August 31, 2011

Oxford Movement (or not?)

The No Anglican Covenant Coalition has posted a concise negative review of the equally concise analysis of the Proposed Anglican Covenant prepared for the Diocese of Oxford. The NACC point to the irony of claiming the document will, at one level, "make no difference at all" (5.1) but then go on to claim (5.2) that the PAC may help the churches of the Communion

  • To articulate and explain the Anglican traditions and faith they have inherited 
  • Express their solidarity with each other, when any is the subject of misunderstanding or persecution 
  • To reinforce interdependence, mutual responsibility, and awareness of each others’ differing cultures
These assertions do not appear to me to stand up very well to close examination. I am not alone in noting the extent to which the PAC
  • introduces a significantly "different" manner of working and governance for the Communion
  • departs from several basic elements of "Anglican tradition"
  • may well formalize forms of misunderstanding and at least marginalization if not outright persecution, and
  • may impede interdependence by promoting dependency and submission, cultivate irresponsibility in enforcing change on provinces without adequate awareness of the consequences, and attempt to suppress or subsume the differences in cultures that have led to the disagreements in the first place
So, all in all, not a very good analysis from Oxford.

Tobias Stanislas Haller
see my topic tag link to Anglican Covenant for more on the problems with the PAC and its ancestors; you will note that I have waffled a bit on the extent to which the PAC is pernicious or useless, but I have never thought it was a Good Idea, particularly at this time. I never counsel marriage when a couple are having difficulties in their relationship.

August 28, 2011

On the Faults of Natural Law

This short essay is not intended as an exhaustive exploration of the subject, but is designed to express in a short space the primary difficulties I have with the concept and application of natural law. This presents a problem at the outset as there are at two very different understandings of the term “natural law.” The 1910 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the subject begins,

In English this term is frequently employed as equivalent to the laws of nature, meaning the order which governs the activities of the material universe. Among the Roman jurists natural law designated those instincts and emotions common to man and the lower animals, such as the instinct of self-preservation and love of offspring. In its strictly ethical application — the sense in which this article treats it — the natural law is the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.

It is the final understanding, and its application, I am addressing at this point — as it is the one that I feel is most pernicious and ethically problematical, and open to the greatest abuse.

However, let me first raise the question of why anyone should feel the need to develop such an overarching theory of morality in the first place. It seems to me that this stems from a desire for objective standards, rather than a willingness to live in a conditional moral universe that is subjective at its heart. The evident problem with such a desire for objectivity lies in the fact that morality itself is necessarily relative — that is, it deals with the interrelations between various entities, and how they interact with each other. This necessitates an inescapable degree of subjectivity. Even behaviors of an individual in relation to some nonhuman entity — the state, the church, or even God — are by definition relational. The desire to declare a given act as moral or immoral divorced from the relation of the actor to the act and to that which is acted upon leaves precious little with which to deal.

For example, theft, which as an act-in-itself is simply the manipulation of some object (real or — in this day and age — even virtual), is only considered “theft” because of the relationship of the thief to the thing stolen, and touches on whole areas of presupposed or unexamined philosophical groundwork such as the nature of ownership itself: what makes something “belong” to one individual and not to another. There is nothing essentially rational or necessary in the concept of ownership — it depends upon other concepts that derive from cultures and their attitudes and have no objective or universal standing.

This exposes the greatest problem with natural law: that the supposedly self-evident truths to which it appeals are themselves philosophical constructs that even if widely shared still reflect the cultural prejudices of those who share them. I commend reading the whole article in the Catholic Encyclopedia (see link below) which, dating from 1910, reveals rather clearer traces of these cultural prejudices proclaimed as self-evident truths than might be risked with such bluntness today.

In short, natural law, as a system, is hopelessly guilty of begging the question. It assumes as its necessary premises answers to some of the very issues it purports to address.

Perhaps the most “question-begging” aspect of the concept lies in the essentially useless conclusion identifying the ultimate principle of natural law. As Aquinas says, (and as the CE reports),

the supreme principle [governing all of natural law], from which all the other principles and precepts are derived, is that good is to be done, and evil avoided (I-II.Q94.2).

Well, that’s settled then. Just do what is good, avoid evil, and all is taken care of. The problem, of course, is that rational people disagree as to what is even the highest good, and what subsidiary goods flow from it, and what actions and relations are in accordance with the highest or subsidiary goods.

