September 28, 2009

Thought for 09.28.09

Fruits and Consequences

There was an interesting short news story on NPR this morning concerning the drying-up of the Mesopotamian paradise long thought to be the historic background to the Garden of Eden. And it got me thinking whether the tale in Genesis 3-4 doesn't preserve an authentic memory — not of a change in location, but of climate.

Moreover, it strikes me that even if human interaction with the Garden didn't lead to its drying-up — though perhaps there is a hint in Cain's metier as a "tiller of the ground" and the movement from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist linked with the end of Eden — it strikes me that in our contemporary situation it is precisely our recent treatment of our "island home" that is rendering our being kicked off the island all the more likely.

We have plucked many fruits from the soil of this world, and may within the next century reap the harvest due to those who slash and burn. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, fruit for fruit, and "fire next time" in a slow bake, and hunger sore. Thus famine follows intemperate feast.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 26, 2009

The Upside-downity of Subsidiarity

I've been thinking more about the proposed Covenant and Archbishop Rowan's post-GC Reflections these last few days, including some helpful conversation in London, both with friends and in connection with other programs. I have also found Savi Hensman's essay to be of great help in providing some further digestive enzymes to break down the harder-to-swallow portions. I promise to offer some additional thoughts on the Covenant and the Archbishop's Reflections anon, but wanted to note a shift in direction within the Virginia Report and further movement in the Windsor Report which is, I think, to some extent diagnostic (if not prognostic) about less than helpful trends. It has to do with a shift in the understanding of subsidiarity.

The Virginia Report (4.8 ) helpfully quotes the Oxford English Dictionary for its definition of subsidiarity:

The principle of "subsidiarily" has been formulated to express this investment in the local and face-to-face. Properly used, subsidiarily means that "a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level."
and goes on to say (4.9):
Subsidiarity may properly be applied to the life of the Church in order to resist the temptation of centralism.
However, a bit further along the drift towards that very centralization begins to scrape bottom, including the introduction of vertical rather than horizontal language (albeit in scare-quotes):
4.10 ...Every "higher" authority ought to encourage the free use of God's gifts at "lower" levels. There must be clarity on what has to be observed and carried out at that level, and also on the limits of its competence. As much space as possible should be given to personal initiative and responsibility. For example, in the relationship between a bishop and a parish priest and congregation, there is initially a giving of responsibility to the latter for the task of worship, witness and service within its geographical boundaries or area of immediate influence. The priest and parish will be given a set of tasks which they are obliged to fulfil. These will be few in number and general in character The limits of their authority and responsibility will also be explained to priest and parish. These will essentially reflect agreements made previously by church synods, and expressed in canons and other ways. They will be honoured by all unless and until they are changed by the due processes of agreement. Subject to such boundaries the priest and parish will be encouraged to use all their gifts, energy and commitment to enable the gospel to go forward in that area. The bishop and parish priest will maintain the highest level of communication possible so that encouragement, advice, and, where necessary, correction can be given, together with new task as occasion arises.

4.11 Anglicans may properly claim that the observation of different levels and the granting of considerable freedom to the lowest possible level has been a feature of their polity. In Anglicanism today canonically binding decisions can only be made at the level of a Province or in some Provinces at the level of a diocese.
You will notice that the text I have italicized in section 4.11 has already inverted understanding of "subsidarily" from the assignment of broader duties to a more central authority into the grant of freedom to a lower level.

By the time we get to Windsor, even this dim memory has faded, and subsidiarity is essentially trivialized, and described as only concerning matters literally of no importance.
38 This highlights a fourth key strand of our common life: subsidiarity, the principle that matters should be decided as close to the local level as possible. Subsidiarity and adiaphora belong together: the more something is regarded as 'indifferent', the more locally the decision can be made. It does not take an Ecumenical Council to decide what colour flowers might be displayed in church; nor does a local congregation presume to add or subtract clauses from the Nicene Creed. In part this belongs with the missionary imperative: the church must give its primary energy to God's mission to the world, not to reordering its internal life.

39 The fourth reason for our present problems is thus that it was assumed by the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Diocese of New Westminster that they were free to take decisions on matters which many in the rest of the Communion believe can and should be decided only at the Communion-wide level.
And so it is that this notion, originally about the bottom-up nature of governance, which refers by a natural process broader functions to a more centrally coordinated authority, has become the classical pyramid of top-down government.

Yet surely it can be shown, as I have stated time and again, that the actions of New Westminster and TEC were precisely consonant with the original meaning of subsidiarity. To use the language of WR39, their assumptions were precisely correct, and the false assumption was that of those who felt such matters could only be decided at the Communion-wide level. However, as the Virginia Report notes, "In Anglicanism today canonically binding decisions can only be made at the level of a Province." There is no Communion-wide canonical procedure for the approval of the election of bishops, for example, and no bishop has any authority outside his or her own province -- that is, the province that, through its appropriate canonical processes (the only such processes that exist, approved his or her ordination. The office of bishop is precisely the locus of a subsidiary function. Until an Anglican Congress or Council is established, bishops of the whole Communion have been given no authority to legislate for the whole Communion. They have not yet been granted that subsidiary authority, to do what cannot be done more effectively at a local level, where, if a Province doesn't want to have a partnered gay bishop, it need not do so -- nor allow such a one to function within its borders.

