The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Call: From the Gallery

My friend and discernment companion Elise Hanley has announced on her blog (oi, I didn't even know she had one! Let alone that it's good! Share a little, Elise!) her upcoming ordination to the transitional diaconate on March 5, and invited me to attend?

Well, good heavens, as Archdeacon Grantly would expostulate, try to keep me away!

Elise and I started on our journeys to ordination near to each other, and she was always a source of encouragement and support on the journey. I hope that I kept up my end of that companionship, but I know that she enriched my own journey immeasurably.

How could I miss one of the culminating moments of hers?

I was unable to attend another friend's ordination thanks to our recent blizzard. But I will be honored to be seated among the clergy to welcome Elise to the diaconate. We'll be richer for her presence.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Tale of Two Kitties

My beloved NinjaCat is about the worst named animal alive. Named after an impressive and silent burst of speed she put on the first time I met her, the day la C and I moved to Brooklyn, she prefers to loll about her territory, enjoying a superior vantage point. She must have been mistreated at some point, because she is very slow to trust, and I (and la Caterina) are the only people she does trust. She hides from visitors, family, friends and cat-sitters alike.

Horatio P. Kitten, by contrast is a kitten so bouncy as to make Tigger look like Eeyore. He is a cuddly, 6 month old kitten whose mischeif, affection, and occasional lunacy are at once heartwarming and unpredictable.

Unfortunately, these two cats share the Northern Annex of Anglocat Central, and his persistent efforts to romp with her were perceived by Ninja as aggression. She hissed, she fled, she fought. Worse, my efforts to provide a division of territory where each could have a safe space, and to gradually introduce them as he calmed down after his neutering, fell apart when Horatio proved able to surmount every barrier I erected. When I hired a contractor to create a full one, he didn't turn up for our appointment, and then didn't return my call. In short, my only option was to confine Horatio to a small bedroom. He absolutely hated it. He had a few hours a day "out" time, but hated being contained.

It couldn't last, of course. A good friend of mine was hoping to get a cat, and, after we spoke about the matter, I "homed" Horatio with him and his family tonight.

Horatio is already adjusting, playing with his new family, giving cat-kisses to them, and loving his new digs--I have a happy message from my friend already.

Ninja is Queen of the Manor again, swanning around the place as its chatelaine. Peace has been restored, and her truncated dominion is once more hers.

Only the Papa and the Mama are sad for what might have been.

I know, I know, luxury problem; cats all happy, friend and his wife and children ecstatic; good solution, no?

But I do miss the little rascal, and so does la C.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

In Memoriam, Abe Vigoda

Recently--very recently, a friend and colleague took a vacation in Florida, and, at a social event, found himself next to Abe Vigoda.

"Yeah," Vigoda said, deadpan, in response to my friend's expression, "still alive."

As his NYT obituary reports, Vigoda's death had been reported 34 years ago, quite, quite incorrectly:
Mr. Vigoda’s days as a television star seemed to be behind him in 1982 when People magazine reported that he had died. Mr. Vigoda responded by placing an ad in Variety with a photo showing him sitting up in a coffin and holding a copy of the offending issue of the magazine.

His “death” became a running joke. “I have nothing to say about Abe,” Billy Crystal said at a roast of Rob Reiner at the Friars Club, where Mr. Vigoda was a regular. “I was always taught to speak well of the dead.”

David Letterman and Conan O’Brien invited him onto their late-night shows to prove he was still alive. A website,, continued to give updates on his status.

His name was kept alive in other ways as well. A punk-rock group appropriated his name as its own. And the Beastie Boys rapped about him in their 1986 album, “Licensed to Ill”: ““I got a girl in the castle and one in the pagoda/You know I got rhymes like Abe Vigoda.
I like to think that he enjoyed the schtick; he was a deft comedian, as the above clip from Barney Miller demonstrates. Watch him closely--he has no lines, but Vigoda as Fish manages to convey a world-weary, deadpan wryness as Steve Landesberg's Detective Dietrich tries to take all the fun out of a donut.

He's just as good, albeit in darker hues, as the doomed Tessio:

Underplaying, beautifully underplaying, was the secret to Vigoda's success in these roles. He's the still, sure point around which the scene pivots, whether for comedic effect or dramatic--and made those roles iconic. They live because they were preserved--we can see them. But Vigoda's theatrical work can't be seen, and I suspect that's a great loss:
In 1960, he starred in an Off Broadway production of the Strindberg drama “The Dance of Death,” and he appeared frequently at the New York Shakespeare Festival in the early ’60s, as John of Gaunt in “Richard II” and King Alonzo in “The Tempest,” among other roles.

In 1963, he had the lead in an Off Broadway production of Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” Five years later, he was on Broadway in Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade.”
Interesting choices, all of them, and I can't help but wonder what the younger Abe Vigoda did with those roles. But that's part of the glory and tragedy of theater--its ephemeral nature. You can see lightning captured in a bottle, but it's no longer glimpsed then it is gone. Still, when I was a kid, I watched Barney Miller regularly, and loved the ensemble--but nobody made me laugh harder than one of Vigoda's perfectly-timed bleak stares at some foolishness within the station house.

Rest in Peace, Abe Vigoda. And--thanks for showing me just how good a silence, a pause, a stare could be, effectively deployed.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Anglocat at Peace

Blog mascot Betty the Anglocat has taught me many lessons. And this morning, as she lay next to her old adversary Elspeth P. Kitten, I thought how lucky I am that these disparate animals who make up our herd of cats live in (relative) peace.

Later in the day, I reflected on what a gift the people we disagree with can often be to us. Oh, I know--we can get into shouting matches, flame wars, succumb to obsessive "comment wars" because someone is wrong on the internet. La C often uses this cartoon to call me out. And she's right to. Because sometimes they teach me things I need to know and even offer me comfort when I need it. The trick, I am slowly realizing is to shut up and listen. Not just hear, listen, and try to see why we disagree, and to disagree respectfully.

It doesn't mean caving. It means respecting the person with whom I disagree enough that I make the imaginative effort to see through his or her eyes, and to grasp their perspective emotionally, not just logically. It makes disagreeing much less disagreeable when I don't leap to the conclusion that disagree with me is clearly done in bad faith or lack of thought. (I know; I'm turning 50 this year--you think I'd have learned this sooner.)

Another example: I just this past week bought a devotional book that is privately published, kept in print as a labor of love. The person who curates this work is someone with whom I am at variance on several issues significant to us both. I wrote directly for a copy, and received an email that was warm and gracious. This person has enriched my life; if we had met in a different context, we might have seen each other as caricatures not people with much more in common than might otherwise be thought.

The same thing happened with a lawyer I worked with for nearly a decade; we liked each other so much that we assumed we were in political accords. When we found we weren't, we started to argue--until we didn't. Why jeopardize a friendship that was real, over ideology? (I'm normally good about doing that, but I think we were both so stunned that the other was not aligned with our politics that we thought convincing the other would be simple.)

So a heartfelt thank you for all who have disagreed with me over matters great and small, and still cared enough to keep me in your lives. I hope to make that easier in future.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Sample of Taffy

Right, progress on my second novel, Taffy was a Welshman, has been slowed by some great joys in life, but we're underway again. And to celebrate that fact, I thought I'd share a bit of the opening chapter, entitled The Call.


The trick, he thought to himself, was to take his time. Yes, the lighting could be better; the sun’s rays slanting in through the windows at the top of his garret bedroom helped; it was just the right hour for the task, but had he accepted the bedroom one floor below, there would be more light overall.

But then he would not have had the backstairs entrance, allowing him to come home late from his cramming sessions without disturbing the household. And—truth be told—he did not feel entirely comfortable living en famille with the Finns now that he was going to be called to the bar, and would be practicing as a junior barrister with the younger of his two mentors. He needed some room of his own, and the two large rooms making up his quarters were ample, albeit the little bathroom could be somewhat dim, making it difficult for a man to shave, especially when his hands were trembling just a bit with excitement.

For today was the day. No longer would he be Ifor Powlett-Jones the coal miner, the defendant, the convict reprieved, or even the student he had been these past years. No, he would be Ifor Powlett-Jones, barrister-at-law. If, in fact, people used that term—a question he had meant to ask Mr. Low, but had omitted to, he realized.

Powlett-Jones drew the razor upwards, rasping against his throat, until it reached the cleft of his chin. And then again, and again. With the swift, economical movements he had learned as a youth in Pontnewydd, mimicking the deft, small strokes of his Da before he died in a cave-in all too similar to the one that had changed Ifor’s destiny forever. He applied more soap with the brushes, and began the all-too-familiar task of scraping his cheeks clean—only to pause at the new obstacle: the slightly drooping moustache he had grown. He quite liked it, really, and felt that a barrister should be a man of note, not a cherubic stripling. But for all the dignity the moustache conferred, the sobering of his features came at a cost: the perpetual fear that he would cut the damned ends unevenly. No matter how hard he tried, he could not be sure of success until it was too late to remedy any defect.

Phineas Finn, who had not only defended Ifor when accused of crimes ranging from riot to assault, but had gambled his own political future to secure the young Welshman’s pardon and release, had not been helpful when Powlett-Jones had sought his guidance on the matter of the moustache over breakfast yesterday. He had, rather, bubbling with laughter, merely said “Why the deuce do you think I just gave up and grew a full beard, Ifor?”

Mrs. Finn had smilingly suggested a valet, or, at least, a barber. But that seemed wrong to Ifor—surely a man could learn to attend his own daily needs without a servant he could ill afford. Yes, yes, the Finns made him a generous allowance, and very grateful he was, too, but it he could not take such largesse for granted. It was not, after all, as if he was the Finns’ son.

“A valet, Marie?”

“Why not, my dear?” The ever-practical Marie Finn replied to her husband’s question. He raised the coffee cup to his lips, and drank, and replaced the cup, meeting his wife’s amused glance from the other side of the breakfast table.

“For a white-wig?” At his wife’s interrogatorily raised eyebrow, Phineas rephrased his sentence. “A newly-called barrister. A young man with his way to make. A young man,” Phineas continued, unaware that the young man in question, on his way to being impeccably dressed, but still in shirtsleeves, had entered the room and was behind him, “whom I mean to see settled in life, as he deserves, and of whom I could not be more proud if her were my own--”

Something dancing in his wife’s eyes—her features were otherwise immobile—alerted him, and the older man’s manner changed. More gruffly, he concluded the thought: “Pupil. My own pupil.” Phineas Finn stood, and turned to face his pupil, whose eyes bore a suspicious sheen. He smiled at the boy, remembering what it was to be young, and on the verge of being called to the bar. And unlike the young man who stood before him, Phineas had enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, as the son of a doctor who had earned the patronage of the local magnate. No digging in the coal mines for young Phineas Finn! The memory of inspecting, albeit briefly, that hellish underground flickered across the screen of Phineas’s mind, and he dropped the bantering tone he had been adopting.

“It’s all right, Ifor. We’re Celts, not Englishmen, after all, so the Queen won’t have to abdicate if I admit to being proud of you today. But where’s your frockcoat?”