The problems begin almost as soon as one begins to attempt to apply the basic premise. As the article in the CE goes on to say, the universality of natural law

pertains not to those abstract imperfect formulæ in which the law is commonly expressed, but to the moral standard as it applies to action in the concrete, surrounded with all its determinate conditions. We enunciate, for instance, one of the leading precepts in the words: “Thou shalt not kill”; yet the taking of human life is sometimes a lawful, and even an obligatory act. Herein exists no variation in the law; what the law forbids is not all taking of life, but all unjust taking of life.

The emphasis above is mine: the authors recognize that the concrete reality and conditions of any action have a role in determining whether that action is in fact good or not — that is, if it is in accordance with natural law. But the natural law itself cannot be used to make that determination because all it says, in essence and in its pure form, is that one should seek the good and avoid evil. In the case cited, all hinges on what is determined to be “unjust” — and of course in some contexts even the meaning of “life” — and so the whole weight of morality has to refer to that universe of conditions and circumstances rather than to any objective, immutable, or universally shared principle.

Take, as another example, the good of procreation — any rational person would say that the continuance of the human species is a good thing. But some cultures or moral systems (such as rabbinic Judaism, see mYebamoth 6.6) have held that the duty to procreate is incumbent upon all men; while others (for example, the Roman Church) have held that celibacy is not only permissible but virtuous. (Aquinas’ way around the problem of celibacy — II-II.Q152.2 — was to note that the commandment to be fruitful and multiply was addressed not to the individual human but to humanity as a species — a rather clever solution, but one that also tends to undercut the very basis of natural law as incumbent upon every human as human! And clearly the Roman Church is not willing to apply this same principle to birth control, but invokes a completely different moral touchstone: the dubious notion that the “procreative function” is not to be separated from the “unitive.” Since these functions are to some extent separate even in nature and can further be separated by human action, and there may well be quite rational causes for doing so — for example, in the case of a woman for whom it has been determined that bearing a child would be a significant danger to her life — the objectivity of this moral law comes into question.)

Additional difficulties arise the further one wades into the defense of natural law. In an effort to define its “essence” the CE continues with these two principles:

(a) The natural law is universal, that is to say, it applies to the entire human race, and is in itself the same for all. Every man, because he is a man, is bound, if he will conform to the universal order willed by the Creator, to live conformably to his own rational nature, and to be guided by reason. However, infants and insane persons, who have not the actual use of their reason and cannot therefore know the law, are not responsible for that failure to comply with its demands. (b) The natural law is immutable in itself and also extrinsically. Since it is founded in the very nature of man and his destination to his end — two bases which rest upon the immutable ground of the eternal law — it follows that, assuming the continued existence of human nature, it cannot cease to exist. The natural law commands and forbids in the same tenor everywhere and always.

Noting already the exceptional cases of those who do not have the use of reason, another problem with this asserted universality arises when particular human actions judged irrational by some are judged rational by others. Who is to set the objective standard as to what is rational? Do we not end at base with reliance upon cultural norms and prejudices, which by definition are not universal?

The usual response from natural lawyers is to say that a culture (or an individual) who fails to follow some precept which the proponents derive from natural law is either depraved or perverse: that is to say, like infants or the insane they simply have not attained or have lost the use of reason or have reasoned in error, or they know full well that what they are doing is wrong but persist in doing it out of some innate disordered desire to do what they know full well is “evil.”

This is, however, merely a cloak for cultural prejudices. Allow me to cite one more example from the CE article, which is at some pains to defend the toleration of polygamy in the Hebrew dispensation (“dispensation” itself being a somewhat uncomfortable fit with a supposedly universal and immutable law):

Under no circumstances is polyandry compatible with the moral order, while polygamy, though inconsistent with human relations in their proper moral and social development, is not absolutely incompatible with them under less civilized conditions.

This blatantly sexist (and vaguely racist) declaration is clearly at odds with right reason. If polygamy is permitted (because it advances a primary end of marital union, i.e., procreation) then surely the same is true of polyandry. The rabbinic ruling (cited above) that commands a man whose wife does not bear a child within a certain term of years to take another assumes that the problem lies in the woman. But a woman whose husband is sterile is forbidden to take another man. This stems not from any truly “natural law” but from a firm bondage to patriarchy, in which tracking the patrilineal descent is considered crucial. Obviously matriarchy and family inheritance by matrilineal descent is not only just as “natural” but arguably more secure, as the occasional doubts about paternity do not arise in the case of maternity. In fact, I recall a woman stand-up comedian some years ago deriving quite a laugh from her line, “I don’t have any kids... [proud smirk] that I know of...!” The allowance of polygamy and rejection of polyandry is not objective and rational, but mere cultural prejudice at work. (I do not, by the way, say any of this in defense of either polygamy or polyandry, but simply to point out the inconsistency and sexism inherent in culturally conditioned “natural law.”)

So, is it possible to develop some objective standard that is actually helpful in guiding moral behavior. Clearly, simply to say, “Seek the good and avoid evil,” is entirely unsatisfactory and only begs the question — perhaps giving a useful definition of morality but no actual particular guidance to what constitutes moral behavior. It is rather like telling someone who wants to learn how to spell to use the alphabet.

Some of the hardest moral questions facing us in our day will not yield to a merely doctrinaire and “objective” conclusion. Acts cannot be judged good or bad in the abstract apart from the actors and what is acted upon, and the circumstances and motives underpinning and enveloping the action. Some will judge acts entirely on the basis of their consequences — and all sorts of ethical systems have evolved which attempt to judge the good or ill of those consequences (pleasure, prosperity and well-being of the greatest number, for example). Others will judge acts on the basis of positive laws and duties — surely a rational approach, but hard to put into practice divorced from motive and circumstance. Others will appeal to the social contract for interactions between human beings. Some, such as myself, will fall back upon the moral advice of Jesus in terms of love of God and neighbor.

My point is that the very existence of all of these various systems of morality seriously damage the credibility of the base assertions of natural law — and of all the systems at our disposal, it is the least likely actually to bear useful fruit, given its question-begging, cultural bondage and sterile dogmatism.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

citations of the Catholic Encyclopedia are from the online version of the article: Fox, James. “Natural Law.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Accessed 28 Aug. 2011 The CE received the approbation of the Roman Catholic Church as follows: Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

August 18, 2011

No Way to Run...

Every time I come upon the passage from the 24th chapter of Acts (appointed for the Daily Office today) I am reminded of the resonance between references to the early church as “the Way” to the Rabbinic concept of Halakah: the law as a Way in which one walks.

This struck me particularly this morning because I have been thinking a great deal about the dangers of ideology, and how an ideology or a theory (properly understood as a “way of seeing”) can actually prevent one from seeing a deeper reality. The phenomenon is known as “perceptual set” in some circles, “paradigm blindness” in others. Put briefly, the way you see the world can come to dominate what you see. I referred in an earlier post to the old saying, “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If as Thomas Kuhn suggests, we need a shift in our paradigms in order to see changes in reality, it seems to me that across the board in many areas of our lives we need a whole new shift-load of paradigms!

For both in church and state these days ideology is at the forefront and reality has become deeply shrouded in veils of preconception. From conversations on climate change to sexuality, the debt crisis to marriage equality, the verbiage — I cannot in good conscience call it conversation for the most part — appears to be dominated by ideologies and theories rather than fact. (I cannot be the only one who is appalled to see what has become of journalism these days: and there are times I long for a supply of bricks next to my easy chair to toss through the television screen when a “news” program cuts from an actual live speech by a world leader to a panel of pundits even before the speech is finished!) Whatever reality there may be is cocooned in layers of opinion, and there is no sign of a butterfly emerging. Not a chrysalis, but a mummy.

But back to Saint Paul and the rabbis, and this idea of the faith being a “way” — and of course acknowledging that the Jewish tradition had long understood various “ways” as being either wicked or good, depending. (See Psalm 1!)

The major contrast I want to note is the difference between a way and a place. In this case I am particularly thinking about how Paul’s alleged insult to the Temple (in fact baseless) led to his having to defend this new Way. And what is ironic is that the old Way of rabbinic Halakah itself turned out to be the means by which this form of Judaism was able to survive the destruction of the Temple — a Temple which God appears, from the early record, not actually to have wanted all that much; God preferring the Tent and Tabernacle, or the terrifying Chariot, to the petrified establishment on the hill of Zion. (Ezekiel sees a new Temple, Revelation assures us there is no Temple in the New Jerusalem. Take your pick.)

