February 9, 2018

On Prayer Book Revision (Satire)

Image result for book of common prayer

Word has it that the topic of Prayer Book Revision is back on the front burner for The Episcopal Church's decision makers. I do not wish to intrude myself in the debates, but I would like to suggest that the revision process be fully informed by changes in the world that might have some impact on the usefulness of the liturgical texts for the next several decades. It may well be worth considering including some or all of the following new forms of prayer and worship, just to keep up with the times:

  • Prayers for the Imperial Family
  • An Office in Time of Nuclear War
  • An Extraordinary Form for Celebration of the Holy Eucharist with Elements other than Bread and Wine Should They No Longer Exist
  • Dedication of a Mass Grave
  • Burial of Neighborhoods by Sea (together with A Form for the Submersion of Dedicated Churches)
Also helpful would be the reintroduction of two Offices from 1892 and earlier that were unaccountably excised in the optimistic world of 1928; given the climate (atmospheric and political) both seem timely for the years to come:

  • Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea, and
  • A Form of Prayer for the Visitation of Prisoners (including the special form for Persons under sentence of death)

I'm sure you can think of other useful liturgical items. Please make suggestions in the comments below.


February 7, 2018

God without Sex

The biblical texts portray God as Father because God is the creative source of all life. In the era in which the biblical texts were composed, the male was believed to be the active, creative contributor to human (and animal) reproduction; the female was understood to be passive, contributing the substance from which the creative force shaped offspring. So while biblical authors may well have conceived of God as male, they did so not on the basis of revelation, but due to their misunderstanding of the reproductive process. Pinning theology to this misunderstanding of biology is as pointless as pinning our understanding of the universe to a mistaken cosmology.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 2, 2017

Secret Faults

I think a great learning for our time will come in exploration of the question: What is acceptable but profoundly wrong in our own time and culture? — just as acceptable as were slavery to the founding fathers and sexual harrassment to the bosses in their corner offices, and just as profoundly wrong; wrong then and wrong now.

But what other things in our present culture are equally bad, but equally accepted?

Systemic racism is just one such thing, still too acceptable by some. And systemic sexism, enacted into practice by unequal pay and unfair policies, feeds and nourishes a culture in which women still are second class citizens.

But what else is in there, at the roots of our culture, accepted, but rotten at the root? What wrongs are so accepted that no one but the victim notices, and keeps silent because “that’s just the way things are.” The Psalmist had it right, “Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults....”

—Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 29, 2017

New Version of Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; he's really great; the best. I don't need anything... takes me to the best places, golfing — the greens are beautiful, really good. Nice lake. Takes great care of the highways, really good care... sign with his name on it, so he gets the credit. Great job! Even out in Death Valley... I was there once. Really hot, but heat doesn't bother me. He sent his whole staff, we had a good meeting. Very good meeting. Nice lunch, even with Chuck and Nancy there. Losers. But we’re doing great things. Really good things, always. 


November 26, 2017

Remembered Music

Some members of the parish at which I'm an associate (Advent, Baltimore) have inspired me to dig out my recorders and start playing again. I was an avid recorder player in high school and college, and played in a consort (“The Flying Buttresses”) in my early years in NY, and during my time in the choir at Saint Luke in the Fields.

Since then the instruments languished, and I fell out of practice. Happy to say that much of it comes back, somewhat like bicycling, though I am by no means back up to speed or agility. But I'm continuing to practice every day, and enjoying playing music I much missed. Hoping to connect with other recorder and early music enthusiasts, and play a bit with the parishioners who inspired me to get back into the swing of things, I've even rejoined the American Recorder Society after a 30 year hiatus, and will look into the Maryland Early Music Society.

(The image is from the late 80s or early 90s... playing an alto recorder at a Brotherhood of St Gregory liturgy.)

November 18, 2017

The price of liberty, or libertines

I’m sure I'm not the only one who has noticed that in an era where hard-core porn is accessible to fingertip reach on ubiquitous screens, and things appear on network TV that in earlier years would have been subject to prosecution even if displayed in private smoke-filled back rooms, there is a simultaneous call for an almost Victorian propriety in the workplace, in which an off-color joke or a misplaced hand on an unwilling shoulder might be cause for dismissal. I find the tut-tutting of commentators expressing horror and disgust at the Al Franken photo to be incongruous given the language and attitudes expressed on, say, the Celebrity Roasts on basic cable channels, where crowds applaud the most vulgur obscenities about both women and men, issued with the proviso of “no disrespect.” To say nothing of the incongruity of the incumbent in the White House joining in the tut-tutting.