“I, er, left it upstairs, d’ye see, Mr. Finn,” the young man was clearly embarrassed, “because I might have to go back upstairs.”

“Oh? Why is that?”

“I can’t tell if my moustache is even, and tonight is Call Night, and--” Phineas, observing the young man’s dreadful earnestness in this matter, as in all matters touching upon his new social status, forbore to smile. Instead, Phineas simply turned to his wife, even as Ifor spoke, and said, “A valet, then. D’you think Meier can turn one up at short notice?”

“I am quite sure he can,” she answered in the tone that informed him, based on their many years together, that the valet had already been engaged, and was due to report later in the day.

“Well, then you may as well break your fast, Ifor—all will be taken care of before you have to leave for Call Night.” Phineas resumed his chair and Marie rang for another pot of coffee, as Ifor helped himself to eggs and bacon from the sideboard.

Some things, Phineas Finn reflected gratefully, never changed.
Further teasers will be dropped as the whim may strike.

Back to the Future: Big Finish

Back in November, attending my first-ever Doctor Who convention, I picked up a bunch of audios from Big Finish. I was curious, you see, about them, and in an expansive mood. So they got some of my hard-earned cash....

...and I got some very entertaining audio dramas--particularly the Lost Stories for Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor. Particularly interesting in that Andrew Cartmel captures the flavor of the last McCoy years (not surprising, but gratifying.) The stories are fun, tinged with Cartmel's social justice concerns, and very well acted.

McCoy and Sophie Aldred snap right back into character--which must be weird for Aldred, who's playing a significantly younger woman than she is herself, now--which she delivers admirably. Ace remains very much as she was in the wake of Survival--tougher than earlier, but still with the resilience and enthusiasm of youth.

The addition of new companion Raine Creevy worked for me, thanks in no small part to Beth Chalmers's fine work in the part. Animal, in particular, is great fun--a uniquely hierarchical and ethical (well, sorta...) baddie, some fine bits of pawky humor, and the return of the Brigadier. Brigadier, bomber, that is.

I also picked up the first few Iris Wildthyme audios. Katy Manning sells the scripts, which are quite funny, but in the wrong hands could be too arch.

The audios have a feel of their eras about them--the McCoy-Aldred installments feel very much of their time, not like a guest appearance of the Seventh Doctor and Ace in NuWho. And that's good.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Deep Breath

Anglican Breviary

(Photo: Anupam at English Wikipedia [GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Right, I think we've had our excitement for the weekend; let's talk more positively for a bit.

I'll admit that Thursday's and yesterday's news provoked me greatly, with Abp. Welby's non-apology apology to the LGBT community only making matters worse. The grace and resolution of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and of Andrew Dietsche, my own diocesan bishop were something of a balm.

But, as I used to say in my days as a mentor for EFM, the last stage of a theological reflection is the "So what?"--that is, how do we use this in our day to day lives? Where do we go from here?

Yesterday, I found myself stepping up my prayer regimen. I've been praying the Daily Office for some years (generally, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline) for some years, since my friend and mentor the senior Deacon at St. Barts urged me to try it. It's been a longstanding practice that has enriched my life.

But this Christmas, when a friend of mine posted a picture of his new Anglican Breviary, I succumbed to a fit of book envy, and ordered a copy online. It's complicated, with 8 offices instead of the 4 in the Daily Office Book, and it's extremely Anglo-Catholic--higher in its churchmanship even than I am, in some ways. But there was a comfort to its familiarity, hearkening to prayers I remember from my Catholic boyhood, and even in its older, more robust language. Yesterday I added two more offices than normal. I found it calming, and centering.

I stand by every word I wrote Thursday. (Except for the typo!) But here's the thing: Life goes on. Anglicanism has given us a rich heritage of a broad church, uniting Catholics and Protestants, liberals and conservatives, around the altar. We're right strive to preserve that.

Ultimately, the Episcopal Church will be fine. Oh, I know we're shrinking like all the mainline denominations. But I have faith, you see, that God will lead us to where we need to be.

If my suspicions are right, and the Communion does not hold in its current form, whatever else befalls, the resources of Anglicanism are there for us. Liturgical prayer, the offices, the Eucharist. Richard Hooker, Charles Gore (hey, today's his feast day!), Hensley Henson, and all of the other theologians, activists, musicians, mystics and troublemakers who comprise the cast of characters who formed our tradition are going nowhere. The great choir music remains, as does our heritage.

More to the point, if we, to paraphrase Archdeacon Grantly, in a rare moment of spiritual depth, lack guile and love God, we will never go far astray.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Declaration of Independence

Today, the Primates of the Anglican Communion issued a statement, that, after some pious maundering, listed seven points of agreement:
1. We gathered as Anglican Primates to pray and consider how we may preserve our unity in Christ given the ongoing deep differences that exist among us concerning our understanding of marriage.

2. Recent developments in The Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage. Possible developments in other Provinces could further exacerbate this situation.

3. All of us acknowledge that these developments have caused further deep pain throughout our Communion.

4. The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.

5. In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.

6. Such actions further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us. This results in significant distance between us and places huge strains on the functioning of the Instruments of Communion and the ways in which we express our historic and ongoing relationships.

7. It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

8. We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.
Never mind the facts that the Church of Uganda supported passage on a draconian anti-gay criminal law, as did the Church of Nigeria, even boasting about the fact in its response to the farcical "Listening Process"on homosexuality the Anglican Communion went through in 2007. Such patent victimization through secular law of a minority group with the Anglican church of the province cheering? A-OK with Canterbury and the other Primates. Likewise the never-addressed, let alone redressed, territorial incursions into the United States by the same churches, violating a moratorium that only TEC observed. Again, no problem.

