly power, but in testimony. We speak the word of God as it has been delivered to us from of old; we baptize as we have been told; but most of all we make known our discipleship through love, to those we know and those who, unknown to us, are our neighbors. We cannot make sense of the love of God, but we can see it here, on the tree which is both the instrument of shame and the sign of triumph. Therefore contemplate the cross, for there is found our salvation: not in the reasonable plan of the world, but in the sacrifice of God's only son.