Three Named Sources

From the treeware media, three columns called to my attention. First, Kevin called my attention to a column in the Telegraph, one that might have been titled “No Theology Please, We’re Anglicans.” Even though I’m a vocational theologian who winces at the author’s suggestion that he daydreams past “the concern for Jesus, for the Church’s mission, the affirmation of doctrine,“ and that he likes his religion privatized, I think the columnist hits something just right. A large part of church-going, of caring about the church, lies in this: people are drawn to the church’s inchoate expression of something shared, something deep and true, something so powerfully right that it need not bluster and threaten to make its point. That truth comes explicit in the language of familiar hymns and traditional liturgy — such that well-intentioned efforts to spruce up those timeworn formulas risk losing exactly that which attracts many people to church in the first place. That’s not simply hidebound narrow-minded conservatism; rather, it’s a genuine affirmation of a faith less ephemeral, less topical, less contemporaneous than the liturgical or musical catch of the day. Yes, absolutely, I advocate liturgical change (there’s no need, really, since liturgical change will happen whether anyone likes the idea or not); but yes, absolutely, it’s a much more delicate operation than most sponsors of liturgical change admit — in part, I suspect, because there are more people who want to write new liturgies (in their own words!) than there are people with the gifts to revise respectfully, elegantly, and inconspicuously.

Anyway, if church leaders were to begin by appreciating and encouraging people’s inclination to come to church out of loyalty and happy habit, and work from there to help them see the deeper dimensions of their words and actions, I would expect a stronger practice of evangelism. Indeed, this points, I suspect, to the tragic flaw of the strong “traditionalist” current in Anglicanism. Whereas their great strength lies in exactly their concern to preserve the precious liturgical and theological endangered species of church life, they endeavor so to do with a forcefulness that’s out-of-keeping with the spiritual calm that the tradition’s liturgies bespeak (whereas the church modernizers affect the tradition’s serenity even if they’re promulgating prosaic, didactic petitions to a Liberal Democrat of a deity).

Speaking of Democrats, Bob Wyatt asks what I think of an op-ed in the Sun-Times that points out how unlikely it is for Democrats to prosper in the rhetorical economy that rewards Karl “Frog March?” Rove for ascribing manifestly false motives to Sen. Durbin and his comrades, whereas Sen. Durbin speculated (manifestly soundly) that most of his listeners would not readily believe that U.S. interrogators were capable of the inhumanity exemplified in Guantanamo. What do I think? I think that the present partisan environment pits the fearful (led by the duplicitous) against the cautious (led by the compromised). For the time being, I anticipate only the rival demagogueries of toadies and equivocators, a disheartening spectacle all around. (I should say that the interview with Sen. Hagel in today’s NYT Magazine, registration required, sorry, suggested a bracing alternative on the Republican side of this set-to.)

Finally, I appreciated a motif latent in Judith Maltby’s column in the Guardian. Maltby laments the Church of England’s unwillingness to call women to the episcopacy; she asks, “Can anyone reasonably believe that if the selection of bishops was based purely on ability, we would, at present, have an all-male college of bishops, or that only men would sit as spiritual peers in the House of Lords?” Now, the traditional argument includes a premise that Maltby conceals, namely that the “ability” in question constitutively includes gender as a qualification — so indeed (the argument runs), the present bishops possess an ability that able ordained women lack. I don’t assent to that premise, of course, but it’s an element of the case.

But the point that especially caught my eye was Maltby’s next paragraph: “the Christian must always be ill at ease with arguments based on ‘merit’ in this way. At the end of the day, ordained ministry is not about how qualified or able a person is, though that is no excuse for slipshod practices in the professional work of the clergy.” Though this is not the main point of her column, she strikes a glancing blow at the neuralgic funnybone of the church’s predicament. In the name of inclusiveness and grace, the church has developed a lingering indifference to excellence. Until the church learns how to encourage excellence without reinforcing elitism, we can look forward mostly to a painfully protracted series of task forces, committee meetings, partisan salvos, huffy defensivenesses, and overall tawdry decline. One doubts that this is a mark of the indwelling Spirit.

1 comment / Add your comment below

  1. I’m glad you wrote about the Telegraph article; I don’t think it’s a terrible thing, either, to go to church because you like the music and you want your kids to get to know it. I like the music, too. Anyway, this is a great place to start, if you’re going to look for excellence in the Anglican heritage. As the man says, we should “big it up.”

    I like your points about liturgy and excellence, too, and in fact I think they’re related. (I tend to ignore Repubican/Democrat stuff these days, though. I’m hoping at some point people will get sick of talk radio and maybe then we’ll have a chance at a decent civic life again.)

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