But our treating gays and lesbians as people formed in the Imago Dei causes their oppressors pain, and we have torn the Communion?

The Archbishop of Uganda apparently wanted more swift and condign punishment than that which was delivered. He walked out of the meeting, declaring in a statement that "I have left the meeting in Canterbury, but I want to make it clear that we are not leaving the Anglican Communion. Together with our fellow GAFCON Provinces and others in the Global South, we are the Anglican Communion; the future is bright." (His italics, my emetics.) They're making a play to hijack the Anglican brand, which Welby is furthering.

So now we are supposed to play the repentant Magdalene?


Just--no. No more of this Game of Mitres. No more of our money (we are the second largest contributor after England itself, and one of the two only givers in 6 figures, while Uganda and Nigeria give no money) fueling the great machinery that allows these ecclesiastical gangsters to cloak their embrace of human rights violators in the robes of the Church. No Dane Geld.

It's Independence Day again.

I for one am no longer interested in reconciliation at the expense of our brothers and sisters, but in freedom for the oppressed.

The Communion is dying.

Let it die.

Maybe--just maybe--it can then rise.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Immune to Your Consultations

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby paid tribute to David Bowie just two days ago:
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, the Archbishop said he became a Bowie fan during the singer’s early rise to prominence.

He said: “I’m very, very saddened to hear of his death.

“I remember sitting listening to his songs endlessly in the ‘70s particularly and always really relishing what he was, what he did, the impact he had.

“Extraordinary person.”
There's a certain irony, here, as the very day after Bowie died, the Archbishop was delivering an address somewhat in conflict with his enthusiasm for the late artist:
We can also paint a gloomy picture of the moral and spiritual state of Anglicanism. In all Provinces there are forms of corruption, none of us is without sin. There is litigation, the use of civil courts for church matters in some places. Sexual morality divides us over same sex issues, where we are seen as either compromising or homophobic. The list can go on and on. The East African Revival teaches us the need for holiness. We must be renewed as a holy church, defined by our passionate worship and its content, with every Christian knowing scripture, prayerful, humble and evangelistic. In a sentence, we must be those who are, to the outside world, visibly disciples of Jesus Christ.

For all that there is much good news. First, Jesus did not come to a group of well-established disciples and send them, but to failures, who had fled, denied, abandoned. Paul in the letters to Corinth does not write to a well-functioning church of good disciples, but to those who were divided, immoral, filled with rivalry and hatred. We are a Jesus centred people, and we serve the God who raised Jesus from the dead and raises us. At the heart of the life of the church is not power, or structure, or authority, but the person of Jesus Christ, present by His Spirit, whose plans for good, whose love for the lost is our calling and our urging.

We see good news as well as knowing good news. Around the world the church is growing, evangelising, leading people to life in Christ, without whom there is no true life. The Anglican churches are everywhere caring for the sick, educating children, influencing society, and most normally of all, in bringing people to reconciliation with God in Christ, the only decisive reconciliation, they are also bringing reconciliation in society. In so many places, especially at the local level, by the grace of God alone, Anglicanism is a church of the Beatitudes.

In this country many talk of the post Christian society, but the C of E educate more than 1,000,000 children in our schools. We are involved in almost all the food banks as, for the first time since the 1930s, we have hunger in this country. We are still a major part of the glue that holds society together. A recent attempt to introduce assisted suicide was crushingly defeated in Parliament. We are exempted from the same sex marriage act, showing that our voice is still heard against the prevailing wind of our society, and at much cost to ourselves, by the way. The Church of England is still a primary source of leadership for communities, to the dismay of the secularists. It is a struggle, but we are not losing. And we are also in the middle of the biggest reform of the church since the mid 19th century. We are planting churches. The Archbishop of York is on an evangelistic pilgrimage, I imagine the first Archbishop of York to do that in centuries, even perhaps over 1,000 years. And the Bench of Bishops is described by the longer standing members as the most orthodox since WWII.
I've given a much more full quote than strictly needed to make my point, because I want to be fair, and to provide the context of the Archbishop's remarks. There are things to praise here, in his evident devotion to Jesus Christ, his belief in the mission of Anglicanism, and especially in his emphasis on service and reconciliation. I genuinely admire that portion of his address.

Less admirable, though, is his assumption that there is a global "Anglican Church." There isn't; there is a communion of autonomous churches, each of which exercises the historic episcopate, locally adapted.

But even more so, I was jarred by Archbishop Welby's defense of the C of E as "still a major part of the glue that holds society together," which is predicated at least one fairly rum data point:"We are exempted from the same sex marriage act, showing that our voice is still heard against the prevailing wind of our society, and at much cost to ourselves, by the way."

"“I remember sitting listening to his songs endlessly in the ‘70s particularly and always really relishing what he was, what he did, the impact he had."

Bowie, of the complex sexuality, might raise an eyebrow at Archbishop Welby's claim to have relished what Bowie was and then scant hours later preening himself on being contra mundum as exemplified by his Church's securing an exemption from the same sex marriage law.

We'll see what happens at the Primates Meeting, but Archbishop Welby may be missing the point. As Bowie sang, long ago:

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware of what they're going through.

And they'll remember who stood with them, and who against them. And they'll wonder why.