I will not comment at length on the topic of same-sex marriage, since it is of even less necessary impact beyond those places where it may take place. No one is forcing any other province to do what it doesn't want to do. In the long run, either the individual Provinces have certain liberties in matters of rites and ceremonies -- an explicitly Anglican declaration of subsidiarity and provincial liberty from the very beginning -- or they don't.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 22, 2009

Further thoughts on Grace

A previous short note on this subject generated a good bit of discussion. I asserted that the catch-phrase "cheap grace" is one of those handy terms that is misleading: grace is always free -- not cheap which implies some bargain-rate cost -- it is a gift, as Paul affirms: if it cost us something it wouldn't be a gift. (It cost the one who gave it everything.) The proper "cost" to us lies in discipleship, which is subsequent to the acceptance of the gift. Perhaps the free gift of grace might be thought of as something like the gift of a craft-kit, a knitting or embroidery project complete with yarn, or thread and canvas, together with a pattern in a neat plastic bag. Work will be required to follow that pattern to produce the final objective, ultimately both a gift from another and the work of one's own hands. Thus, as Paul says, we are saved by grace but also work out our own salvation -- even as we know that it is really God at work in us to empower us to action. (Phil 2:12-13)

Today's morning office reading from 2 Kings seems to me to be a short summary of the personality types who variously fall along the grace / works spectrum. Naaman clearly expects that he will be asked to do something extraordinary both to obtain healing (= salvation) and to give thanks for it. The true prophet demands only the simplest of tasks, and asks no thanks -- and Naaman accepts after a brief protestation on both counts. He represents, I suppose, the normal human who knows -- or thinks -- that important things are costly, but is willing to accept correction, and continues to give thanks and ask forgiveness for any subsequent missteps.

Then there's Gehazi. I can't help but see in him a kind of parsimony as to God's grace; that it really should be more costly. And so, on his own initiative he sets out to wring some profit from the man from whom the true prophet asked none. The ultimate irony is that the ailment of Naaman then falls upon him.

This suddenly reminds me of the themes in Cocteau's La belle et la bête: the cost of the plucked rose, the tedious and irksome discipleship of the magical kingdom where one is waited on hand and foot, La Bête's desire only for freely given love that would transform him -- even as he tries to purchase it with jewels and finery (all rubbish when compared to the surpassing freedom he desires), and the interchange that transforms greedy Avenant into a beast slain by Diana as he assumes the beast's likeness.

Clearly there is a deep taproot of mythic and authentic truth at work in this interplay between freedom and service -- salvation and ministry. May we rejoice always in our salvation, and work with willing hands and hearts to do God's will, as servants and disciples who do not tally cost, but serve as freely as the gift is given, whereby we are empowered to serve.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 14, 2009

In London

Arrived in London yesterday in the wee hours, and spent the day walking about the city, and growing accustomed to the Underground. Midday had a fine walk from Charing Cross up the Strand and across Waterloo Bridge, from which the snap above "Time Pieces" was taken, and then on to lunch with Giles Goddard and Simon Sarmiento. This morning, said Morning Prayer in the Chapel at St Andrew's, on this the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. At breakfast sampled the fabled Marmite, but also some fine English marmalade. Hope to head off to see the Tate Britain, though the Turner exhibit is not yet open, and much of what I would have liked to have seen will be by this time likely moved into that installation. Still, no doubt there will be Constable, Blake, and others. On this my first trip to England I can attest that the sky looks just as Constable, Turner, and others, have shown it to be.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 10, 2009

September Midday Mass

The tall old priest entered the half-lit sacristy,
fresh from his usual Tuesday morning studies.
The fair-haired acolyte with the bad complexion
was ready, vested, standing in the dimness
quietly. The old priest noticed he was sniffing
and his eyes were red. A failed romance,
he thought; but keeping his own rule on chit-chat
in the sacristy, vested silently.
The old familiar motions and the prayers
displaced whatever thoughts he might have had;
the only dialogue to break the stillness was
the rote exchange of formal preparation.

Then, in one motion as he slipped his hand
beneath the pale green veil, the other hand
upon the burse, he lifted vested vessels,
turned and followed in the sniffing server’s
wake. Eyes lowered to the holy burden
in his hand, he failed to notice that
the chapel for this midday feria —
on other days like this with one or two
at most — was full of worshippers; until
he raised his eyes, and saw the pews were filled —
but undeterred began the liturgy:
the lessons and the gospel from last Sunday,
his sermon brief, but pointed, on the texts.

It wasn’t till the acolyte began
the people’s prayers, and choked out words of planes
that brought a city’s towers down, and crashed
into the Pentagon, and plowed a field
in Pennsylvania, that the old priest knew
this was no ordinary Tuesday in
September —
not ordinary time at all,
that day he missed the towers’ fall.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

first posted on March 8, 2008

September 6, 2009

The Heterosectual Communion

The soi-disant Anglican Communion Institute has a knack for inverting the old Latin tag, "the mountains labored and bore a mouse." In this case the gang of three, augmented by an attorney and a bishop, have given birth to a mountain of verbiage which in the long run, fundamentally flawed as it is, amounts to less than a mole-hill.

The attorney in question, Mr. McCall, of whose eccentric writings I have commented elsewhere, is apparently retired from the field of international law, in which, one hopes, he had some skill in practice. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer everything looks like a nail, and so this paper applies the international law definition of the word autonomy to the very different ecclesiastical context, in which it has an almost antithetical meaning, and the more basic one, "self-governing." The notion of comparing the autonomy of a member church of the Anglican Communion (there being no superior synod as of yet) to an autonomous indigenous people living within the borders of another superior state — well, that is not the closest parallel I think most Anglicans would light upon. But as I say, Mr. McCall has trod that path before, with that peculiar leapfrog of governance from diocese to communion without recognition of the provincial authority that is, in fact, at the head of the governing hierarchy.

The more serious problem with this paper is its failure to understand the essential premise under which the Anglican Communion is actually working — pace Bishop Wright's and Ephraim Radner's insistence otherwise. That they both have worked at the behest of the Archbishop of Canterbury does not necessarily indicate that they have fully grasped the intent of his program — which is unity in difference, not division because of it. It should be clear to anyone but the most heart-set on purity of doctrine that the Archbishop desperately wants to keep the Communion together, not preside over its division.

The purpose for drafting a Covenant is not to ensure that all who agree to it will think and act alike and so because of that uniformity of thinking and doing stay together . (If that were the purpose, it is doomed from the start.)

The purpose of the Covenant is to ensure that we will stay together precisely when we have differences — that we won't start flying apart the next time some contentious issue comes along, as no doubt it will. The Covenant is designed to deal with future disagreements, not to settle the differences of the past or present. (Some suggest that this cause is equally doomed from the start.)

But the bright light at the tunnel's end is not, I think, a train heading our way. I sense a greater willingness in the Communion to hang together, to accept some of the differences of the recent past and present as not "communion-breaking" and certainly not as rendering participation by the majority of the member churches — including TEC — impossible. This is why the folks at ACI expend such futile energy in painting a very different picture — a picture of an Anglican Communion no longer inclusive of TEC, or anyone else who thinks otherwise than they do on an assortment of topics.

Fortunately, the language of the Covenant is not about settling the controversies, but about living with them. It is about the manner of life to be followed by the Communion as a whole, its chosen lifestyle, if you will: shall it be one that embraces difference of opinion under a loving and overarching charity; or shall it give in to the old fissiparousness that has plagued Western Christendom from long before the Reformation?

In short, How best can the Many be One.

Paul the Apostle provided one answer: unity in Christ in which the various organs of the body retain their different gifts and functions, and yet are part of one body, under one Head, who is Christ, and in whom unity emerges not from uniformity, but through fellowship, a vibrant fellowship that relishes its own heterogeneity and delights in its manifold gifts.

The ACI provides the other sort of answer, the uniformity that seeks to place some other thing in God's place -- unity itself idolized into a Golden Calf, to which difference is sacrificed, beaten to a homogenized pulp.

Little ones, keep away from idols.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 3, 2009

God's Gift

Grace is not only cheap, but free. The price was paid by someone other than ourselves, who came to us while we were in the depths of sin, and forgave us when we didn't know what we were doing.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 2, 2009

Thought for 9.01.09

I was reading an interesting essay by Michael Poon today, and it led me to think about what happens when we mistake our own particular cultural models for the gospel. It seems to me that one of the singular tragedies of the missionary endeavors of the 16th through the 19th century was their "marriage" of Christianity with European Culture. For Native Americans, Africans, and South Sea Islanders to become "Christian" seems to have had less to do with Christ and more with conformity to a European dress code. Not only did European missionaries destroy much in the way of local culture and art, but they mistook starched collars and trousers, corsets and long skirts for the Gospel. The long-range effects of such cultural bondage had a deleterious effect on the real Mission of the Gospel. Clothing became an idol for the missionaries, who equated nudity with sin. (Nudity no doubt raising specific temptations in Victorian minds — but what was the locus of the sin? Who was the sinner, the unselfconscious bare-breasted islander, or the scandalized missionary?)

I suppose the question has to be, "What is today's church's idol?" What cultural artifact or folkway is being insisted upon as vital to the Christian life, to the detriment of the church's mission? Where are lines being drawn? When we place any symbol -- however venerable -- on the throne that belongs to God alone, we transform it into an idol, and that is when we become idolaters.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG