Agony and Irony

So, this morning Margaret and I were enjoying our Saturday treat breakfast at Avenue G (baked egg and cheese for her, a scone for me), and I suddenly remembered that I’d had a dream last night about meeting John Darnielle.
I told Margaret about it: John was sitting on a highway embankment practising some new material. The embankment was cobblestone, inclining down to a parking lot; I spotted him from the road across the street from the parking lot, and drifted over closer to greet him. He was wearing a jacket with patches of paper affixed to it, with lyrics written on them for songs he was working on (this struck me as impractical — he couldn’t very well read them looking down at them — and not especially snappy-looking, but hey, it’s not as though I’m a fashion hero). After a short while he paused, and I introduced myself: ‘Hi, I’m AKMA, that guy who wrote an article about you, just wanted to thank you for all the great music’, but I sensed that I was beginning to ramble and fawn. I wanted just to shut up, was trying to wind down my monologue, and John evinced a strained patience as two members of his band (no one I recognised, not Peter Hughes nor Yuval Semo nor Jon Wurster) stood and waited. I made a closing joke about not introducing my eighteen-year-old daughter to Wurster, but it wasn’t funny and I was feeling increasingly desperate and stupid. So I woke up.
I explained to Margaret that I woke up feeling intensely relieved. I had escaped from the mortifying situation, and it had only been a dream! She laughed and noted that if it had been her dream, she’d have been overshadowed all day by the memory of such intense awkwardness. This difference comes as no surprise to us, nor to any who know us well….

On Renouncing My Orders

I wrote, a while back, about becoming a priest of the Scottish Episcopal Church. At the time, I was mostly looking back into the murky church history of the years between the Reformation and the repeal of legal restrictions on episcopal worship in Scotland; this morning, I take up the topic again to check in after an unsettling, but ultimately (I think) benign chain of events.
When I first came over to Scotland, I arranged with the Dean of the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway to be licensed (as a priest whose residence lay in another diocese) to serve at the cathedral, and all was well. Blessings abounded, I went to meetings of Synod even though I didn’t have to, helped out at St Mary’s and other congregations, and relished working in the Diocese.
As the years rolled by, though — and as it became clear that I wasn’t about to return to the States — it seemed that I really ought to say to Glasgow, ‘This is where I belong’. It bothered me, a bit, to receive clergy mailings from Chicago (and not from Glasgow); it felt odd to serve on the Doctrine Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church when my canon-legal identity bound me to Chicago. So I wrote back to the Diocese of Chicago and said, in effect, ‘Let’s arrange a transfer from Chicago to my new home diocese. You’re Episcopalians, we’re Episcopalians, what will be the bother?’
Didn’t hear anything for a while — and then, several weeks ago, I received an email from 815, the Episcopal Church Headquarters in New York City. From one of the very important offices in 815. And the email explained to me that in order to become canonically resident in Glasgow, I had to renounce my orders.
That bowled me over. There was no way on earth I wanted to renounce my orders; my ordination to the priesthood was exactly what I wanted to preserve, but in a different location. I had heard and read about clergy turning their backs on the US Episcopal Church because of the directions it has taken on particular topics of urgent contemporary concern, but that wasn’t me. I’m not a conscience-driven or disgruntled departee, seeking a more congenial theological-ideological haven. Scotland is possibly next after the US and Canada among Anglican provinces in our leftward inclination. Honesty requires that I acknowledge having some ruffled feathers about the convulsion at Seabury and my scramble to find work after having been turned out of my (tenured) position; nonetheless, I started this correspondence precisely because I did find a job, and I just wanted to minister, as a Scottish Episcopal priest, where I live.
I wrote to several trusted [U.S.] Episcopal Church friends, who responded with sympathy and dismay, and with an indication that (a) I was not alone in feeling stunned that I would have to renounce my orders, and (b) it was not as dramatic a step as it sounded. As emails volleyed back and forth between me and canon lawyers and Church Pension Fund officials (yes, I am anxious about my hypothetical retirement, and no, this doesn’t rise to the level of a matter of conscience for which I’d throw away my pension), the message gradually shaped up that this was a step more formidable in its title than in its effects. I am obliged to renounce my orders in the [U.S.] Episcopal Church, but not to renounce altogether my priestly orders. I must ask Bishop Lee of Chicago to be released from my vows of obedience to him, but I am not thereby defrocked.
The terminology sounds 100% wrong to me, as it did to Bishop MacDonald. I take the point that, since the relations between the [U.S.] Episcopal Church and the Scottish Episcopal Church are collegial and not corporate (as it were), one diocese cannot merely hand me over to another. And the pastoral angle of this — that it seems not to have occurred to anyone that talking me through the process would make sense, and that I might have intelligible questions about the terminology and consequences of the process — was pretty much a train wreck. Assuming that everything I’ve been told holds true, this is my word to clergy moving from one provnce to another: it’s OK, ‘renouncing your orders’ in this context just means being released from your oath of obedience to one diocese so that you can make that oath truthfully somewhere else, and don’t worry about your pension (unless the circumstances of your departure make someone suspect that you’re undermining the [U.S.] Episcopal Church. But someone at 815 (at least at 815, if not on a diocesan level) should be in a position to recognise these circumstances and oversee the transition.
This morning, I wrote to Bishop Lee, copied to relevant administrative figures, saying that if and only if my understanding of the situation holds true, I would like Bishop Lee to release me from my oath to him — I would like, in these terms, to renounce my orders. I think the story ends happily here, with me in Glasgow, with Bishop Gregor, and robins singing and the sun shining (Americans, did you know that our robins over here are different birds from your robins? That’s really disorienting.) The weather is lovely, Margaret is home from an enlivening and encouraging theological conference, I’m a happy priest of Glasgow and Galloway, and it’s all OK.

Well, One Theological Observation

Looking back, I fear that I’ve encountered too many church people who are resistant to investing energy in theological education when they’re satisfied with the status quo (when, in other words, most members go along with what the leaders really want them to be doing) — but who develop a greater interest in education when people need to be taught to think what their leaders want them to. Even then, ‘education’ involves mostly just ‘taught what we want them to think’ more than ‘grounded in the historic, doctrinal, Scriptural, enacted life of the church so as to be able to make well-founded discernments on their own’.

Where Warcraft Went

I’ve been out of Warcraft pretty much since I moved to Scotland; my guild tends to be operate on US-centric time zones (understandably, since that’s where most of the guild lives), and I was less and less captivated by the world of the game. It was getting more like a second job than a continuing adventure, so when my life changed intercontinentally, I just drifted into retirement.
A great deal of what frustrated me over the years I was active involved the game designers’ response to keeping the game fresh. The folks at Blizzard introduced new zones (great!) and instances (very great!), and new character classes (meh) and races (meh), and added new levels of achievement (tut tut) and new gear (tut tut). The new classes and races don’t bother me that much, though I’m sure they took mind-boggling numbers of work-hours to develop and balance, work-hours that I’d rather had been spent on world-building and lore. But the really irksome aspect of the ex-pacced (‘expansion pack-ed’) game was the devs’ decision to raise the ceiling on levels, and to accord these new levels greater powers on a scale comparable to the increases at preceding levels.
What that meant in practical terms was that good, ordinary players on the terms of the older game could become demigods (on the older game’s terms) just by being good, ordinary players on the ex-pac’s terms. Instead of diminishing the increments of improvement as players ascended the levels — so that there was always an incentive to advance, but a longer, slower curve with smaller incremental improvements — they opted to keep hopping skills and talents up, which made the regions in which players begin and learn their fundamentals an uncanny zone in which the bosses who once had been the biggest, meanest monsters imaginable were easily defeated by small groups of hyper-advanced players (and the new, tougher bosses in the successive ex-pacs were so intensely powerful that they could have wiped out the entire world of the original game).
OK, so Blizzard chose another route, they’re introducing Pandarians in the next ex-pac, and maybe it’s great and maybe it isn’t — but I have an idea for an alternative revenue stream for Blizzard.
Since they already have invested in and built out a world that has to be playable for beginning characters, why not put up a couple of servers on which the monster/opponent structure is recalibrated to older standards, but with diminishing incremental advances for player levels and equipment? Why not, in other words, rely for allegiance to the game on the game itself, on challenging monsters, new terrains, groups and raids at a consistent level across all zones, and where bosses get more challenging by making them more intelligent rather than more powerful, less predictable rather than more intricately choreographed (and predictable)? I’d think they could make money at it, and at the same time learn about game behaviour and mechanics under this different reward system, and about building more intelligent bosses. That’s my idea for the day; theology will wait for tomorrow.

On Baptism and Eucharist

The Diocese of Eastern Washington Oregon has made formal what is increasingly the normative practice in US Episcopal parishes, by proposing the abolition of the canon that strictly forbids offering communion to people who have not been baptised. Over the past decade, this canon has been so widely, publicly, proudly flouted that one wonders how any canon might be enforceable; that’s a topic for another day, though. I call this situation to mind because my ecclesiastical boss, the Provost at St Mary’s Cathedral, has reiterated his sense that communion without baptism is an adiaphoron. On this, as on a number of things, Fr Kelvin and I reach very different conclusions.

I won’t repeat the careful arguments that colleagues have articulated (Matt, Derek, Robert, Tobias, Bryan, list courtesy of Matt); the Web makes generously possible the exploration of related links, and I can’t presume to gild their lilies. It may be worth remembering a few points of orientation as we consider the pros and cons, though.

First, Fr Kelvin perhaps skews the discussion by characterising those who disagree with him as being ‘obsessed’ with which sacrament precedes which. It is not in our power to control God’s freedom to introduce some people to the captivating grace of the gospel, so no one is suggesting that we quench the Holy Spirit. ‘Obsession’ may apply as much to persistent demands for change as to persistent conviction that a particular change is unwise.

Second, narratives about who received communion before baptism and how it affected their lives may inform, to some extent, the discussion — but they can’t decide the issue. Last January, a climber fell 1000 ft during an attempted ascent of Ben Nevis, tumbling down three cliffs, and survived with only relatively minor injuries. He may have reconciled himself to his enemies during that fall, he may have attained blissful oneness with the universe, he may only have enjoyed the adrenaline rush of confronting death — but none of those makes ‘falling off Ben Nevis’ a good idea as a normative practice, no matter how benign its effects in his case. If someone can show that communion without baptism as a general practice builds up the Body of Christ, that’s one thing; but no matter how much we give thanks for the positive effects of pre-baptismal communion in individual cases (such as Fr Kelvin himself, Sara Miles, or any other person) these remain the marvellous instances of the unpredictable power of the Spirit, rather than decisive warrants for a far-reaching change in the theology of the church.

For (third) theology remains a complex system in which changes to this point here affect the entire network. Kelvin appositely cites the example of the Episcopal Church USA, which put great energy behind what they call ‘Baptismal Theology’ (itself a shift in emphasis with far-reaching effects), only to find themselves now confronting a popular proposal that would relativise baptism altogether. Change we must, by all means; we’re never not changing, whether we like it or not. But since so much of the church through so much of history (especially in the Episcopal tradition) has held firmly to the premise that baptism — as sacramental incorporation into the Body of Christ — should normatively precede Eucharist — as the sacramental nourishment of that Body — that it’s somewhat misleading to minimise the proposed change. The magnitude of the discernment and articulated theological deliberation that undergirds the practice of baptising before participating in communion far overshadows the infrastructural foresight that has been advanced to justify communion without baptism.

Let’s set aside bugaboos of ecclesiastical storm-troopers demanding identity papers before allowing people to line up for communion. In even the most sternly traditional churches, strangers receive communion every day without proving that they’ve been baptised, and no one’s suggesting (to the best of my knowledge) that this principle be enforced more rigorously. Let’s not indulge in trivialising characterisations of one position or the other as ‘trendy’, ‘politically correct’, ‘fusty traditionalist’, ‘fascist’, or other arguments ad opprobrium. If the sacrament of the Eucharist matters in some way, let’s take the discussion seriously and mount deep, considered, theological arguments one way or the other, with a view to strengthening the Body of Christ. It doesn’t seem to be the case, just now, that we’re suffering from a hypertrophy of theological wisdom, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that current stresses have favoured partisanship over profundity.
[Late addition: Link to Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski’s thoughts about communon without baptism.]

On the (Moribund) Covenant

As you may have heard, the Anglican Covenant is, if not technically sunk, at least sliding inexorably below the waterline. If the Church of England will not even enlist for this Covenant, it’s hard to imagine it as an effectual affirmation joining disparate provinces in harmonious communion.
I have mixed feelings about this development. Many of my friends count themselves staunch defenders of the covenant, and many as implacable foes. Both assessments offer intelligible reasons for their conclusions. Sentiment doth not cut any ice on this important theological topic, and even if it did, it cuts both ways.
Part of my disappointment about the Covenant’s foundering derives from the sense that we all are better servants of the Gospel to the extent that we’re more closely joined with one another. We learn from one another less readily at great distance, and especially when great distances are amplified by hostility. We less fully communicate our vision of a variegated Body of Christ joining different peoples in a faithful, joyous, willing unity if we’re busily suspecting, rejecting, and vilifying one another. We make ourselves less available to the Spirit’s prompting, the more determined we are to prevail over those others.
Yet at the same time, the Covenant as it came into being was surely oriented toward being used juridically to separate some from others. If such separation be on the horizon — and in all likelihood it is — let it be straightforward, direct, and explicit, rather than be staged by a process of triangulation that separates us by way of some new-forged fulcrum for levering-out the wrong sorts of people. The Covenant at its best stated what should not (to my mind) be controversially questionable about Anglican identity; but my mind isn’t the issue. The mind of the whole communion, the minds of the distinct provinces that make it up, and ultimately the mind of Christ stand to resolve these stresses, and what seems obvious and unquestionable to me may seem dubious and obscure to an Anglican in New Zealand (or for that matter, to another Scottish Episcopalian). As I’ve said before, if it’s universal, you don’t need to regulate it; if you need to regulate it, it obviously isn’t universal.
And I wonder how the Covenant would have looked to various constituencies if the presenting stressor were different — if, say, the Lambeth Conference were trying to define gender equality as intrinsic to Anglican identity (obviously that would be a non-starter, since England isn’t precisely on board there). A juridical unity can be a fine thing when it’s serving ends of which one approves, even as it serves as a bully’s bludgeon when applied against the conscientious determination one’s own favoured position.
A great many people have invested a great many days and months on drawing up the Covenant, and many more months and days in defending or opposing it. I pray that in days and months to come, the will of the Anglican Communion to knit more closely together (forestalling future crises such as this, and God willing, making eventual healing more nearly possible) not waver; that the Communion redouble its commitment to mutuality and bearing one another’s burdens; that the Communion structure such ruptures as become inevitable so that we may most easily be restored to unity; and that we free ourselves from shackles of mistrust to love our sisters and brothers, and above all our enemies, in the way that keeps eristic demons at bay, that invites communion of hearts and spirits as well as sacramental communion, and that opens all of our eyes to what we did not soon enough see clearly on our way to the awkward ending of a well-intentioned endeavour to help articulate the tremendous gift of the episcopal tradition.

Tell Us About Your Week

The past week didn’t seethe with provocative, scintillating ideas; nothing cried out at me ‘You’ve got to blog that’ (apart from my sharing a high school alma mater with Wiz Khalifa) (and, PIppa advises me, Mac Miller, who named a recent album after the park just a couple of blocks from Allderdice).
I’ve been working on whipping ‘The Strong Right Arm That Holds For Peace’, the talk I gave at the Ekklesia Project Gathering a few years ago (a/k/a ‘the Sapolio talk’, a/k/a ‘the Sacramerica talk’) into a publishable form. It’s an awkward transition, since the original version really was oriented strongly toward that particular audience, and rewriting it for publication involves imagining a different readership — which step is made more complicated because I don’t yet know to which publication I might submit it. But I still like the piece, and it deserves a bit of renovation and publication.
I’m eager, though, to get on with my work on ‘codes’, hermeneutics, and Relevance Theory. I have much to read on relevance — made more difficult because I keep forgetting/neglecting to put my reading glasses on, and it’s extremely hard for me to read for steady intervals with my varifocal glasses. And of course, it’s hard to interact with people, computers, and so on with my reading glasses. These are minor distractions, though, and maybe by writing them out here I’ll remind myself to switch glasses more frequently.
Meanwhile, Margaret’s getting ready to give her paper at the Society for the Study of Theology meeting in York next week. I’ll be on my own for four days; luckily, I believe that I haven’t lost the resourcefulness built up over the years we spent living apart.

Props To Wiz

I know I haven’t checked in often this week — what can I say? I didn’t have any particular announcements — and this isn’t a deep philosophical musing. But my fellow alumnus of Taylor Allderdice High School Wiz Khalifa, has just released a mixtape named after our alma mater (Official motto: ‘Do Something • Know Something • Be Something’; unfficial motto: ‘Nobody Shakes the Dice’).
On that list of noteworthy alumni at the bottom of the Wikipedia page, Evan Wolfson was a friend during high school (he was a year ahead of me; his senior year, he was Secretary-General of Western Pennsylvania Student U.N. while I served as vice-chair of the General Assembly). What Wikipedia doesn’t say is that Evan (along with a number of the rest of us: Betsy Kulamer, Rob Croop, Dave Barbrow, Nina Amenta, Becky Goldburg, David Kalla) was a demon at Password and Diplomacy.
Anyway, here’s a shout-out to Wiz Khalifa and to TAHS, to Evan, to Student U.N., and to our alumni friends and colleagues. Allderdice had its rough side (I was hospitalised when an unknown assailant whupped on my face with a tree limb after bowling league one day), but I fell in with a good crowd. If I think back on things in just the right way, the positive side of those years can pretty much block out the (garden-variety) teen high school miseries.

(Glas-) Go Figure

This past winter wasn’t especially harsh, or unpleasant, or anything noteworthy — but I’m very much more eager for spring and summer to come this year than I have been either of the past years in Glasgow. I have no explanation for this.

Four Lent

I did eventually overcome my indolence yesterday — indolence, I should say, and coughing fits — to write a sermon, and it turned out better than I expected. I re-used the story about my elementary-school charge and the story of the Garden of Eden; I have to stop doing that, now, it’s threadbare and I have to come up with something different to say. Plus, it doesn’t really fit into the flow of the sermon. But the people who greeted me at the door were positive about it, and it was given for them.
Since I use Mike Daisey’s saga as a jumping off point, I realised that I ought to say something specific about the ground rules for my putting sermon texts online. Every time I do anything with a sermon, anything at all, I’m liable to change it. The text I have at the beginning of a homiletical interaction (whether preaching, or sitting with a manuscript between preaching two services, or just opening a file to have a look) I see little infelicities that I have to change, sometimes whopping infelicities. The sermon I write on Saturday is not the same as the sermon I preach Sunday morning, and that in turn differs from the sermon I paste into the blog interface Sunday afternoon. Different, different, different — and I do not represent any of these as a veridical transcription of the sermon text at any point other than the one I have in mind while typing up a blog.
Anyway, the sermon’s below the fold.
Since today is Mothering Sunday, I had bought Margaret a couple of wee presents, a book about the bird life of Britain (we may take up low-level birding once the weather favours us) and some dark-chocolate and caramel bars. After breakfast, we went to our respective churches, I preached and Margaret read the Old Testament lesson, and we met up after church to go the Antiques Fair. I entrusted a couple of pens for treatment to Peter Crook, and we browsed and came home for a TV marathon and cosy restfulness. A good, sunny, agreeable Sunday, spent in beloved company.
Continue reading “Four Lent”

Lies, and Anecdotes

OK, Margaret and I listened to this week’s harrowing episode of This American Life, and listened while Mike Daisey doubled down on his lies and misrepresentations. It was a painful experience. But when Ira Glass emphasises that TaL expects journalistic honesty of all its features, we asked one another — does that apply to (for instance) David Sedaris’s stories about his family, too? Or Sarah Vowell’s?
It’s not that I suspect that they lie to us — it’s that I don’t care, and I don’t think Ira Glass should care either. Daisey made a miserable mistake in judgment that he was presenting more of a Sedaris/Vowel kind of story, when Glass was warning him that TaL expected him to be presenting a ‘The Giant Pool of Money‘ kind of story.
If Ira Glass subjects the amusing-family-narrative stories to scrutiny as close as those reporting on financial misdoings, then I’m intensely impressed. But I don’t think he should bother, and I think we should clarify that we don’t expect him to. When someone (such as Daisey) purports to be reporting, he should be held accountable for that — but we listen to TaL for other kinds of story, too, and that’s OK with me. Mike Daisey was still lying to us, and that’s very, very wrong. But Sarah Vowell can lie to me about being a goth any time.

Fallow Friday

It’s a grey, drizzly day here in Glasgow; we’ve had disappointing news at the University (a treasured colleague will be leaving); we’ve been handling several intercontinental complications with Big Scary Institutions; Margaret’s marking essays; and I’m supposed to be coming up with a sermon for Sunday. Right now, it looks like interpretive dance of the Bronze Serpent. I don’t even feel guilty about not making progress on the sermon, that’s how worn down I feel.
On a different topic, does anyone remember the talk I gave years ago for the Ekklesia Project, the talk that involved the first three (of the Ten) Commandments, and Sapolio? In the rush to get articles into print for the Research Excellence Framework, a colleague suggested that I could polish up that piece and publish it. Anyone with a good idea about where it would fit well is encouraged to let me know. If you’re an editor and want it, we can absolutely make a deal.