Perhaps Yeats was right after all, and the center cannot hold, but we are entering the widening gyre where prudery and license spin, and the moral compass cannot find true North.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 14, 2017

Right of Marriage

In the current debate concerning marriage equality in Australia, as in similar debates in other countries, including the United States, marriage is often held up as a basic human right. In spite of the wide recognition of the right to marry in such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, some oppose seeing marriage as a right. The opposition often comes from members or leaders of church bodies. However, in denying marriage as a right, such opponents undercut and deny the same principle that protects the practice of religion: not religion merely as singular personal belief as a species of freedom of thought, but religion in practice as gathered worship as a species of the right to assembly. It is a right of expression, not merely of thought.

It is in this that the right to marry, which is also species of the generic right to free association and assembly, that the church finds its kindred freedom, the freedom to practice its religion in a corporate fashion. For according to the author of Ephesians, it is as the assembly of the many into one — the great mystery of Christ and the church — that the church resembles marriage, the fundamental and most intimate form of human association, the type of all society, including the church.

To attack the right to marry is to attack the fundamental basis of all human communion, and to assault the foundational right upon which the church itself is built.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 24, 2017

Light, Not Heat

I'm very happy to announce that my latest project,What About Sex?, is now off press and available through Church Publishing and many other outlets. It is part of the new series "Little Books of Guidance" and as such it is designed as a guide rather than a law-book, offering [I hope!] more light than heat.

It is meant to provide the 21st-century Christian or seeker with a moral compass to navigate the changing landscape of sex and sexuality. That landscape has changed considerably since the times in which the Bible was composed — and the Bible itself testifies to some of that change, as do the evolving traditions and customs of the church. This little book places the testimony of Scripture and church tradition into the context of their own and other cultures, with tools to make the best reasonable use of the guidance they provide, in light of how Jesus himself engaged with the Scriptures, traditions, and cultures he encountered. All of this interacts with the findings of science and psychology, with a goal to inform and guide rather than to lay down the law. It is not about what goes where or who does what to whom, but about what it means to be an embodied person with responsibilities both to oneself and others. It is not an answer-book, but a guide to help seekers form their own answers to questions big and small, even as those answers lead to further questions. What About Sex? will be useful for personal study, and as a resource for adults and older youth.

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 21, 2017

No Boundary to Grace

A sermon for Proper 15a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Church of the Advent, Federal Hill Baltimore

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others...+
All of our Scripture readings today point in the direction of healing the division that has existed since the days when God first made a covenant with Abraham and designated him as the ancestor of a special, holy, and chosen people. This was a people separated from all the other nations of the earth. The covenant of their separation was cherished by the Jewish people down through the centuries. The covenant was also renewed many times down through the years. Moses recommitted the people to obey their God at Mount Sinai. Joshua recommitted them, challenging them to obey the Lord as he and his household swore to do, when they entered the Holy Land. Ezra and Nehemiah reminded the people of these commandments after exile in Babylon, and the Maccabees did the same after their liberation from the Greeks. Time and again that message was hammered home: you are God’s chosen people, unique in all the world because of your relationship with the maker heaven and earth.

That message, as it came to be understood — or perhaps I should say misunderstood — was that salvation itself was only for the children of Israel — a people chosen not only for this world but for the next. Among the rabbis it became a topic of debate as to whether a non-Jew — even a righteous one — could have any share at all in the life of the world to come.

Of course, the rabbis were good lawyers, so they focused on the Law, but in the process neglected the Prophets. For the prophets, such as Isaiah, had revealed that God had a special place reserved for the Gentiles who sought God and dedicated themselves to righteousness in God’s name. In spite of these prophetic promises, the question of whether Gentiles were worth God’s notice, or God’s salvation, was still a hot topic among the rabbis by the time of Christ.

You could even read Jesus in this morning’s Gospel as a supporter of this theory of Israelite exceptionalism. He appears to adopt that stricter view that Gentiles and foreigners are not God’s concern — God’s interest is in caring for the children of Israel, maybe as part of a plan to “make Israel great again!”

But then Jesus appears to be moved by the Canaanite woman’s persistence, and her chutzpah in talking back to him when he indirectly compares her tormented child to a dog. She is bold enough to remind Jesus (who has himself brought up the analogy of food and the dinner table) that even dogs are remembered and fed — along with the children — even if only with crumbs.

+ + +

Now, I’ve often wondered if Jesus really was being as hard-hearted as he appears to be to this poor woman with a sick child, or if he wasn’t perhaps testing his disciples — seeing whether they would abide by the prevailing view that foreigners are second-class interlopers, unworthy of God’s attention. Was he testing them to see if they would show the kind of gracious openness Jesus himself shows on other occasions? You note that it is the disciples who first urge him to send her away...

But that is a topic for another sermon. Because whatever the reason, whether Jesus was moved by this woman or was testing the disciples, in the end he broke through that boundary to allow grace to flow freely to a Gentile. And of course, by the end of Matthew’s Gospel it is abundantly clear that Jesus intends salvation for the whole world. By the end, Jesus sends the disciples out to baptize all nations — which is to say all Gentiles — into the faith of the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

+ + +

In today’s epistle, Saint Paul addresses this question in the manner of a good rabbi — which, as he often reminds us, he was, a student at the feet of Gamaliel, himself a student of Rabbi Hillel the Great. In the rabbinic debates of those days, Hillel had been an advocate of the generous view that Gentiles could be saved, and Paul no doubt came to believe that in Jesus Christ this doctrine of his spiritual grandfather had come true.

Much of Paul’s letter to the Romans is an effort to explain just how this might work. In the section we heard today the image is almost one of a seating at a banquet. Those who had formerly been seated — God’s chosen ones — have lost their seats through disobedience. Only that misbehavior has opened up the possibility for the Gentiles to take their place — for a time. And that “for a time” is important because Paul promises the eventual ushering back in of all of God’s people, all whom God foreknew and chose as his own — Jew and Gentile — for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.

+ + +

In God’s good time, there is plenty of room for Gentile and Jew alike on the mountain that Isaiah envisages. In God’s good time there is no boundary to grace, nor a wall around it, no limit to the abundance of God’s generosity and patience with Jew and Gentile alike. The ultimate message that Paul is transmitting in his Letter to the Romans is that salvation is the work of God. Just as the original creation is the work of God, so too is the new creation in Christ; it is God’s work. It is God’s project.

And it is God’s party — and God invites to it whoever God wishes. It is not for self-righteous party crashers to push themselves forward on the basis of their own righteousness. Nor, even worse, is it right for some at the party to seek to keep others they judge unworthy out, but for all to trust in the saving mercy of God, and God’s invitation, as the only basis for admission to the banquet. We are not invited to the banquet on the basis of our righteousness, but God’s righteousness, God’s generosity.

God has cried out the invitation to the ends of the earth, and cries out still: it’s God’s party and he’ll cry if he wants to! And through the prophets and apostles, through the church, God cries out: Come! There is plenty of room at the table, and crumbs aplenty under it — but believe you me, no child of God invited to that table will have to live on crumbs, but will receive the choice and richest portions of the feast. As I said, this is God’s party. God’s grace is God’s, after all. And our God is a God of abundant blessing and not of parsimonious stinginess, a God not of crumbs and crusts but of marvelous abundance, of multiplied loaves, and bread showered from heaven enough to feed a people forty years. The table is set, not in a cramped and crumbling hut, but in the grandest wedding banquet hall, in the house of prayer for all nations. The invitations have gone forth to the ends of the world, to people near and far: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” Happy are those who are called to this supper.+

June 5, 2017

The Benedictine Options

Regarding Rob Dreher’s The Benedict Option I’m inclined to think the plural ought to have been invoked. The option Dreher offers is more or less a standard “flight from the world” model in which like-minded Christians edge away from wider secular society (rather than completely walling themselves off from it), clustered near each other and their churches in what amounts to abdication of the possibility of redeeming the rest of the fallen world. They gather together to live a more perfect life, in accord with their beliefs, having lost the fight to impose their views in the public square.

There is nothing new in that model. Groups of Christians (and Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and probably many others) have followed just this course of action, forming just this sort of community, down through the centuries. Some of them have been Benedictine.

But I would argue that this is not the only, nor the principal, model for Christian religious community, Benedictine or otherwise. From a Christian perspective, Dreher emphasizes the “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling” model rather than the gospel call to bring a saving message to the world — a world already saved but in need of waking up. (Perhaps he follows a more Calvinist model in which salvation is partial rather than universal?) And from a community perspective, there is a difference between gathering a body of like-minded believers in contempt of the world, in pursuit of purity and perfection, and gathering a group of penitents who know their imperfection and need of support in order to do any good at all — between those who see the community of the church as a society of the elect and perfected, and those who see it as a clinic for sinners, the wounded healers gathered for comfort and strength not as an end in itself, but in order to be sent back out in witness to the power of God's love.

There is more than one option, including for Benedictines.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

May 26, 2017

Scenes from the Life of St Gregory the Great: Scene 2 — The English Mission

For the feast of Augustine of Canterbury, a dramatic reading of the correspondence between Gregory the Great and the Archbishop of Canterbury. With yours truly and Br Thomas Bushnell in the roles.

Of the Paradox of Anglican Tradition

It is a paradox of the Anglican Way that one of its traditional tenets is that tradition is unreliable as an independent source of authority. This paradox is evident in the works of the judicious Hooker (who never mentioned a three-legged stool) and the more authoritative Articles of Religion. Anecdotally, I have seen this paradox play out a number of times in religious community and the ecclesiastical life of the church. Time and again, people who come to religious life, or to positions of leadership in the church, expressing a desire to be under authority come to reject that authority when it proves either less than authoritative or authoritatively asserts something contrary to what they independently want to believe. It is as if they are saying, “I want to be told what to think,” but when they are told to think for themselves, or are told something they do not find congenial, dig in their heels or shake the dust from them. It has been my experience that the most schismatic and disobedient are the ones who profess to hate schism and claim obedience “to a higher authority” — code for “one that agrees with me.” They head off to seek a church or community which either tells them what to do, or places them at the apex of leadership.

Anglicanism, as it is expressed in The Episcopal Church, lives in this tension, and seeks to help people to find a mature faith growing from within rather than impressed from without. Instead of formation — molding the person to fit a necessary pattern — it is education — the drawing forth of insight, relying (it is true) on a framework, but trusting to the power of the indwelling Spirit to guide and nurture.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 14, 2017

Triduum Thoughts

At last night’s Maundy Thursday liturgy, I felt a bit like Scrooge on Christmas Day: “I don’t deserve to be so happy.” But I was, despite the solemnity, perhaps because of it. Last year on Maundy Thursday I was in the hospital ER with a heart attack, waiting to be operated on the next day... yes, on Good Friday, under local anesthetic, able to watch my beating heart on the fluoroscope as the doctor threaded it with a stent, lying on the table in the same hospital in which I was born, intimations of mortality dancing in my head like preserved sugar plums.

But last night — through the washing of the feet (with painful knees on the stone floor) as I have done so many times before, but then to a liturgical act new to me, cleaning the altar with water carefully poured into the five incised crosses on the mensa, and wiping it down with the same sort of towel used to dry the parishioners’ feet, and then using that same moistened towel, folded, to stifle the light of the sanctuary lamp, watching it dim and die, stopping Ed the cantor’s voice as all the lights went out — I experienced the same inexplicable joy.

More apt for joy, perhaps, such moments as bearing the incomparable weight of the Body to the Altar of Repose, beneath the canopy, God’s parachute. But the most joyous moment came at the Sursum Corda. As I turned and looked down the long aisle of the nave, out through the clear glass doors and the open wooden ones, I saw a man across Charles Street, walking along, who at that same moment turned to look into the church. He stayed standing directly, centrally opposite, looking, through the call for lifted hearts, the call for thanks to be given. I was calling to him perhaps more than to the people already churched, already on board. I don't think he could have heard me — the glass doors, open earlier, had been closed to hush the sounds of traffic on that busy street — but I hoped he knew, and knows, that I was calling him, I was calling him on behalf of someone far greater than us all. And I hope his heart was touched by that mystery, if even only for a moment, and that perhaps those doors, or the doors of some other place where God is calling, will feel the press of his hand, and gently open wide.

I don’t deserve to be so happy. But I am.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG