The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, December 29, 2007

St. Thomas Becket's Day

When I was a teenager, I first saw the film Becket (on cable, I hasten to add) and was bowled over by the conflict between two friends divided by their best selves--Becket's duty to his Church, Henry's to the political role of King. In the film, their flaws unite them--Henry's wenching and drinking, Becket's collaboration with the Normans in their oppression of his Saxon people.

Of course, Jean Anouilh didn't get his facts at all right--Becket was not a Saxon as depicted, but a Norman, and a member of the prosperous middle class. But the archetypical conflict drew me to the story, and while I was impressed by both characters, I found myself sympathising more with Henry, whose pain at the dissolution of his closest friendship was so well played by O'Toole.

Imagine my surprise when, years later, I found out that one of the most pressing grounds for the conflict between Becket and Henrywas the treatment of "criminous clergy" who committed offenses against the laity; in the face of years of inaction by the ecclesiastical authorities, Henry wanted the right to try such clerics in the secular courts.

There was much more to it than that, of course. The real Thomas Becket may have been headstrong and arrogant, but he was also seeking to preserve the institution of the Church as it was entrusted to him, and to resist a King who was re-making the political institutions of his day and centralizing power in the King's person.

As to Becket's murder, the King's role in it has always been sharply disputed--the authenticity and meaning of the infamous quotation, "will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" have been debated for centuries. (An excellent account is contained in W.L. Warren's biography, Henry II).

What cannot be doubted is Becket's courage, and his fidelity to his vision of the Church. That it is a vision that is now very alien to us should not lead us to lose sight of those values. The reality may be less romantic than the movie; it's not less moving.

Friday, December 28, 2007

On Christmas day in the Morning

Further developments at St. Nicholas's Mission in Atwater. As reported by Father Jake, on Christmas Morning, the following was received at St. Nicholas's:
Dear Jo and Deacon Buck,

The attached document is the letter notifying Fr. Risard that his deployment at St. Nicholas is now over. We wish you to know that the Bishop and the Diocese are fully behind the continuation of your church in Atwater and will do all that we are able to support you during this transition.

There are many details to take care of, and many questions which you probably have for the Bishop or me.

The most important Directions from the Bishop to accomplish immediately include:

Change the exterior locks immediately, including the interior lock to the priest's offices and any file cabinets.

Retrieve the bank statements of any accounts that Fr. Risard had signature authority to: the discretionary account, and any other accounts.

Notify me of any minutes from past Bishop's Committee meetings for the past three months and forward them to me. This is especially important if there are commitments made to Mr. Michael Glass, an attorney referenced in the letter of Fr. Risard to the Bishop.

We will assume that the Deacon will be able to lead worship for a short period of time, especially this next Sunday. Reserved sacrament will be provided by the Rural Dean, Fr. Ron Parry, or by me if necessary.

Our prayers are with you during this time of transition.

Yours faithfully,
The Rev. Canon Bill Gandenberger
Now that's the Christmas spirit! Not enough to announce the termination of the priest, the reduction of services and the essential elimination of the mission two days before Christmas, let's cast an even greater pall over the Christmas Day services themselves, eh, John-David?

What was it Tertullian identified as the distinguishing feature of Christians even in the eyes of disapproving Roman society? "See how they love one another." Hardly in evidence, here--I'm an experienced litigator, and have seen timing of letters and documents as a ploy, but this takes my breath away. To put it with more charity than is probably reasonable, Schofield's unrestricted warfare against the public dissenters whose conscience he claimed that he would respect--"no one is being asked to act against his conscience," after all--gravely undermines any claims that he has to act as a Christian leader.

His actions have further deepened the rancor between factions in the Church; to take but one example, The Anglican Scotist, who previously praised the "surprisingly irenic tone" of Schofield's response to the Presiding Bishop, now understandably laments that "Schofield ... made an utter fool of me." (He didn't, Scotist; you're still one of the best. Your take on this story manages to go beyond passion and to tease out the theological dangers revealed by Schofield's action).

Interestingly, the "reasserter" blogs have been silent about this; as chronicled by the tireless Father Jake, neither Kendall Harmon nor Stand Firm have addressed it--indeed, SF, as above linked, deleted a post on this story from what it called an "open thread" asking for "the most outrageous Episcopal stories of 2007," only to have a commenter declare it "[i]nteresting that not one of the revisionistas has posted on this particular thread." Similarly, on another thread, SF cut at least 8 comments on this matter, and subsequently banned the commenter.

At a minimum, the "reasserters" seem aware that this action casts them and their cause in a revealing, and unpleasing, light. And, I would argue, this profoundly unchristian course of conduct--even if you agree with Schofield that he is still entitled to exercise authority over what was, after all, founded as a mission of TEC, he's violating the standard he set for himself, and punishing the parishoners for the dissent of their vicar--and all this on Christmas Day!--is consistent with the authoritarianism and self-righteousness displayed by other prominent "reasserters." To take an example I've quoted before, it's of a piece with Archbishop Akinola's official support for legal persecution of gays, lesbians and those who support their civil rights, and his astonishment that a gay man would dare shake his holy hand, which I would call quite literally pharisaical, except it gives the pharisees a bad rap. And the "burying the lede" by our "Worthy Opponents" (as they like to style us)? Rather like Martyn Minns's bland denial that Akinola is "an advocate of jailing gays" which was neatly bracketed--both before and after--by official written statements by Akinola advocating passage of a law which would do just that.

The plating is wearing through, revealing the base metal beneath.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Light of the World

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

(Jn. 1:1-14).

My oft-referred to hero, W. R. Inge, called St. John's Gospel "the charter of Christian Mysticism" in chapter 2 of his masterwork; Archbishop William Temple, another of my heroes, in his Readings in St. John's Gospel (1945), adamantly denied any mystical component to this Gospel. Years ago, at the Church of the Transfiguration, I hears a sermon about this "Logos Hymn" which sought to tie these views together, as a paen to the wonder--and reality--of the Incarnation.

However you see it, may the Light of the World shine for you and yours this Christmas.

(Photo: The Rose Window, St Bartholomew's Church, NYC, by David Shankbone)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Straining at Gnats...

Really, the current state of the Anglican Communion can be quite depressing. Take the little matter of Archbishop Akinola's Christmas Message:
The incarnation is the divine condescension. The birth of Christ which we celebrate is the decisive divine intervention into human history. By it, history is measured and judged. Before the birth of Christ, all of history is categorized as era ‘Before Christ’ (B.C.) and since then, we have been in the era of ‘the year of Our Lord’ (anno domini, A.D.)

Efforts to turn Christmas into a mere holiday season continue unabated all around us. ‘Christmas Greetings’ are replaced with ‘Season Greetings’ as if it possible to have a Christmas without Christ. ‘B.C.’ and ‘A.D’ are changed to ‘B.C.E.’ (Before Common Era), and ‘C.E’ (Common Era) all in an attempt to conceal the fact that Jesus came to save an erring world from sin and eternal condemnation

Leave aside the question of truthfulness (Archbishop? You are aware, aren't you, that people other than Christians write history? And that Jews, in particular, who have been the victims of centuries of persecution by Christians might not dig having to acknowledge Jesus's Lordship by giving a date? And that the "common era", previously known as the "vulgar era", dates back to 1617, and is therefore not some po mo plot to discredit Jesus?), it's the lack of perspective that stuns. Nigeria is roiled with corruption and human rights violations. The Church is proudly leading the charge to strip away legal rights from gays , lesbians and those who believe in their rights to free expression, while invading the United States to sycophantic coos of delight from those who prefer to blink at the violation of human rights, as set out in the Windsor Report, that it fosters. So, what weighty, spiritual insights does he come out with? A rehash of Bill O'Reilly's greatest fits. There's your spiritual leader, CANA. Be proud! And, sadly, judging from the comments, they are.

Meanwhile, as reported by Father Jake, Jean-David Schofield (does a bishop who defects get to keep his title?), attended at the TEC-loyal mission church of St. Nicholas, in Atwater, California. He was allowed by the vicar to preach and to preside over the service, despite previous correspondence between the vicar, Father Fred Risard, and Schofield. Then, two days before Christmas, in front of all the parishoners, Schofield, who came accompanied by leather-jacketed bodyguards, gave the congregation their Christmas gift a little early:
At the end of the service, the Bishop stood up and said he had not come to St. Nicholas to fire Fr. Risard or close down St. Nicholas, and then he proceeded to do just that. He said that because of declining attendance at St. Nicholas, he could only afford to send them a supply priest "occasionally". What will happen to Fr. Risard was left unspecified. Fr. Risard then stood up and gave an eloquent denunciation of John David and his policies.
I'm sure the children, in particular, were edified by this demonstration of christian spirit just before the holiday.

Fairness compels me to note that I have seen no commentary on this act of prelatical cruelty from the "reasserting" blogs yet--perhaps even they find it distasteful. But this act, combined with the "reasserters" embrace of Akinola, make clear their priorities: power, vindictiveness and suppression of all contrary views--all in the name of the Price of Peace, who will, I suspect, want to return this noxious birthday gift.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

'Tis the Season for Mariology?

Oh, as usual, dear. The Archbishop of Canterbury has pointed out the lack of scriptural foundation for much of the Christmas Story as popularly retold, and in so doing has expressed some hesitation regarding the historicity of the Virgin Birth, and of its doctrinal importance:
He said he was committed to belief in the Virgin Birth “as part of what I have inherited”. But belief in the Virgin Birth should not be a “hurdle” over which new Christians had to jump before they were accepted.

He hinted that decades ago he was not “too fussed” with the literal truth of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. But as time went on, he developed a “deeper sense” of what the Virgin Birth was all about.
The result? Consternation in the Conservative Anglican section of the blogosphere (especially in the comments).

To which I have to ask: Are you folks kidding me?

Let me quote Bishop N.T. Wright, who himself believes in the account of the virginal conception as a matter of faith, but acknowledges that it must, from a historical perspective, be placed in a "suspense account":
No one can prove, historically, that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. No one can prove, historically, that she wasn't. Science studies the repeatable; history bumps its nose against the unrepeatable. If the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two of Luke had never existed, I do not suppose that my own Christian faith, or that of the church to which I belong, would have been very different.
Roman Catholic historian Fr. John P. Meier, in volume 1 of his study A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991) at 220-222, punts, and comes to an entirely equivocal conclusion, that the virginal conception of Jesus is simply not susceptible to historical analysis, but turns rather on one's faith committments.

Father Meier, in particular, points out that the scriptural term translated "virgin" does not in fact carry the meaning in either Greek (Matthew and Luke)nor Hebrew (Isaiah) of one who has not yet had sexual intercourse. Like Wright, he points to conflicting texts, connotations and denotations of words, and the analogous stories of divine conception of emperors and heroes--and, rather more so than Wright, leaves these conflicts unresolved. (UPDATE: I am reminded by a commenter on Stand Firm of Raymond Brown's excellent study The Birth of the Messiah (1979) which likewise is inconclusive on the subject of historicity, but defends the tradition on theological grounds).

This position is hardly a new one; although Bishop Gore in his Dissertations (1895) mounts a theological and historical defense of the doctrine, the fact that he spent over sixty pages on it, and ends by adverting to the harm to the Church's teaching authority if so fundamental a creedal statement comes into general disbelief, illustrates how besieged Bishop Gore clearly feels on this point. (This is not to say that Bishop Gore's arguments are all at that level, or indeed that he is not persuasive on the questions of theological purpose to the doctrine. In fact, his views are not radically unlike those of Bishop Wright here, and, to the extent he relies on tradition and theology to justify his retention of the doctrine, Williams's views are a diluted version of a portion of those of Bishop Gore).

In other words, as the normally conservative Ruth Gledhill herself notes in the article summarizing Abp. William's interview,
Dr Williams was not saying anything that is not taught as a matter of course in even the most conservative theological colleges. His supporters would argue that it is a sign of a true man of faith that he can hold on to an orthodox faith while permitting honest intellectual scrutiny of fundamental biblical texts.
I think that Gledhill is clearly correct here--and that the heated response to Williams's comments is informative about the state of conservative Anglican thought today--reflexive, suspicious, close-minded, and profoundly out of touch with the Anglican tradition.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Limits of Anglo-Catholic Ecclesiology?

So, like everyone else in the Anglican blogosphere, I have been musing over the Archishop of Canterbury's Advent Letter, in which he addresses, at long last, the ongoing schism.

My first reaction to the letter was that it was a "plague o' both your houses" letter. Certainly it has David Anderson frothing at the mouth (TEC is "pharoah" and "going to hell"; the Archbishop speaks only "for the dead and dying Anglicanism"). On the other hand, TEC and TEC alone--and Bishop Gene Robinson--are singled out by name for strong censure, while the Windsor Report--and the "Windsor Bishops"--are valorized. Moreover, as Father Jake emphasized, the Anglican Covenant are very much front and center in this letter. A disturbing note in the letter is, as Father Jake also aptly notes, struck by Williams's reference to the "Anglican Church" in one place is very, very odd.

I can't help but wonder if this last isn't a reflection of Williams's Anglo-Catholicism, and if so, it would point to a problem for me in the direction he seeks to take Anglo-Catholicism. If Williams sees the Communion as one "catholic church", and not a family of separate churches, each held together by bonds of sympathy, this might explain why he seems so keen on the proposed Anglican Covenant. the Archbishop could, under this theory, actively desire to see the rise of a magisterial body out of the Primates, and view this as a natural and proper evolution of the Anglican Communion, into a single Church in name and fact, which would parallel the structure of the Roman Catholic Church, but hold a wider variety of views within it.

If so, then the Archbishop might be prepared to let gays and lesbians pay the cost of obtaining the accession of the "reasserters" (many of whom are more akin to congregationalists) to such a structure, which will gain them doctrinal conformity.

As for me, I have found a home in the Anglican variant of catholic thinking precisely because it divorced the benefits of Catholic sacramentalism, mysticism, and liturgy from the authoritarianism of Rome. Perhaps Williams is less fond of that separation than am I, and perhaps he hopes to take Anglo-Catholicism in a new--that is to say, very old--direction.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Good Cause Alert!

After the purported secession of the Diocese of San Joaquin, the faithful remnant of parishes loyal to TEC can use all the support they can get.

Visit Remain Episcopal. Send them a message of support in this time of schism. If you can afford to, consider donating. Above all, keep them in your prayers.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

PSA: An Amateur Analysis

As I recently mentioned, I'm not a believer in the theory of the Atonement commonly known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement ("PSA"). Now there are many forms of this doctrine, some of which even noted evangelical scholar J.I. Packer has called "crude," and addressing such a form of the doctrine is taking on a venerable part of tradition (dating to St. Anselm) only at its weakest--it's setting up a straw man. So, in the interest of fairness and intellectual honesty, let me use Packer's own statement, from his 1973 Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, "What Did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution," linked above. In his lecture, after a careful and scholarly exegesis of biblical and traditional sources of the doctrine, Packer proposes his own statement of the doctrine:
The ingredients in the evangelical model of penal substitution are now, I believe, all before us, along with the task it performs. It embodies and expresses insights about the cross which are basic to personal religion, and which I therefore state in personal terms, as follows:

(1) God, in Denney’s phrase, ‘condones nothing’, but judges all sin as it deserves: which Scripture affirms, and my conscience confirms, to be right.

(2) My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God’s presence (conscience also confirms this), and nothing I do can blot them out.

(3) The penalty due to me for my sins, whatever it was, was paid for me by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in his death on the cross.

(4) Because this is so, I through faith in him am made ‘the righteousness of God in him’, i.e. I am justified; pardon, acceptance and sonship become mine.

(5) Christ’s death for me is my sole ground of hope before God. ‘If he fulfilled not justice, I must; if he underwent not wrath, I must to eternity.’

(6) My faith in Christ is God’s own gift to me, given in virtue of Christ’s death for me: i.e. the cross procured it.

(7) Christ’s death for me guarantees my preservation to glory.

(8) Christ’s death for me is the measure and pledge of the love of the Father and the Son to me.

(9) Christ’s death for me calls and constrains me to trust, to worship, to love and to serve.

Thus we see what, according to this model, the cross achieved and achieves.
Packer's summation is admirable in that it reflects a nuanced, thoughtful exploration of Biblical text as understood throughout the Protestant tradition, and even invokes the Catholic tradition as well (Anselm over Abelard). He helpfully notes that the alternative meanings of the Cross (particularly the "moral theory") does not contradict PSA, that those meanings are all valid and contain truth. Despite these nuances, in my opinion, Packer's view underplays the Biblical theme of our "sonship" (sorry for the sexist terminology, but I'm quoting Henry Scott Holland's essay "Faith" from Lux Mundi). This theme, as explicated by Jesus himself, and consistent with the Book of Genesis, suggests that PSA rests upon too stark a vision of God's forgiveness and emphasizes human depravity over our status as children of God.

God as Parent

The central point of Holland's essay is that we can have faith in God because of the personal experience of relatedness to God that stems from cultivation of the spritual life. He described this as "sonship" and points to our feeling that Creation, in some manner, is ours as much as we are its. We feel privileged as heirs, not merely living by sufferance.

Biblically, of course, this concept derives from several statements of Jesus. John 1:12, and 10:34 depict him as describing his followers and Israel as "children of God" (or "sons of God," depending on translation). Jesus is, in Jn. 10:34, quoting the characterization of Israel from Ps.82:6. Similar statements can be found in Phillipians 2:15 and 1 Jn.2:1-2.

But I think the most telling statement is not a reference but an explication from Matthew 7:7-12:
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?
Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets
See also Luke 11:9-13.

Moreover, in the Old Testament, God is depicted as not delighting in sacrifice, but in loyalty. Hosea 6:6; Ps. 51:16. In Genesis, of course, God intervenes before the sacrifice of Isaac.

And, of course, John 3:16: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish..."

Now these biblical texts do not, of course, disprove PSA--indeed, John 3:16 is deployed by Packer in support of it. But they do establish certain aspects of God and our relationship with Him that are central to Christian thinking:

1. We are called to be children of God;
2. God's love for us is like that of a parent to a child--only far more so--more pure, more giving, more generous;
3. God does not value sacrifice or pain for their own sake.

Packer's Assertions in the Light of Holland's Notion of "Sonship"

Moving on to Packer's nine-point summary of PSA, let's look at several of his points in the light of what we can glean about our relationship with God, from Scripture and relation as emphasized by Holland.

1. "God Condones Nothing and Judges Sin as it Deserves" Undoubtedly true. However, condonation and forgiveness are not the same. Forgiveness includes judgment, and can only happen after judgment that there is something to forgive. This is, if I may draw upon my legal studies, where many who write on retributive justice go astray: retributive justice does not merely provide a substitute for private vengeance; it rather represents an assay by the community of the weight of the transgressor's offense--an assessment of the scope of the infringement of the community's norms. That assessment is far different and distinct from the question of deciding what, if any, punishment should be inflicted upon the offender. Indeed, even in the criminal justice system, in rare but compelling cases, even serious crimes may be so judged but nonetheless deemed to warrant no punishment.

Theologically, we are told by Jesus again and again to forgive--seventy times seven times--and to not arrogate to ourselves judgment. Matt. 18:22. Indeed, we are incentivized to refrain from judgment of others by the warning that we shall be judged by our own measure. Matt. 7:1.

So, while I agree with this point, I do not see it as particularly supporting PSA.

2. "My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God’s presence"

Well, this is the big step, isn't it? Let's think about this, though. Do the sins of mankind merit "ultimate penal suffering"? Well, if we're acknowledging that even the best of us is in need of God's salvific love, I'm on board. If we're saying that even those who devote themselves to Christ's service for a lifetime in humility somehow are as undeserving of God's love as the worst of humanity--that there's a moral equivalence between Vlad the Impaler and Mother Theresa--and that finite sins deserve eternal punishment--I have to say, that sounds to me a tad much. In jurisprudence, there's a concept called proportionality", which states that punishment in excess of crime is unjust. If we, who are fallen, can see this and moderate our flawed justice systems accordingly, isn't it arrogant presumption to believe our heavenly father is blind to such justice? At some point, even a weighty debt is, in justice, repaid. Is God who in Exodus 21:23-27, enunciated a doctrine of proportionality, blind to it Himself?

To accept this step, you must agree that, in the words of
Jonathan Edwards, "God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire." God abhors his children? That flouts Jesus's own words that we are as children to God--erring children, no doubt, sometimes even very wicked children--but if you have, as I have, condoled with a parent whose child has been convicted of a grevous criminal offense, and who knows that that child is guilty, you would know that the word "abhor" is not applicable. Love never dies--not a parent's, and, by Jesus's own express analogy, not God's.

3. "The penalty due to me...was paid for me by Jesus Christ on the Cross"

There's a lot of truth in this--and yet, I think that the metaphor of Christ the Lamb sacrificed at Passover has been overly literalized as deployed here. Also, doesn't this endorse the rather chilling words of Caiaphas in Jn. 11:50 that "it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not"? PSA here actually places God in a position that is less forgiving than we, his children, are told to be--we are told to forgive wrongs without payment, to carry the burden two miles when forced to carry it one, and to turn the other cheek rather than to return a blow. But God requires payment? But our Father is, we are told, more, not less, giving than we are capable of being.

Again, as a metaphor, it's powerful and conveys much truth--that if we do not take up our Cross, and follow Jesus, dying to ourselves to live in Christ, to borrow from St. Paul, we cannot fulfill our destinies as children of God. As a literal truth--dubious, I think, at best.

4. Justification By Faith: Agreed, but see 3 above.

5. "Christ's death for me is my sole hope" Well, add Christ's life and resurrection, and modify as described in point 3, above, and I agree.

6-9. Again, see 5 & 3. Christ's death is important--my next post will be on a Lux Mundi-influenced theory of the Atonement--but stressing Christ as Ransom over God as loving Father is to, in my opinion, concretize metaphor in an unhelpful fashion. Again, if we can forgive without payment, then surely God is able to. With great respect for Packer, I think in his enunciation of PSA he loses sight of that most basic, most biblical of truths.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Lesson of Coventry: A Fragment of Autobiography

My last post used, in discussing the Anglican Crisis, a photo of the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (and a quote from Shaw), to make the point that adversaries become all too often willing to destroy the beautiful based upon a caricature of the other side that allows for the pleasures of self-righteous rage. (George MacDonald Fraser once famously wrote that "hell hath no fury like a justified Christian," a remark we all should try not to live down to).

But Coventry deserves better than to be an example, and especially it deserves better from me. Because Coventry is where I went from being a vague theist, who believed God existed, but didn't feel any particular connection to Him, to being a Christian.

When I graduated law school, my parents took myself and my sister on a family vacation--a package tour of England and Scotland. It was a whirlwind affair ("ooh, look--there's Stonehenge! Gotta run!"), and we spent hours on a bus with tourists from Australia (a charming older couple), a family from Germany, and quite a few from the U.S. But it was my first time away from Norh America and I loved finally being in England.

And then we got to Coventry. The frail beauty of the old cathedral underlined the devastation wrought by the Blitz,and the new cathedral's modern lines reminded me of the swaths of raw concrete in London which replaced the neigborhoods bombed by the Luftwaffe.

Then I went into the ruin, and walked about marvelling at the devastation, and at the shell of the cathedral. I couldn't focus on the tour guide, because I was stunned that anyone could leave standing so utterly hollowed out a shell--

and then I encountered the altar. Or rather, the roof-beam cross fashioned by a cathedral craftsman, named Jock Forbes, shortly after the Cathedral was bombed in November 1940.

And then I knew why the buiding still stood. To commemorate not just the loss, but the fact that in November of 1940--with pain and loss all around, and the odds still massively tilted against national survival--Christians could, as the tour guide told us, hold a mass for the German pilots as well as the British dead. And that they could put up on the ruined sanctuary's wall, behind the cross, the words "Father, Forgive." That they could forgive, and seek reconciliation.

And that is when I knew that Christianity was not just true, it was alive. On a cold damp morning in Coventry, I discovered it because a group of Christians half a century before my visit rejected anger, rejected bitterness, rejected hatred, and and lived their faith.

And that is how mine became a reality, and not just assent to abstract principles.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Lighting Strawmen, Burning Flesh

I realize that many of the debates within the Anglican Communion are painful, but what is perhaps most painful is the way that we see each other across fences of distrust. I've already pointed to the verbal abuse the Presiding Bishop is subjected to by conservative bloggers, but let's look at something more serious; here's a characterization of the Episcopal Church from Leander S. Harding, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Trinity School for Ministry:
It is widely thought here that the scriptures are intriguing cultural artifacts of the religious experience of time bound cultures but certainly nothing more than clues to how contemporary people might work out and recreate their own religion. Increasingly it has become clear that the majority who do indeed embrace a new spirit based and experienced based religion are not able to tolerate traditionalists in their midst. Religion is seen by the majority as primarily about “radical hospitality” and “inclusion” and “liberation.” Traditionalists are seen as contemporary equivalents of slave holders and betrayers of the central tenets of the new religion. I find it very hard to make a case on the basis of the revisionist theology as I understand it for the inclusion of traditionalists. Slave holders can be tolerated for strategic reasons but not for moral or theological reasons. We perhaps can be allowed as long as we do not try to extend our influence.
Sorry; long quote. But important, I think. Let's unpack it a bit.

First, I'm part of the "reappraiser" group he's talking about, and I recognize neither myself nor any of those I agree in the description. I believe in the Creeds, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection--even the Atonement, although not in its "penal substitutionary" form. (That's grist for a future post, eh?) I stand with John Milton on the subject of strict predestination, but otherwise I'm pretty orthodox by all but the most rigorous Calvinist standard.

Second, I don't have the feelings toward conservatives that Harding describes. Oh, I get pretty upset with them, as witness this post, for example, but that's because I'm appalled at the extent of modern day suffering some of them are willing to inflict through coercive policies through the state (Yes I mean Peter Akinola and Martyn Minns). If a conservative wants to maintain a traditionalist position as an academic position, or argue that we should follow it in our church--well, I won't agree, but I don't need to to drive them out of the Church, either. I'll debate, civilly for preference, and hope that my view will prevail--or I should say (!), that in discernment, views will coalesece, and the will of God be known. In general, I want a strong traditionalist group in the Church to balance my own liberal views--to be sure that we hear the voice of the Spirit and not just of our selves. The tension, when not toxic, is healthy.

I think that one reason why we get heated, though, on the "reappraiser" side of the great divide surfaced in a discussion at Father Jake's. In discussing the pro-Iraq War position of many conservative Christians, I noticed that those defending the position were doing so on the basis that we have to look beyond a literal reading of Jesus's words, and focus on the overall message He was conveying. I asked "if it isn't a question of Scriptural authority, not unlike those on which the "reasserters" are splitting the AC? It's interesting how many reasserters find it easy to distinguish away the words of the Savior when they run counter to social "business as usual" (war) but then decree we must uphold with strict textual fidelity those words of St. Paul that serve the same social conventions."

My wording was harsh, perhaps, but I do think that there is something to the point: traditionalists have the difficulty of distinguishing between cultural mores and inspiration. It's hard--much easier to dismiss "reappraisers" as non Christians--easier than to ask where they would have stood in the early Twentieth Century on the traditional anti-Semitism of many Christian churches--a tradition tracing its roots through Scripture, the reasoning of Augustine, Aquinas, the Catholic Tradition (what price the Palio, eh?), as well as American and British anti-semitism. (Just read Dickens).

But that question is painful. So they depict us as neo-pagans with a love for social work. And, no doubt, we "reappraisers" can likewise caricature our "Worthy Opponents" and then grow unduly angry at those caricatures. I'm sure that we have been guilty of similar overstatement and lack of charity. It is one of the great, if costly, pleasures, after all, as Bernard Shaw had the repentant inqisitor explain in St. Joan:
You don't know: you havnt seen: it is so easy to talk when you dont know. You madden yourself with words: you damn yourself because it feels grand to throw oil on the flaming hell of your own temper. But when it is brought home to you; when you see the thing you have done; when it is blinding your eyes, stifling your nostrils, tearing your heart, then--then--
Then it is too late.

Perhaps we should all take a breath, and learn from the tragedy of Coventry Cathedral, bombed to a shell in the Blitz; the workmen fashioned a cross and set it where the altar had stood. Behind it, the wall of the ruined sanctuary reads, to this day, simply "Father, Forgive."

Must we wait until our church is destroyed, before we learn the lesson?