Monday, January 11, 2016

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with You I am Well Pleased." A Sermon for 1 Epiphany

(Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, Sunday, January 10, 2016)

The thing that people forget all too often is that John the Baptist was a very big deal. The ancient historian Flavius Josephus, who is one of the few non-Christian sources about Jesus or John had been led the resistance to Rome in Galilee until he was defeated, and then became a historian explaining the history and customs of Israel to Roman readers. Josephus spends more time on John than he does on Jesus. (In fact, Jesus is described first, 2 chapters ahead of John, which could lead the reader to assume that Jesus died before John the Baptist.)

John’s ministry is described, as is Herod’s fear that John’s influence had grown to the point that the people might follow John in a rebellion and sweep away Herod’s regime. Josephus tells us of John’s imprisonment at Machreus (which we know was used as a prison at the time), and his death at the Herod’s command are also described. No Salome and her dance—just a cold calculation by a wily monarch willing to kill the innocent John on the off chance that he posed a danger to Herod’s reign.

Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like the King Herod in the Christmas story, seeking to lure the Magi into betraying the infant Jesus’s location so that Herod could kill him. According to Josephus, the people believed that Herod’s defeat by Aretus IV in 36 AD was God’s punishment for murdering John.

Jesus gets a passage that is shorter when you take out the sentences that were obviously added by later Christian copyists. Jospehus, a Hellenistic follower of Judaism, was not going to write of Jesus: “He was the Son of God!” In the authentic passage, Jesus is described as “a wise man who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.” His trial under Pilate and crucifixion are noted, and the continued loyalty of his friends after his death. That’s it.

So, if we’re judging by a historian writing 60 years after they both died, John the Baptist is the slightly bigger name, the more important figure. His death is even avenged by God, unlike Jesus’s death. That’s how it looked at the time Josephus wrote—which incidentally is about the time that most scholars believe the last written gospel, the Gospel According to John was written.

But according to the Gospels, John knows better. Today, we hear Luke describe Jesus as “one who is more powerful than I” and even says that he is “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” In the Fourth Gospel, John sees the Holy Spirit rest on Jesus at his baptism, and hails him as the Messiah. In all of the Gospels, , John knows that he is not the Messiah, but is here to awaken the world to his coming.

So John gets it. He’s the overture, not the main drama.

And unlike the historian Flavius Josephus, John gets it right. There is still a sect that claims John the Baptist as its chief prophet, the Mandaeans, but Christianity grew to be a truly world-wide religion.

Why? Why Jesus and not John the Baptist? It’s easy now to look at the question through the lens of Christian history and our own faith commitments, but what accounts for the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire like wildfire over a John the Baptist inspired call to repentance and good works? They both taught the same basic ethical lessons—John is described as teaching those who come to him for baptism to take no more than their due, not extort others, to show mercy—they both used baptism to mark the redemption of the initiate, the forgiveness of sins, and called sinners to repent and accept forgiveness.

So why did people choose Jesus?

I think it’s the fact that Jesus met people where they were. John made it hard, didn’t he? You had to go out to the desert to find him, and his welcome wasn’t exactly very warm. I mean, the Pharisees and Saducees make the trip, and he greets them with “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”[1]

What could be more cozy?

Jesus, on the other hand, sees Zacchaeus, a short tax-collector, who has climbed into a tree just to get a look at him as Jesus comes into town, and calls out to him, inviting himself to dinner. The crowd murmurs. After all, Zacchaeus is a notable sinner. But Zacchaeus is so overjoyed that Jesus wants to spend time with him, that he announces that he will give away half of what he owns, and give back 4 times any amount he has unfairly taken from anybody.

Jesus didn’t ask him to do that. He just came to dinner. He accepted Zacchaeus as a peer, a friend, and made Zacchaeus want to live up to Jesus’s estimate of him.

It’s the same way with the unnamed woman, described only as a “woman of the city” and a sinner, who anoints Jesus’s feet with expensive ointment and dries them with her hair. It’s a shocking moment of intimacy even now when we first read it in Luke’s Gospel, but even more so when we consider that it occurs between Jesus and a woman who would have been viewed as polluting him by her touch.

Nobody confronts Jesus about it, Simon, his host, assumes that Jesus would know better if he were a true prophet. Jesus defends the woman, pointing out that her welcome made up for the deficiencies in Simon’s own treatment of him, and praises her for the great love she has shown, in gratitude for the forgiveness she has received—which she understands has been given to her without her even asking!

Jesus even points out the difference in his approach from John’s, in criticizing the crowd that rejected them both: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

I recently attended a two day workshop with the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. In one of the sessions she described herself as a “Law and Grace preacher.” By that she meant that she saw a very great danger in our tendency to want to prove ourselves to be good people by our complying with the law. She explained that the idea that we’re good enough that all we need is a handbook to follow would mean that we wouldn’t have to bother God with all the stuff about ourselves we’d rather not face. We could just be good. The problem is, Jesus doesn’t buy that. Nobody can live up to the law—it would mean being perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. The law, Nadia said, is a lover who will never love us back.

That’s John the Baptist, in a way. John has been called the last prophet of the Old Testament, and there’s a lot of truth in that, because, although he offers a route to the forgiveness of sins, he carries the burden of the law. He expected Jesus to be like him, with his winnowing fork and with fire.

But Jesus set us free from that burden. Don’t believe me? That Pharisee of Pharisees, as St. Paul called himself, says just that in his letter to the Galatians: “we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”

In my Roman Catholic boyhood, we used to keep a sort of moral score. Had we sinned badly enough that our venial (not all that serious) sins could add up to a mortal sin (uh-oh!)? Were our spiritual bank accounts overdrawn, or did we have a balance with God?

We don’t have a spiritual checkbook, of course. That’s not God’s way.

Jesus’s way is the way of Grace. Jesus met people where they were, and didn’t judge them—and by meeting them with love opened up new worlds of possibility for them. He changed how they saw themselves, and what they were capable of being. We don’t become perfect, but we meet love with love. And even our failures are transformed by the fact that we are free to love back, instead of trying to impress a strict legal guardian.

We can pass on that gift in our own way. “Judge not, that ye be not judged” isn’t just safer, it gives the people we interact with the chance to respond to us in a less defensive way, to see themselves through our eyes as people worth knowing and caring about as they are, not as we’d like them to be. That’s our part in grace. Pass it on. Love and forgive. And when we can’t, remember that God will do it for us until we can do it ourselves.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[1] Matt. 3: 7-8.

[2] Matt. 11: 18-19.

[3] Gal. 2:16.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Principled Disagreement

This entry is going to be a lot more pleasant to write (and, I hope, to read) than my last one on the same topic. I want to commend Ross Douthat for seriously upping his game in responding to Professor John W. Marten's critique and response of Douthat's "Letter to the Catholic Academy".

At a threshold level, gone is the sneering self-righteousness of Douthat's original columns on the subject. No more arrogantly denouncing those with whom he disagrees as heretics, and accusing the Pope of leading the conspiracy to destroy orthodoxy. Rather, Douthat begins on common ground, tries to fairly summarize Professor Martens's contentions, and gives his critic credit for sincerity and good faith. He just doesn't agree with him, and gives his reasons. This has the effect of making Douthat's argument much stronger--his claims are less extravagant, and his dropping of his hectoring tone is most helpful. (Indeed, Douthat sprinkles a little self-deprecating humor in the post, which I don't recall seeing in his writing before. It suits him, as does his more irenic tone.)

Now, in responding to Douthat's argument, I want to point out two things: 1) Although I was raised Catholic, and am sympathetic to Catholic sacramentalism and much theology, I'm an Episcopalian, albeit of the High Church variety. So discount for that. 2) The fact that I ultimately disagree with Douthat on the question of whether the Roman Catholic Church would fundamentally change by altering its position on the indissolubility of marriage does not mean I think his position is untenable. It means that I disagree with Douthat, just as he disagrees with Professor Martens.

As Douthat (fairly) summarizes Martens, he:
he advances two models for evaluating developments in Catholic doctrine — one drawn from the New Testament, from the Council of Jerusalem’s decision not to require Gentile converts to adhere to the full Mosaic codes (a case of legalism overcome, he implies, with clear relevance to current Catholic debates), and one drawn from the arguments of a certain Joseph Ratzinger (perhaps you’ve heard of him), who argued that a Catholic reading of the gospel message and the New Testament needed to distinguish the “core” elements from the “husk,” to determine what ideas were essential and which were more adaptable or dispensable when the times seemed to demand it.

I think that these two models are quite rich; I also think that neither one offers a strong justification for adopting the proposals on communion for the divorced and remarried tacitly supported by Pope Francis and debated rather hotly by Catholic scribblers. But the models do provide a context, at least, in which Professor Martens and I could have an argument from shared premises, even if we ultimately disagree.
However, he sees a greater divide between them in that Martens "largely leaves out what seems like the most traditionally Catholic criteria for determining what is and isn’t “fundamentalism,” what counts as “legalism” as opposed to just fidelity, and how and whether doctrine can develop, namely: What the church has already taught on the matter." (Douthat's emphasis.)

He writes:
Where matters are clearly unsettled, in other words, Martens is offering reasonable criteria to guide the church. But by only emphasizing those criteria, he seems to imply that no question is ever permanently settled, that one interpretation simply succeeds another as the church’s history unfolds.

Martens does not say this outright. The issue is one of omission: There is simply no sustained reference in his essay to the idea, running from Vincent of Lerins to John Henry Newman, that consistency of teaching and non-contradiction are important criteria for discerning when and whether doctrine can develop. Instead, the strong implication is that in every generation the Catholic Church is in roughly the same position as the nascent church of the 1st century, confronting crucial questions anew and reading the signs of the times afresh, and that the positions and teachings of the past are always up for revision when some combination of dialogue, prayer, experience and theological innovation suggests that the time has come to change.
Now, he's certainly getting Newman right here, but I think that he is unfair to Martens. Martens does not disparage continuity, nor does he start from "Year Zero." He offers a critique of the traditional position as it has been lived into that one may or may not find persuasive, but it doesn't assume that precedent has no weight.

One of Douthat's criticisms is Martens's reliance on Jesus's seeming belief that the End Times would come in the lifetimes of the disciples, and that "If Jesus based his moral teaching about marriage on his assumption that the eschaton would arrive in the 1st century A.D. — which it rather conspicuously did not — then surely that tells us something pretty important, not just about marriage and morals, but about whether we should believe that he was actually the messiah." (Douthat's emphasis.)

Douthat acknowledges that Christians can hold that position, but asks "can you be an orthodox Christian if you believe that Jesus’s teaching was shaped and stamped by all-too-human limitations? Can you be a Roman Catholic Christian?" For him, the answer is clearly no.

With respect (and I mean it), for a column that holds out Anglicanism as a negative model, Douthat reveals that he's not terribly well informed about what many Anglicans believe. Because Charles Gore's Dissertations on Subjects Concerning the Incarnation, building on his contribution to Lux Mundi addresses the question, and holds that Jesus's knowledge was circumscribed in many resects to that of people of his time, and that this was part of the kenosis--self-emptying--St. Paul describes in Phillipians Chapter 2. Gore's kenotic theology was key to his understanding of Christ, and Belief in Christ, volume 2 of Gore's emphatic defense of orthodoxy, The Reconstruction of Belief, is rooted in that kenotic Christology. Gore's view is far from unique, and many theologians have adopted it.

On the subject of marriage, I stand by my previously expressed views:
Douthat's claim that the allowing of divorced Catholics to reunion with the Church would strip the doctrine of the indissoluble nature of marriage of all content, and empty it doctrinally? As a threshold matter, this observation is made in ignorance of the boom in both numbers of annulments petitioned for and percentage granted after the enactment of the 1984 Code of Canon Law--according to Dr. Edward Peters, a first-rate scholar who deplores the trend, in 1996 95% of applications for annulments that reached tribunals were granted. Dr. Peters notes that, when you correct for those cases that never reach a tribunal, for one reason or another, 80% is the more globally correct figure. Dr. Peters notes that the grounds for annulments burgeoned in the 1983 Code promulgated under John Paul II in comparison to the 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code, which facilitated the expansion (which was, he notes, already under way.)


And Douthat's notion that the "reformers" are "effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality" which "certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift," is likewise counterfactual. Let's consult the Gospel According to St. Matthew, in the Douay-Rheims American version, a Roman Catholic translation, in which Jesus says: "And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery." Jesus's teaching in Luke is stricter than that in Matthew, and he was, it is well understood, rebuking a tradition of allowing divorce for trivial reasons that left women vulnerable
I would also add that, as Douthat acknowledges, the Orthodox tradition both honors the teaching of Christ on marriage while allowing for divorce when a marriage is irreparably broken. This seems to me both merciful, and wise; the death of a relationship is a failure, but allowing this one failure to be the unforgivable one that cannot be forgiven and the sinner restored to community without inflicting more misery for life is to me hard to defend.

Finally, Douthat looks at the squabbles in Anglicanism over same-sex relationships, and shudders at the disorder. He notes that the Anglican muddle within unity has broken down. There's some truth in that, if you view Anglicanism as a denomination. But it isn't. The Anglican Communion is a Nineteenth Century creation, which allowed for the individual national churches that had their roots in the Church of England to come together and share. That may be cracking up; indeed, I think it likely is. But Anglicanism has had periods in which various national churches did not speak, or were not affiliated. It's a shame, and I don't rejoice in it, but Anglicanism is not a sect. It's a world view.

Looked at in that way, we are undergoing a time of walking apart, but I don't believe it's forever. Ultimately, truth wins, and error doesn't. If we remain calm and rooted in our faith, we will know what God is calling us to believe and how to apply that teaching. Ultimately, I suspect, both sides will have repenting and reconciliation to do.

I'm glad to read this post by Douthat. I think it's immeasurably better than his prior columns, and is worth engaging with.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Not Taking No for an Answer: Engaging the Culture of Death

President Obama just won't stop trying:
Tears streaming down his face, President Obama on Tuesday condemned the gun violence that has reached across the United States as he vowed to take action to curb the bloodshed with or without Congress.

“In this room right here, there are a lot of stories. There’s a lot of heartache,” Mr. Obama said in the y Suprme ver, the ffords of Arizona. “There’s a lot of resilience, there’s a lot of strength, but there’s also a lot of pain.”

For all the emotion he showed, Mr. Obama nonetheless faces legal, political and logistical hurdles that are likely to blunt the effect of the plan he laid out.


Among other measures, the plan aims to better define who should be licensed as a gun dealer and thus be required to conduct background checks on customers to weed out prohibited buyers.

Even the administration said it was impossible to gauge how big an effect the steps might have, how many new gun sales might be regulated or how many illegal guns might be taken off the streets.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch told reporters Monday that she could not say whether the new restrictions would have had any effect in a series of recent mass shootings, including last month’s attack in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 dead. But in the massacre of nine people at a South Carolina church in June, the man charged, Dylan Roof, was able to buy a .45-caliber handgun despite admitting to drug use. The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, said at the time that a breakdown in the background check system allowed Mr. Roof to buy the gun.

Mr. Obama voiced irritation over the issue.

“Each time this comes up,” Mr. Obama said in his speech, “we are fed the excuse that common-sense reforms like background checks might not have stopped the last massacre, or the one before that, or the one before that, so why bother trying. I reject that thinking. We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence.”

Modest as the new measures may prove to be, the response was unrestrained. Republican presidential candidates and congressional leaders greeted them with peals of protests and angry claims of a “gun grab” that would violate Second Amendment rights. Gun control advocates hailed them as a breakthrough in what has often been a losing battle to toughen firearms restrictions.
Of course they did. As I previously pointed out, the very Supreme Court decision that created a personal right to own a firearm (as opposed to a state right for one to be owned for militia related purposes) left plenty of leeway for regulation of guns. But to those who worship at the shrine of Thanatos, any regulation of guns is desecration.

I know, I know. I'm bitter on this issue. I can't help it. The disproportionately high death toll from guns in the US compared to similar nations has only intensified the devotion of those who demand that every space be armed space.

Still, I have to admire the President for not giving up.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

"Scalia il Magnifico"?

Rod Dreher, after a couple days when I actually enjoyed reading his blog (he has a very nice tribute to the late, great Robertson Davies), has relapsed again, with an effusion to "Scalia il Magnifico", as he terms the cantankerous member of the High Court, not based on any opinion he's written, but on the basis of a talk Scalia gave at Archbishop Rummel High School in Louisiana, which Dreher attended, and says is accurately summarized at the link:
The Constitution's First Amendment protects the free practice of religion and forbids the government from playing favorites among the various sects, Scalia said, but that doesn't mean the government can't favor religion over nonreligion.

That was never the case historically, he said. It didn't become the law of the land until the 60s, Scalia said, when he said activist judges attempted to resolve the question of government support of religion by imposing their own abstract rule rather than simply observing common practice.

If people want strict prohibition against government endorsement of religion, let them vote on it, he said. "Don't cram it down the throats of an American people that has always honored God on the pretext that the Constitution requires it."

Citing a quotation attributed to former French President Charles de Gaulle, Scalia said "'God takes care of little children, drunkards and the United States of America.'" Scalia then added, "I think that's true. God has been very good to us. One of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor."

Scalia has long been a vocal advocate for a conservative reading of the First Amendment's clause on religion. In Scalia's view, the courts should interpret it based on the text itself, which doesn't expressly prohibit government support for religion, and common practice.

At the time the Constitution was written, religion was ubiquitous. Scalia noted that Thomas Jefferson, who first invoked the idea of a "wall of separation between church and state," also penned Virginia's religious freedom law, founded a university with dedicated religious space and, in writing the Declaration of Independence, regularly invoked God.

Such deference for a higher power has been consistent ever since, Scalia said.

The American people have clearly demonstrated a tolerance for government support of religion by enacting laws that exempt church property from taxation, he said. Congress even has clergymen on the payroll.

Given the history and subsequent common practice, Scalia called it "absurd" to interpret the First Amendment in such a way that banishes any government expression of support for religion.
This is a remarkable speech, if Dreher is right, and the speech is accurately summarized. For one thing, it elides completely the distinction between the First Amendment as originally enacted--solely a restriction on the federal government, not on the states--and the effect of the passage in the Reconstruction Era of the Fourteenth Amendment, which changed the balance between the states and the federal government forever, limiting the states in ways that had not been originally contemplated. As I explained at some length in First Amendment, First Principles: verbal Acts and freedom of Speech, the early jurisprudence bears that out, reflecting a complete disabling of the federal government from acting against speech (or, except in the territories, directly governed by the federal government, religious expression), while leaving the states plenary authority. So relying on the Framer's understanding of the First Amendment as it applied to state action, deliberately left outside its scope, as charting its reach as to what it does control is disingenuous in the extreme.

Scalia's logic about custom and practice seems to me to to break with his normal emphasis on text and language, but, frankly, charting Scalia's inconsistencies in interpretative techniques is old now. I would note that his logic would draw into question the very point of a written constitution, and is much more of a common law approach than one would expect from him. Also, any line of reasoning that suggests that Brown v. Board of Education was wrongly decided because a corrupt bargain was struck to allow the South to set the 14th Amendment at naught for 70 years is, to me, self-defeating.

Leaving all this aside, from Dreher's own personal commitments, this praise seems entirely unwarranted, as Dreher is in fact praising the guy who wrote the opinion that struck down decades of jurisprudence–all from those “activist judges” he deplores–protecting religious groups from generally applicable laws when such laws burden their religious beliefs (That’s Employment Div v. Smith in a nutshell), because he agrees that the government has a right to, when the duly elected representatives of the people decide to do so, favor religion over irreligion?

Same logic that allows for the burdening of of religion by generally applicable secular legislation passed by voters. Absent anti-religious discrimination, majority rule determines religious rights.

It sounds like he may be re-thinking his decision in Smith, now that it’s goring his own ox, but is that really commendable? It was just and righteous for 20 years, as applied to other faiths, but now that his own faith tradition is not winning the majority votes, let’s reverse it?

It’s not unlike his opinions in the ACA cases. In King v Burwell, he dismissed as “applesauce” the majority’s reading of the relevant section of the Affordable Care Act in exactly the same way he had read it in NFIB v. Sebelius, a mere 3 years earlier. (I juxtapose the quotes from the two cases, with links, here:

Scalia il magnifico? He’s going back and forth on basic issues of statutory and constitutional interpretation based on his personal preferences. This means that nobody not already in his camp will view such decisions as legitimate, and that they can only be considered not as constitutional but as partisan political acts?

Friday, January 1, 2016

Throwback, um, Friday.

Last night, among other things discussed at the New Year's Party hosted by my estimable Editor (who has a book out,by the bye) and her husband, a gourmet but even better, a great friend, we talked about Rent. When the play first premiered, I was working at a firm that, inter alia, did entertainment law, and one of the attorneys had been a friend of Jonathan Larson's, who was devastated by his death, so I heard about that loss from someone directly impacted before I had seen the play.

An old friend, from the firm I had been a summer associate at, and who had gone off to a better life as a court attorney, called me up, and invited me to join him--his date had become unavailable. So I bought dinner, and he provided the ticket, and Jonathan Larson pretty much blew me away, in a score and lyrics that raised some questions I had to answer for myself, while entertaining the hell out of me. I ended up seeing it twice more--another friend with spare tickets, and a third who wanted to see it but needed a theater buddy.

Why do I mention this show, and my possibly naive attachment to it?

Well, one of my banner New Year's Eves was when 1999 turned to 2000, when, after a magnificent feast at Platforma Churrascaria, only a block or two from an old college friend's apartment, where he and I and most of our old suite-mates met up again for NYE dinner and party, my old friend and I went out on the balcony and serenaded the crowd at full volume, with a favorite from Rent. My friend, by far the better singer, did Roger's part; I was passable as Mark. Here's the song we butchered:

The crowd was, to put it mildly, confused. But we had enjoyed ourselves.

Sometimes I think that I may resemble the remark C.P. Snow gives Charles March in The Sleep of Reason; I may be (I hope I am!) more decent as I grow older, but I suspect I'm nothing like as much fun.