Sunday of Second

For Brendan and Rosie’s wedding this summer, the first reading was taken from Gregory of Nazianzus’ Carmina 1.2.1. 262-275, 283-287. Brendan supplied a prose translation, but because your blogger here is that kind of guy, I felt impelled to look up the passage in Gregory’s original Greek and work it out for myself. Let it be acknowledged that this may be the only passage in which GRegory has anything favourable to say about marriage, and even here he praises it only to set up celibacy as a preferable alternative; still, if one doesn’t worry too much about intention and context, it’s a pleasant enough poem. I’m not sure I agree wtih the aspects of marriage he approves, and I frown as I try to imagine the comparison of married life to an amiable leaping colt. Then again, he’s a Doctor of the Church, and I’m just a doctor in a church.

As the sermon process wove and coiled and spooled and tangled, it occurred to me that the Greek might be translated into blank verse in English, with only a little some a certain amount of torturing the syntax. So I, undeterred from a little syntax-twisting in a good cause, ended up with this:

To one another hands, ears, feet we are,
once wed. A twofold strength our marriage brings:
Well-wishers’ double joy, ill-wishers’ pain.
Who share in common sorrow, lighten grief;
who share in merriment, laugh sweeter still.
More pleasant wealth, to minds harmonious;
more pleasant harmony to paupers, than that wealth.
To both, wedlock’s the key to prudent minds
and seal of love’s affectionate demand.
A colt, whose bounding friendship heals a mood;
a sip from home’s fresh well, reserved for home,
nor gushing out, nor bottled for export.
One nature in the flesh, like minds, of piety
a spur to one another — desire piques like with like.
. . .
Sed contra, single hearts live light,
requiring only trivial aid from God,
while those protecting partner, property,
and progeny — these sail upon life’s deeps.
They need God’s help the more, and God provides
the more; therefore, God treats them mercifully.

It won’t be nominated for any awards, but if some other patrologist invites me to preach at a wedding featuring Gregory’s encomium on the married state, I may have this in my pocket (so to speak) to work from.

Sacraments and Repulsion

Church people often quote the familiar slogan that a sacrament is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’, which is true enough as far as it goes. But there’s more to be said: in a sacrament, the Church teaches that God has promised that what is signified in the sacrament will be effected. This differentiates sacraments proper from things that are similar to sacraments (the sort of thing people call a sacrament when they want to indicate this or that communicates (to them, at least) that God’s grace is active in the world — vocal harmony, perhaps, or the practice of convivial visits with dear friends, or dawn over a mountain lake).

Moreover, though sacramental interaction will be effectual on the Godward side, people can still refuse grace by fraud or by repudiating (whether explicitly and deliberately, or implicitly by living in a way that repels the divine openness to swathing us with grace).

On Streams and Places

There’s been an almighty stramash in the past week or so concerning the importance or insignificance of praying from church buildings when videocasting services. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York forbid it; the Government allows it (and the Roman Catholic Church practises it); and various parties (myself include) have exchanged heated words about the proprieties and legalities involved.

In my very firm advocacy of clergy being permitted access to the churches in which they [ordinarily] minister, I want to make sure that several things remain clearly in sight. First, that I don’t suppose that my theology of sacraments or space should be binding on anybody; if someone else holds to a different ecclesiology, or to a catholic-minded theology but a different assessment of law or epidemiology or whatever, they should by all means follow their consciences. Second, as a catholic-minded theologian, I take as given certain theological premises in thinking out my response to these events — but I don’t assume anyone else takes those premises for granted.

Now, down to business: I cannot see any theological, legal, epidemiological, or any other rationale for forbidding a solitary priest going into an adjacent church to videorecord a service of worship. I can see many reasons why many people might disapprove of that, or wouldn’t care, but their disapprobation doesn’t bind my hypothetical protagonist’s conduct, any more than a member of the Society of Friends might disapprove of Solemn High Mass at St Peter’s Basilica without His Holiness the Pope experiencing pangs of doubt. Different premises lead to different conclusions. If you don’t believe in the sanctity of particular places, if you perceive the high altar at St John the Evangelist Church as in no wise different to your kitchen counter (except perhaps less well adapted for chopping vegetables), it’s entirely reasonable for you to think that closing up churches and videocasting from your parlour solves several problems all at one go. (I can think of reasons to hold up against that conclusion, based solely on arguments that derive their force from circumstances not affected by the premises you stipulate, but I won’t press them here.)

By the same token, then, I ask that you observe the analogous reasoning when you consider my plaidoyer in behalf of permitting clergy to pray in and to videocast from their churches. Nobody is endangered by this practice; if the cleric is alone in videorecording and praying, to whom could they transmit the virus? One can’t say that the cleric is endangering themself by being alone in the church, or one would have to close down the church building altogether for health and safety reasons. Manifestly, many parishioners and other would-be viewers find this practice important. Some long at least to see familiar architecture and furnishing when they’re barred from entering their spiritual homes. Some regard the physical characteristics of the setting, the various appliances, ornaments, and affordances of the church building constitute a significant element of their experience of worship. I can imagine a practical churchwarden wanting to call attention to the beauty of the church, such that casual videostream viewers might someday be moved to have a look-in at the church they admired online. (I have not myself recorded or livestreamed worship services during this pandemic save the sermon to which I alluded in my other post of the day, which (you may note) did not involve any in-church footage.) Whatever the reason, the disciple who finds value in participating in worship videostreamed from a church building is not ipso facto an idolater, a hidebound conservative, a heretic, a threat to Western civilisation, or any other such characterisation.

In other words, if your manner of worship works as well — or better — in a secondary-school gymnasium as in a centuries-old church building, God bless you and encourage you to worship in the gym (or wherever you like). And if mine is better suited to a specific architectural context, why may I not exercise my theologically-grounded conviction that this is the most fitting way to praise God and offer the sacraments?

The Archbishop of Canterbury offers five reasons for closing churches altogether, even to those responsible for their oversight and upkeep. First, to set an example to all other people whom the government urges to stay at home. Now, this doesn’t apply to the number of clergy whose homes are (for exactly this sort of reason) physically connected to or proximate with the churches they oversee. It makes no sense to say ‘Give a good example by not going into your second bedroom’ or ‘Don’t go into the shed at the end of your garden during the lockdown.’ If so very many people were aching to get into our church buildings, we would probably have an inkling of it by now.

Second, the Archbishop says, ‘The second reason is that part of the church’s role is to be with people. The church building is a building, the Church is the people of God…’. I struggle to find any coherence to this point. A minister videostreaming from their kitchen is not more ‘with people’ than one streaming from a church. The whole point of the lockdown is to not be with people, and if videostreaming affects that at all, it affects it no differently if done from the setting of a church than of a sitting room. His Grace goes on to say, ‘…when we don’t go to the church building we go back to what we did in the early centuries of the Church and what churches all around the world do at present, which is we meet in homes, just family and household…’. Again, the sense of this eludes me. In the first instance, staying home with our families isn’t what early Christians, or most contemporary Christians, do at all. (Fr Peter Anthony has prepared an informative video talk on the worship life of the early church, for those interested.) I mean Yes, some church groups meet in households — but these are specifically groups coming together from other homes, not the same old residents you eat, sleep, shelter, and shop with. And yet again, if the ‘meeting’ part of the claim means ‘meeting by digital media,’ then it ought to apply equally to church buildings as to walk-in closets. He concludes this thought ‘we use the wonders of technology to be in touch with each other, but we recover the sense that Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name I am there with them.” And they don’t even actually to be physically gathered, virtually gathered does very well indeed. Jesus is quite up-to-date on this stuff.’ As I’ve said three times already (‘What I tell you three times is true’), the whole point of videocasting from a church is to use ‘the wonders of technology’ to make possible a participation in worship that the present pandemic (and the decision of the bishops) makes impossible, wherever the setting of that worship. This is not an argument for closing church buildings; it’s top to bottom a red herring.

Third, Archbishop Justin says ‘it’s about sharing in the inconveniences, the restrictions, the isolations imposed on us.’ I can attest, and I know that many of my clergy siblings can attest, that videorecording oneself without help is not evading an inconvenience, it’s taking on a massive inconvenience. If the Archbishop sets as a goal ‘sharing inconvenience’, then videocasting from a church qualifies in spades. Oh, but also ‘It’s about being part of the flock rather than some super special category that can go and do its own thing.’ Apparently clergy who videocast worship from a church rather than from a box room do so because they perceive themselves to be ‘some super special category,’ ‘doing their own thing.’ (At this point, I cannot help envisioning the late James Brown as a vicar, and honestly I’d be very interested to see him videocast Evensong.) (Yes, I do know that the Isley Brothers made ‘It’s Your Thing’ a hit. I was listening to it on my transistor radio before you were born.) Some people in so speaking would be indulging in a cheap appeal to anticlericalism, but since the Archbishop of Canterbury mustn’t being doing that, he must have some other point in view. I will continue searching for it.

Fourth, ‘we need to remember that the Church of England is the Church for England’; ‘there is the sense you’re there for everyone. And if you’re there for everyone, it means you have to think about everyone. You have to be available in whatever way is best.’ The relevance of this claim to the possibility of videocasting from a church building remains murky. Presumably, he means something along the lines of ‘If people view your videostream and recognise that you’re in a church building, that implies that you are less accessible than if they can tell you’re at home.’ Further, he points out that the NHS has said to stay home — but again, my case rests on the circumstance of a cleric who lives on the grounds already. (There’s a different, and only slightly less compelling, case for clergy who live apart from their church using the church building, but I won’t dilute my point here by introducing that at this stage.) A vicar who videocasts alone from the church is no more or less accessible than is a vicar who videocasts from the sofa, and (in the case in view) no greater a risk to public health, until the NHS insists that nobody go to their garden sheds, or that all should stop exercising altogether.

Finally, ‘it’s not just about us you know, the believers, it’s about everyone, it’s about being welcoming in every way we can.’ I think this implies that videocasting from a church is intrinsically unwelcoming, a claim which if he holds true, will set the cat among the pigeons at Synod, since it would tend to imply that a truly welcoming Church of England must divest itself of all church buildings and operate out of disused warehouses, vacant storefronts, gymnasiums, and off-duty theatres. I think all of these are fine places to worship, by the way, especially if one has no convenient alternative better suited to Christian worship according to the discipline of the Church of England. I would resist the idea, though, that we should auction off St Paul’s in the near future.

Most of what Archbishop Justin said makes much more sense if one adopts an ecclesiology that holds not just that ‘the Church is the people of God’, but that the church better reflects God’s will for the people when they worship in non-specific surroundings. To such an outlook, church buildings truly are an impediment. It must frustrate people greatly that England has so many of them, so conveniently situated, built specifically for the purpose of Christian worship, without which Christian worship might prosper abundantly.

Now, granted all of the above, this is my concluding point: I don’t require (nor would I if I had authority over… well, anything, which I don’t) that Christians who object to church buildings should have to use them, or even feel happy about other people using them. Those who prefer worshipping in gyms should feel entirely free so to do. I’ll defend them with as much breath as I have left after I catch COVID-19 and, I dare hope, recover. Is it too much to ask that those Christians who hold to a carefully developed, longstanding tradition of appreciating churches and cathedrals as settings for Christian worship might be accorded the same encouragement?

Ersatz or Stopgap?

The estimable Revd Dr Canon Alasdair Coles (there should be an ecclesiastical office that confers that ‘estimable’ honorific; perhaps for parish clergy with earned academic doctorates or summat) of All Saints, St Andrews, called my attention to an article on becoming a distributed church without becoming a virtual church, by Bob Hyatt on the website. Bob notes that gathering is one of the vital elements of the church (a legit claim), so that the practice of streaming worship services threatens this essential facet of ecclesiastical life. I suspect that part of his argument rests on an ecclesiology that soft-pedals the role of formal liturgy and sacraments in favour of the Spirit’s empowering presence wherever two or three gather in Jesus’s name.To that extent, we’re on different wavelengths from the start, but it should likewise be noted that (as Metropolitan John Zizioulas has recently reminded us, ‘The church without the Eucharist is not the church’. Both Spirit-gathered ecclesial assemblies and sacramentally-focused liturgical congregations face challenges in the face of a COVID-19 lockdown. (Not that God cannot sustain the Church through such hardships, but that human labour toward cultivating a spirit of fellowship and piety may suffer catastrophic impairment.)

There are people in the Anglican Communion who are more devoted to the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar than I am — but not a very large proportion. It’s precisely because the Eucharist constitutes so crucial a sign and cause of Christian community that I stand very firmly with those who advocate a priest’s ‘solitary’ communion shared with the community by whatever means possible. If that means participating by watching and listening, so be it; I will make my spiritual communion in keeping with what the church teachers. But there’s all the difference in the world between making a spiritual communion when one is kept from the breaking of the bread by compelling circumstance (on one hand) and shrugging, having a lie-in, and tuning in a selected Mass on the telly out of diffidence (on the other).

While the essay from Ecclesianet makes reluctant allowance for the situation I describe, it manifests symptoms of what I have called ‘replacement panic’. That is, it suggests that staying away from church in favour of watching streamed services will become the new normal, just as once people warned that television would kill cinema, home taping would ruin the music business, and e-books would destroy the print publishing economy. I will no more forgo participation in the Mass because I could just watch Fr Damian on Facebook than I would skip visiting my grandson because his father opens up a Facetime chat with us every few days.

But why must we take the streamed-services phenomenon as dangerous, rather than marvelling that despite the comprehensive difference between the experience of going to Solemn High Mass and watching a priest offer the Mass in their drawing-room, people persist in wanting to watch the streamed services (possibly even more than they would have attended)? Isn’t this at least as much a positive sign and an opportunity as it is a cause for hand-wringing? If I am moved to view a streamed service, with only modest musical, visual, olfactory, and sacramental nourishment, how much more likely am i to long for the full Supper?

I’m not so much enthusiastic about streamed worship as I am confident that the reasons people might go to church, might belong to a church, after the plague abates will not differ dramatically from the reasons for going to or belonging to a church did five months ago. Rather than fretting about the makeshifts that help us get along while prohibited from attending, I give thanks that I have so many opportunities to join (to the extent possible) in worship while I await the freedom to meet with my sisters and brothers, to sing, pray, breathe deeply the ceremonial incense, admire the festal vestments, and most importantly to receive the divine nourishment of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Rough Injustice

Several weeks ago, the Executive Board of General Theological Seminary fired eight members of the teaching staff, patently construing their legal work stoppage as “resignation.” Since then the leadership of the Episcopal Church has opted not to intervene (although GTS operates “under the superintendence and control of the General Convention”), and the full Board of Trustees yesterday evidently voted to affirm the dismissal of the eight staff who were exercising their right to seek redress of grievances.

Tom Ferguson of Bexley/Seabury has commented on this in extenso, and I agree with him whole-heartedly. I’d like to add my tuppence on several dimensions of the situation.

As Tom points out, there must be no mistaking what the General Executive Board and Trustees have done: they have publicly and unreservedly acted against the basics of labour law and (specifically) the definitions of academic governance, asserting their lordly prerogative to fire tenured members of the faculty without observing legal process. Even if they imagine they know loopholes through which they might be able to slime their way through this without juridical penalty, the explicit facts remain that the Trustees have taken the teachers’ statement that “We did not resign” and have responded “We accept your resignations.”

This fact alone should depress anyone who cares about labour justice, the Episcopal Church, truthfulness, the integrity of the General trustees, or anything other than investment opportunities in Manhattan real estate. Such as, for instance, the Gospel.

Several things follow from this naked, undisputed fact.

First, if I were a bishop or a Commission on Ministry, there is no way on earth I would let a prospective seminarian near General Seminary. At a moment when the Board most needs a full, active, enthusiastic enrolment, they have sent the message that theirs is a toxic environment in which those who hold power cannot be trusted. If their leadership takes “we do not resign” to mean “we resigned,” what student could trust them when they say “this is confidential” (already one of the background issues in the conflict) or even “this is a fact.”

Second, the Trustees of the seminary seem to have acted to kill the seminary with whose well-being they have been entrusted. Seminary education costs students and dioceses a lot of money; who would gamble such stakes on General’s future? What clear-sighted observer can disagree with Stanley Hauerwas when he says “in some ways what has happened is the death toll of General Seminary” (apart from Stanley’s use of “toll” when he probably wanted “knell”). I’ll bet that the space formerly occupied by General would make a swell headquarters for the Episcopal Church, though, enabling them to sell the skyscraper at 815 Second Avenue.

Third, the administrative style on display in this tragedy coheres with the way leaders in the Episcopal Church have operated with increasing frequency over the past few decades. Everything must reflect orderly “process” when it serves power’s interests, when the outcome is assured, but if “process” would allow the possibility that the wrong people might be allowed a persuasive voice or permitted to initiate a change of direction, then executive action is required! “The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you” — but the contorted use of terms such as “resign,” “renounce,” “abandon” and so on has become standard operating procedure, now more vividly displayed because the targets of such Humpty-Dumptian tactics are not isolated individuals without leverage, or ideologically unwelcome Others, but insiders who have been front-and-centre stars of the Episcopal Church’s self-representation as a haven for progressive, intellectual Christians.

Fourth, this manner of behaviour (it has been said before, but mostly by those outsiders and loners) partakes in no way of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the best one can do is hand-waving about “stewardship,” but it’s a pretty sad statement when the Board opts to exercise benevolent stewardship of the seminary by taking actions that evidently will lead to its demise. Everything Jesus taught militates against this manner of behaviour. The Board willingly, knowingly, went there.

Fifth, this course adopted by the flagship seminary of the Episcopal Church drags all its lofty principles and manifestos into the muck. If General were located in a romantically exotic “foreign” locale, the plight of its academic staff would be just the sort of cause the Episcopal Church would ordinarily take up with fervour; anyone can perceive the self-serving duplicity of supposedly pro-labour, anti-oppression gestures that the church’s privileged leadership might make hereafter. Solidarity with unjustly treated persons is all well and good, so long as privilege still holds its perks.

I’m a contributor to the GTS 8 fundraising support site; I just made my donation, later than I might have, but I wanted to wait until the initial rush was over and till the Board had met and acted. You might also want to offer a hand to people against whom the fickle scythe of passive coercion has turned, who have been turned out of their posts for daring to organise and strike, for presuming to question their executive (surely not their “leader”). If you’re an Episcopalian, you might bear in mind that General Convention is coming up.

Remember Aaron

There’s something serious I’ve been thinking about this week, though I’ve put off writing anything here. Before I say anything further, it’s important that I emphasise that I don’t want either to co-opt Aaron’s death to my purposes, nor to diminish his life and death to an object lesson. My friends who knew and loved Aaron are still staggering from their loss, and from their awareness of our loss — because as David says, Aaron was a builder.

(If you read my blog, and yet haven’t been following the temblor of grief and shock and anger following Aaron Swartz’s prosecution and death, David’s links will start you. If you’re inclined to take the criminal charges against him quite seriously and wonder why such a fuss about an alleged serial felon whom the Secret Service, and the FBI, and the US Attorney’s offices were all investigating, shore up your initial dubiety by reading Orin Kerr’s guarded affirmation of the charges (1, 2) and then read what Larry Lessig (1, 2) and especially Jamie Boyle had to say.)

In the aftermath of Aaron’s funeral and two memorial services, and in conversation with Jay and Will and Rachel, I wonder why I haven’t heard any theological, ecclesiastical, synagogal leaders speaking about Aaron’s struggle against injustice, and the overwhelming stress that seems to have eclipsed his determination. (Hereafter I’ll speak only as a Christian theologian with a technological turn of mind — if my query touches other traditions, that’s incidental to my main interest.)

At a time when there’s a virtual arms race of church leaders trying to redefine their theology and ecclesiology better to fit a series of demographic shifts and cultural transformations, why have I not heard any of the soi-disant pioneers call attention to the tremendous loss to the internet’s future, to the beneficiaries of digital innovation, to the ‘public’ of the public domain? Why have they not soberly and humbly taken up the question of where the churches stand relative to the enclosure of common goods by indefinitely-extended copyright periods? Why have they not, at the very least, reminded their blogging, Facebooking, tweeting, tumbling, pinboarding, SMSing, iPod-listening audience that Aaron was agitating on behalf of the very digital affordances that have made their movements possible?

There was a big Emergent Christianity conference the weekend Aaron died; did any of the speakers mention him (please tell me ‘yes’). There’s been one Sunday already, and today will be another, in which sermons will be preached around a world increasingly closely woven together through protocols and technologies to which Aaron contributed, on which he worked, for which he stood up; has anyone even heard a prayer of intercession on Aaron’s behalf?

The theological ramifications of technology are only just beginning to receive searching theological attention. My colleagues Jana Bennett and Brian Brock have written books about it, Alan Jacobs has been at it for a long time, and I pitched in my essay; but when a force of digital nature (as it were) falls silent, stills, stops, one might anticipate at least a murmur of theological deliberation about what’s at stake, how we cane to this pass, how churches might take a deep breath and rethink their relation to copyright and the commons, to digital technology and the increasing centralisation of digital power (exemplified by the intensification of government authority to examine, collect, and redeploy all manner of digital data from emails to browser histories, without a warrant). Without for a moment minimising other concerns about other dimensions of human well-being — does not this concern touch the lives of far more people than are even inchoately aware of it, who are at risk of being made an example by a zealous investigator or a self-righteous media corporation?

Some of these have been themes of mine for a long time; Jamie Boyle and I met when he introduced a talk I gave five years ago, arguing that the churches should be at the forefront of challenging copyright extension and embracing (free) digital publishing and distribution; Larry Lessig and I met through my initiative to crowd-source an audio version of his book Free Culture nine years ago.. So, sorry if what I say is repetitious and predictable.

But the churches have an intrinsic interest in communication, free communication, profligate communication. That interest is not simply limited to ‘evangelism’, since our faith that all knowledge of the truth is theologically important warrants an unwavering, unflinching commitment to encourage practices of critical deliberation and exploratory reasoning (even when that exploration leads where we would not ourselves go). Few thigns could be more important to the churches than full capacity to communicate online. Heck, denominations and religious cranks used to (and still do) buy and build and maintain television broadcast networks and radio networks, and print publication plants. How can we not be deeply invested in the well-being, the sturdiness of a communication medium ideally suited to the purposes of a non-profit educational communication endeavour such as ours?

And the churches have an essential theological commitment to justice, justice not just for the privileged stockholders and financiers but for the people whose only access to the prerogatives of wealth comes through generosity, sharing, and openness — libraries, clinics, parks, public (and, once upon a time ‘church’) schooling, shelters, soup kitchens, and so on. The churches’ stand on digital freedom owes a preferential option to those with least resources and least access. The enclosure of vast amounts of human knowledge and imagination in dusty reserves, guarded so as to protect that last trickle of royalties to bloated corporations contravenes the ethics of the Torah and the prophets, the teaching of Jesus and Paul.

And the churches have a fundamental commitment to humanness, to compassion. The churches, above all communities, should care when human souls are threatened, overshadowed, brought to the breaking point of desperation — especially when those who threaten, overshadow, and break such souls do so behind the façade of justice. If we continue to serve Jesus’ promise of the fulness of life, or life abundant, of a grace that sustains and nurtures the greatness of human capacities, then the churches have an obligation to stand up and call to account any force that crushes what is most extraordinary, most promising, most ardent in striving for mutual well-being. The premise that runs through the Scriptures proclaimed in synagogue and church day after day holds that God shows no impartiality, and that God in particular does not take the side of wealth, power, impersonal government processes, no matter how pious their professed intention.

If you can read this, and if you have the very least awareness of what Aaron was up to, I hope that you too are wondering why the churches are silent. I hope that perhaps this was just a respectful interval of restraint, allowing a beautiful life of integrity and brilliance and sorrow to hold centre stage for a while — and that soon we hear the churches speaking out thunderously on behalf of the commons, of justice, of human well-being rather than corporate profits. I hope the churches remember Aaron as someone who taught, in so many ways, the kind of example that the churches should be supporting and living up to.

Vital Signs

A couple of my recent ecclesiastical posts have attracted a lot of attention, thanks (on one hand) to the convergence of digital activity around the time of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the USA and related areas (which I’ve dubbed, for shorthand purposes, ‘ECUS&’ — not out of disrespect for the non-USA portions of that body, but because ‘ECUSA’ is inaccurate, as is the grandiose self-designation ‘The Episcopal Church’ [Scotland, then, must not be ‘episcopal’, eh?] — hence, ‘ECUS&’, whose ampersand even looks like an ‘A’), and on the other hand from Kendall Harmon, who is a web traffic titan*, and on yet a third hand (where’s Zaphod Beeblebrox when you need him?) from Twitter. There’s a shared point in both my GenCon and my ‘excellence’ posts that I’ll try to state briefly.
That point is that attendance is not a direct index of anything vital to the church. Sometimes high attendance correlates to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a blessed community’s faithful prayers and praises, but sometimes it’s a sign of cultural habit, sometimes of crass demagogic pandering, sometimes of fortuitous location or pleasant appearance. I’ve known congregations with pretty hollow high attendance figures, and deeply holy congregations where only a few hardy saints worshiped. And just as I wouldn’t want my detractors to gloat if I were responsible for a declining congregation, so I would hope not to snicker and jape at the stumbling of institutions where I’d be unwelcome.
And attendance numbers are fiddly things anyway; anyone who’s been in a sacristy after services may have noticed that clergy sometimes share with fishermen a capacity to see larger than the rest of us. (Put it this brutal way: Does having a liar for a rector make the congregation spiritually healthier? ’Cos it’ll for darn sure improve your attendance numbers.) While attendance statistics are not insignificant, neither are they an immediate cue for ominous staccato violins in the background, nor for raucously exultant fanfares. It’s more complicated than that.
Numbers are not an unambiguous index of spiritual decline, nor of spiritual vitality. The discussion amounts mostly to spin-doctoring, cheerleading, rather than praying, serving, studying, or any other Christian responsibility. Instead of arguing about how reliable the numbers are, and about what they mean, I strongly advise everybody concerned to redouble their commitment to seeking the well-being of their cities; to proclaiming the Word more soundly, persuasively, beautifully; to bearing humble, patient witness to the good news we profess; to costly service to hungry, wounded, outcast strangers and friends. If you spend hours polemicising against your enemies (who nonetheless don’t change their minds), what good have you done?
Pro, con, liberal, conservative, reasserter, reassesser, Episcopalian, Anglican, whoever you are, you have much more important — and more godly — things to do than over-investing in numbers. As Titus 3:9 reminds us, ‘Avoid stupid debates, genealogies, conflicts, and legal squabbles, which are useless and pointless.’


* I just noticed, and I’m impressed, that Kendall serves only one banner ad per page; that’s real restraint, when he could fill wider margins with smaller ads. He’s voluntarily forgoing a decent sum of money, which warrants respect.

This, and This

Here’s a shocking news flash: my boss at the Cathedral and I disagree about things. Shock! Horror! We disagree about things, and we go ahead with life and serving God, and he doesn’t try to stifle me, and I don’t try to undermine him. And as far as I’m concerned, we get along fine.
So I don’t take it for granted that we’ll agree about sermons or liturgy or theology or church life. And when it happens that we do agree, when he knocks it for six, it’s not just cosy log-rolling for me to affirm his point. This morning, Kelvin says what great many people won’t: that excellence and forethought and diligence and attention really do make a tremendous difference in church vitality. If people don’t bother coming to church, it may be that church is giving them no reason to attend.
Now, that requires a few further clarifications. If you love Jesus all the way, you understand that we go to church not just because the choir is good or the preacher is wise or the worship raises your spirits to new heights; we go to church because it’s by faithful participation in the Body of Christ that we renew our sense of who we are, and of what we’re doing here — and by our participation, we encourage others to recognise themselves and their own callings. And there are some circumstances that call for us to withdraw from expressing our commitment to God in church gatherings, but those occasions are always fewer than our moodiness and self-interest incline us to think. So I’m not saying, and I don’t think Kelvin is saying, that the principal reason for going to church is or should be, to appreciate the exquisite production values of a Sunday-morning show of ecclesiastical proficiency.
But if we grant that the Spirit longs for us to draw near with sisters and brothers, and together to bear witness to the truth in ritual and song and speech, we ought every bit as much to acknowledge that it’s fully possible for us to put obstacles between people and the Spirit. Our behaviour — insufferably posh, or self-consciously folksy, or toxically partisan, or explicitly exclusivist, or whatever — can chase people away. Our disregard for our social environment can make it hard for people to get to our threshold (much less to cross it). Our neglect of our own capacities can tempt us to push beyond the bounds of competence into the miasmic swamps of (unaware) mediocrity. Our churches can be positively, effectually repulsive to people, and saying, ‘I guess it’s just the Holy Spirit’s will that they not come’ or ‘It’s just not realistic to expect these people to appreciate…’ or ‘Maybe this new technique will…’ misses a great proportion of the point.
As many of my readers have heard me say before, we don’t hear Bruce Springsteen saying ‘Guess the Holy Spirit doesn’t want people to come to this show’, or ‘It’s just not meant to be’. Springsteen doesn’t implore people to ‘bring a friend to Springsteen’ in order for people to find out that his concerts aren’t as unpleasant as everyone assumes they are. The E Street Band doesn’t hold committee meetings to figure out how to put bums in the pews. The terrific (and long!) profile of Springsteen and the band in the New Yorker underscores the point that being Springsteen is very hard work. Genious, of a kind, but damned hard-working genius, costly, painstaking, and unrelenting. And folks who spurn anything that smacks of ‘performance’ in their worship may roll their eyes (theatrically), but very few congregations work anywhere nearly that hard, that carefully, that thoughtfully, that energetically at raising a joyful sound unto the Lord.
So at the convergence of Kelvin and Bruce… (I’m pausing to let the imagination of that conjunction blossom in your minds)… at the convergence to my boss and The Boss, I propose some hard lessons about church life. One, if your aren’t trying your very hardest, then don’t blame God or the people or the organ or the organist or the choir or the lack of a parking lot or the building or the stifling liturgical tradition or your bishop or synod or presbytery or fellowship or any other person or entity. Start with yourself, demand the utmost of yourself, if for no other reason than that angels and archangels and all the company of heaven are always present, and if your cack-handed liturgical observance and half-baked sermon and torturous musical offering affront those who are always present in the Spirit, then you have no business imagining that those who have the option of skipping out in the flesh will not avail themselves of that opportunity.
Two, if you sense in your circumstances particular limitations — if you know yourself not to be a competent preacher, or if the leadership of the musical element in your worship falls short of pitch-positive, or if the building reverberates, has no sightlines, drops bricks on congregants’ heads once a month, find some way to work with or around those circumstances. Don’t repeat the Charge of the Light Brigade week after week; you don’t have five thousand souls to squander. And by all means don’t pretend there’s no problem, nor spend all day apologising. Grace and humility and imagination and thoughtfulness go a lot further than sheer bloody-minded determination. (Unless ‘determination’ is your spiritual gift, but maybe be sure that’s really the gift rather than a curse.) Kelvin’s column foregrounds ‘cathedrals’, but no one expects a rural parish to reflect all the many dimensions of excellence that a cathedral may; instead, cultivating small excellences, modest beauties, focused brilliances. Here’s a tip: the heart of the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer has served for hundreds of years, in staggeringly diverse cultures; do you really think you’re a better writer? Is your bright idea really that much more relevant, truthful, illuminating than what has been handed down to you? (Obviously non-Episcopal congregations will have different resources for worship, but the premise is the same: get over yourself. You don’t write better drama than Shakespeare, you don’t write better hymnody than Wesley(s), you don’t know Jesus better than the evangelists, and so on.) Small, limited congregations have the opportunity to flourish in ways different from cathedrals — but some modes of excellence will always be available to you. If nothing else comes to mind, try improving yourself, your worship leadership, your preaching, because you can always improve.
Three, encourage excellence where you find it without stirring up needless, empty conflict over ego, turf, credit. If you don’t know, through and through, that positive worship arises from cooperation and teamwork on the part of every participant, you probably don’t adequately understand what’s going on. The more you give away, the more thankful you are for everyone else, the more freely people can size up your contribution. If they join you in applauding the choir, the organist, the office administrator, the ushers, and acolytes, and Altar Guild, the flower arrangers, and the sexton, but it never occurs to anyone to applaud you, there may be a lesson in that.
Four — it is, from beginning to end, a matter of serving God. If you lost sight of that, you’re asking for the demons of egotism, laziness, prejudice, insularity, and narcissism to move in, and your latter state will be worse than the first.
And if hard work, collaboration, selflessness, and thoughtful openness seem unreasonably onerous to you — then I invite you to blame God, and the rest of us will draw our own conclusions.

Pride By Association

One of the majestic blessings of my years studying in Duke’s graduate program came from spending time in seminars, in the grad lounge, and generally to and fro with a great man and a great theologian, Willie Jennings. I don’t think I’ve ever studied with someone alongside whom it was more fun to learn. Whether we agreed or disagreed, I found that the workout of testing ideas in conversation with Willie was always seasoned with generosity, respect, and a manifest sense that each was striving toward a goal we shared.
Willie spent many years working hard in the Duke Divinity School administration, but a few years ago he published The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, a book that Margaret had known to be excited about since she had picked up the hints and clues about it from Willie while she was studying for her doctorate, and on publication Willie’s book won the 2011 American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in the Constructive-Reflective Study of Religion. When I had the chance to teach at Duke for a year, it was great to work alongside Willie again.
So when Mary posted videos of Willie’s lecture and Q-and-A at Luther Seminary last year, I rushed to check them out. They‘re long, but Willie’s a terrific lecturer, and it’s well worth it to learn from a first-class theologian whose brilliance — and especially, whose friendship — helps me understand how to think better and how to be better.


Come Now, Let Us Reason Together

In the aftermath of the Episcopal Church (USetc)’s General Convention, there’s been a flurry of breast-beating, moaning, finger-pointing, boasting, and other edifying demonstrations of ecclesiastical vitality (or not) in the various social media sites. So far, my favourite has been George Conger’s riposte to the Wall Street Journal’s slimy mendacity about General Convention, since Conger is by no means carrying water for the ECUS& establishment. But no sooner had most readers agreed that you get what Rupert Murdoch pays for when you read a financial red-top, than Ross Douthat stirred things up again by musing that (with specific attention to the Episcopal Church (US&) ) ‘liberal Christianity’ might not be able to survive; and then my grad-school classmate Diana Butler Bass parried that without liberal Christianity, the whole enterprise might not survive. Add in all the various supporters and detractors, and one can sympathise with Rachel Held Evans’s plea that people remember that not everyone has to belong to a partisan ‘side’.
As an observer, it seems that several points are being bandied about as though they all lined up tidily to separate sheep from goats. It ain’t necessarily so.
First, let’s please stop treating attendance statistics as simple indicators. They’re not by any means irrelevant, not a bit, but if I had a savings account, I’d bet a sizable portion of it that you could shift those attendance figures considerably just by making clergy into better preachers. Regardless of whether they’re preaching the true gospel, a false gospel, justice and equality, holiness and traditional sanctity, one can almost certainly improve attendance by recruiting and training better preachers. So if all you want to do is boost your attendance statistics, there’s a (non-partisan) way to increase attendance. Of course, that also suggests that attendance per se isn’t a very revealing test — but tackling the preaching deficit might enable you to game the system and claim something about your parish, or your side, or whatever.
Second, the rush toward cheerleading for one side and finger-wagging at the other side underscores a different problem (again, for any ‘side’). Rather than upholding deliberation, humility, respect for difference, and determination to seek truth and to support desperately needy, injured, oppressed people, a very great many people opt to stand on sidelines waving pom-poms for one side and taunting the other side.
Third, contra Ross Douthat, liberals have been doing theology over the past decades. But pro Douthat, that theological reflection has tended to allow itself to drift increasingly from points of orientation by which Christian faith can readily be distinguished from cultural humanism. So on one hand, it boots not to say ‘You haven’t done your homework!’ nor to respond ‘Oh yes we have!’ Douthat reasonably asserts that ‘liberals’ tend to relax their allegiance to the discrimen (‘a configuration of criteria…’) by which one recognises sound Christian teaching; and responses to Douthat say “Captivity to tradition is the problem!’ — but that’s not an argument against Douthat’s concern that ‘liberals’ don’t hew close to the Christian doctrinal tradition, it’s an affirmation of it.
Fourth, neither ‘we have to update doctrine’ nor ‘we mustn’t change anything’ bears a demonstrable causal relation to attendance numbers. You can sell people bottled tap water, my friends; you could fill a church with fiery social activists, or you could fill a church with entrenched doctrinaires, but neither proves anything about what the gospel is or should be — any more than the popularity of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted shows that it’s a better film than Moonrise Kingdom. You can’t prove church teaching with attendance numbers, can’t, can’t, can’t. (I will offer a tip: the New Testament, if one still regards that as relevant, offers several lists of characteristics by which to identify the presence and effects of the Spirit. ‘Big attendance numbers’ doesn’t appear on any of those lists.)
Fifth, as a Christian theologian, I believe that the soundness of theological teaching does indeed manifest itself over the long run. That doesn’t imply that the churches should teach only what has been handed down from long ago; the church has changed its mind, and the church has erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith. There is no way to guarantee that you’re not off-base. On the other and, if you adhere to what millennia of the saints have taught and believed, you’re a least somewhat less likely to be found in error than if you decide that you’re going to think it all up on your own, taking as fundamental a set of political and philosophical ideas developed over the last couple hundred years. The Enlightenment wasn’t A Bad Thing, but neither was it the dawning of the messianic era. If there’s something you want to identify with Jesus, or Christianity, then your argument is stronger if you can actually give numerous reasons for making that identification; and the more such reasons that you can provide, the stronger the theological argument. And if you want to repudiate a great deal of what is plausibly associated with Jesus and Christianity, it’s not unreasonable for people to question the extent to which your enterprise is still ‘Christian’.
I won’t set myself up as a prophet who speaks God’s mind and adjudicates conflicts among ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ relative to the vitality of churches. On strictly secular grounds, though, I can assure people who laud shallow theology and deprecate reasonable criticism that they’re selling sackcloth as silk, and that’s not a recipe for long-term viability. It’s not a family trade you want to hand down to your children. Cheerleading and finger-wagging help you sort out who’s on your side and who’s not, they make for great pep rallies, but they don’t obviate the need to do something wisely and well.

On Death, Part 3

To summarise the New Testament understanding of death, then: Death constitutes both an inevitable element of temporal life (life according to the flesh), and a representative figure for all the characteristics of temporal, physical life. Thus Death bears a defining connections to sin, not necessarily because sin causes death, but because both sin and death are universally manifest in temporal life. Everybody dies, and nobody’s perfect.*
(The topic of ‘justification by faith’ matters so much for the Apostle Paul because it touches on the magnitude of God’s merciful grace; that for which an even-steven exchange is made, that which we can claim as our due, has nothing to do with grace. And by this logic, any effort we make to shore up our standing before God amounts to a repudiation of God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, and even Christ’s self-giving on the cross. Thus, necessarily, self-justification collaborates with Death. All share in lives coloured by sin; none of us can lay claim to attainments that would suffice to exculpate ourselves, and the persistent temptation to immunise ourselves to any possible criticism enmeshes us, once again, in the snares of Death.)

As such, Death is both integral to the fullness of (temporal) humanity, and is an adversary, since it represents an unnecessary Iimitation. Death ‘wants’ to finalise our separation from God; it has never been able to do so, and in laying claim to the life of Jesus, Death over-reached and its power was broken by the inextinguishable life of Jesus; though its power has not vanished, from the Mount of the Resurrection we can see Death’s brittleness. Strengthened by Christ’s encouragement and sustained by the Holy Spirit, we can outwait death.

Excursus on Suicide: The Bible expresses no explicit deprecation of suicide at any point. When the Bible narrates the deaths of Abimelech (an ‘assisted death’, since the wounded leader demanded that his armour-bearer kill him), Saul, Saul’s armour-bearer, Ahitophel, Zimri, and (arguably) Samson die, the narrator betrays no sign that their self-determined deaths warrant criticism. Judas’s suicide (in Matthew’s version of the story — Luke simply has him stumble and explode) likewise receives no criticism. All these, it should be noted, kill themselves under circumstances when they can not take life after death (and judgment) as given aspects of their faith in the God of Israel; they are hastening their departure to Sheol, but they do not seem to be transgressing the Torah.** When Paul ponders his ‘desire to depart and be with Christ’, he stops not because suicide would be a sin, but because he may still do some good for the Philippians. Paul’s case stands out because of his invocation of the topics of resurrection and judgment; were he to have known that suicide would bar him from entering the kingdom of heaven, it would seem exceptionally peculiar that he not acknowledge it. To this extent, then, the evidence of the Bible suggests no opprobrium to suicide or to assisted suicide.
To what does all this add up, with regard to a biblical practice of the ars moriendi?
First, that although the Christian hope affirms that Death has been broken, yet Death persists as an element in every human life. Death is not a failure of discipleship, nor an unjust imposition. We rightly grieve at death, for we who remain are the poorer without our brothers’ and sisters’ presence among us. This grief, however, takes its place within a broader frame in which death does not bring our relationships to a terminus, but interrupts what will be rewoven. Indeed, unwelcome as a person’s death itself may be, it marks the hinge which opens onto the fulness of life in God’s presence, which we confidently hope to share. We live in Death’s shadow with mindfulness, but without fretfulness; with earnestness, but not without joy.
The inevitability of death does not justify carelessness in how one lives. We will be held accountable for the use to which we put our days and nights, as for our wealth, strength, intelligence, and other resources. A biblical ars moriendi rejoices in the on-going opportunity to shape lives that bespeak Christ’s grace, and accepts the limitation on this opportunity.
While the Bible offers various characterisations of what will ensue after death, we have good reason not to take any of them as precise specifications of Heaven, or Hell, or any other state. The sheer diversity of those accounts militates against supposing any one of them is more concretely applicable than others. We are promised that resurrection life is in some sense bodily, but ‘bodily’ in a sense we cannot yet ascertain. We have been taught those who have understood and sought God’s approval will flourish, and those who defy the ways of life, of truth, of grace and hope will subsist in their alienation from divine blessings. Whatever pictures one associates with those assurances, they suffice to underscore the worth of directing our lives toward a death congruent with our affirmations and our hope.
We may sum up a biblical ars moriendi as the enacted acceptance of unearned justification. We practise hopeful generosity, and renounce the fearfulness that withholds trust from God; we practise humility, and renounce the presumption that we have escaped the effects of mortal limitations on our understanding; we practise solidarity with the breadth of our sisters and brothers, and renounce the enmity that strives to separates us from one another. In harmonious unity, disinterested respect for others, and confident grace we adorn lives given for God’s glory, and accept death as a completion of that offering.


* Whatever one may think of the Augustinian tradition of binding ‘original sin’ to biology, to Adam’s primal transgression, and so on, he must be correct to insist that it’s futile and a distraction to look for some point in time at which an infant first becomes subject to sin. Sure, cute li’l babies don’t belong to the same category as remorseless self-serving financiers in a certain sense — but all babies are mortal, all babies will sin sooner or later, hence we may say with justification that all humans are subject to sin. Slice the problem some other way if you want to avoid the bugaboo of original sin, but I’m not sure there’s an intelligible way to parse temporal human-ness apart from mortality and sin.
** On the other hand, it should be noted that despite the abundance of crimes and misdemeanours set forth in the Old Testament, only rarely does anyone invoke the Torah explicitly as a criterion for distinguishing good from bad, mitzvah from averah; an argument from silence relative to the Torah’s apparent toleration of suicide requires support from positive evidence.

On Orders and Renunciation

In a curious development pertinent to my recent post about being obliged to ‘renounce my orders’ so as to serve in a different province of the Anglican Communion, the House of Bishops of the Province de l’Église Anglicane au Rwanda has had to instruct some its member bishops about orders and jurisdiction as well, though apparently with different terminology.
For the benefit of anyone who’s interested by the topic, but unfamiliar with the current state of play among Episcopalians/Anglicans around the world: some US Episcopalians are disaffected because of doctrinal/disciplinary matters in the US Episcopal Church (most prominently involving sexuality), such that they no longer can acknowledge the spiritual authority of bishops whose teachings and practice seem (to these disaffected Episcopalians) to fall culpably short of the standards for bishops. Some clergy among these US Episcopalians have been consecrated bishops by the Rwandan province, so that they can minister as bishops to other alienated US Episcopalians. A number of these Rwandan-US bishops recently withdrew from the authority of the Rwandan Anglican Church (for reasons to which I am not privy).
Now, I read that on 29 March, the Rwandan House of Bishops has advised these (separated) missionary bishops that

there are only three ways that we may “release” clergy affiliated with us:
1. By transferring them to another jurisdiction within the Anglican Communion;
2. By their voluntary renunciation of orders;
3. By formal ecclesiastical discipline.


So, at least in Rwanda’s understanding of canon law, ‘renouncing orders’ is categorically different from ‘transferring to another jurisdiction within the Anglican Communion’.
Obviously Rwandan canons don’t affect the canon law or interpretation of the US Episcopal Church — but this interpretation of ‘orders’ and ‘transferring’ appears to make more sense. The bishops in question must (on this interpretation — I’m not arguing anything about their side of the disagreement) have a canonical relationship with one or another Anglican province, but that’s a separate question from whether their orders as bishops are valid. If on the other hand they have no relationship to another recognised Anglican body, the status of their request to withdraw from the Rwandan Church is canonically intelligible only as a request to be removed from the roll of actual bishops. If my situation were interpreted on this basis, we would say that I wish to move (‘transfer’) my vows of obedience and allegiance to the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway and the Scottish Episcopal Church — not to renounce my orders altogether.
If I understand the interpretation of canon law from the US Episcopal hierarchy, my priesthood is not in question — they’re interpreting my ‘orders’ as sort of ‘the ordered relationship that binds me to my bishop and the doctrine, disciple, and whatever of this [US Episcopal] Church’. On their account, then, it would be possible for me to maintain my ordained status without having a canonical relationship with a particular Church (and, by extension, so would the US-Rwandan bishops, if in fact the US Episcopal Church recognised their episcopal orders in the first place) — though I would not be authorised by any Church to exercise that priesthood. The Rwandan interpretation (again, if I understand it correctly) is that apart from a relationship with a particular Church, the idea of ‘orders’ is incoherent; the validity of orders depends on a living relationship of authority and accountability with a Church.
Of these two, I had been operating on premises closer to those expressed by the Rwandan bishops than those I’ve been instructed to observe by the relevant US authorities. I see elements of soundness in each. Ordination confers a grace that isn’t itself dependent on temporal authorities, or geography; but on the other hand, ‘orders’ outwith a relationship to a Church are gravely problematic.
I’m not usually very interested by canon law — but these developments point toward intriguing theological and political (in the sense of ‘church polity’) nuances. In all of this, I emphasise that I’m cooperating with my understanding of US policy, not repudiating anybody’s authority or rebelling against them. “Dissenting about what I think is a good idea’, maybe; but not rebelling or repudiating.