So it appears to me that Christianity itself could well be seen as an emergent non-Temple-based Judaism (among the many Judaisms of the first century) that gets detached and takes on a life of its own; much as rabbinic (rather than Temple) Judaism continued the life of that faith because it had come to see the living out of the Way of God was not dependent upon an external institution but an internalized (both individually and corporately) Way of life under the guidance of a transcendent God.

So does this have anything to say to our current ecclesiastical troubles — say, in relation to a proposed Anglican Covenant or the Indaba Process as “ways” of working? Or to our civic, national, or international concerns — government as institution or government as way of being?

Discuss among yourselves and report back!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 17, 2011

William Porcher DuBose, Priest and Theologian

Almighty God, you gave to your servant William Porcher DuBose special gifts of grace to understand the Scriptures and to teach the truth as it is in Christ Jesus: Grant that by this teaching we may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Icon above by the hand of Tobias Stanislas Haller
The photograph at the right shows the burial place of W P Dubose at Sewanee.

August 11, 2011

Florence Nightingale, Nurse and Social Reformer 1910

Life-giving God, you alone have power over life and death, over health and sickness: Give power, wisdom, and gentleness to those who follow the lead of Florence Nightingale, that they, bearing with them your presence, may not only heal but bless, and shine as lanterns of hope in the darkest hours of pain and fear; through Jesus Christ, the healer of body and soul, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

from Lesser Feasts and Fasts / Holy Women, Holy Men
ikon by the hand of Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Sing to the Lord a New Song

The Annual Convocation of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, 2011. (Photos and video by yours truly; music by Nathanael Deward Rahm BSG, sung by the Brotherhood Schola.)

August 8, 2011

An Imperfect Union

One of the issues facing clergy in New York State — joining a handful of other American jurisdictions — is the role they may play in the marriage of same-sex couples. The issue is open to a broad range of interpretation, as both the canons and the Book of Common Prayer are silent on the subject. The range of interpretation is well represented by the bishops of the various dioceses into which the Episcopal Church in the state of New York is divided. Differences of opinions between the bishops is particularly exacerbated in New York City because its five boroughs are distributed into two different dioceses: Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island are in the Diocese of New York, while Brooklyn and Queens are part of Long Island. Bishop Provenzano of Long Island has taken the position that clergy may perform same-sex marriages, while Bishop Sisk of New York has taken the position that they may bless civil marriages but not exercise the civil function in the solemnization of marriage for a same-sex couple.

This would not be a problem — or less of a problem — if we lived under Napoleonic law, in which only civil functionaries can perform the civil function of solemnizing marriage. In France a couple must take part in a civil marriage if they are to be considered married in the eyes of the state (and if they are Roman Catholic they must also have a church wedding in order to be considered married under the Roman Catholic canons.)

But here in New York, as in much of the rest of the United States, clergy are granted the faculty of performing civil marriage on the basis of their being ordained and authorized to celebrate marriages by their churches. The irony, and the misunderstanding (on the part of the civil authorities) is that according to the theology of marriage in place in the West for quite some time, the actual ministers of marriage are the couple — not the clergy. That is, the couple minister marriage to each other. The role of the church, and in particular the clergy, is to record, witness and above all to bless the marriage. But the marriage is made by the couple. So in allowing clergy the civil faculty to “perform” a marriage there was already a significant misunderstanding at play.

Ultimately this bleeds over into the current dilemma. Since blessing the marriage is all that clergy do strictly as clergy, what logic is there in forbidding them to perform the civil act of solemnization which is only theirs by gift of the state? (Except that the state only gives it because it misunderstands what the church is doing in marriage! Oh, what a mess this is...)

Canons to the right of me

The confusion is further exacerbated when we look closely at canonical rules. The first section of Canon I.18 states:

Sec. 1. Every Member of the Clergy of this Church shall conform to the laws of the State governing the creation of the civil status of marriage, and also to the laws of this Church governing the solemnization of Holy Matrimony.

We are off to a bad start with the artificial distinction between “creation of the civil status” and “solemnization.” But let that pass. The primary issue here is the mandatory conformity enjoined upon members of the clergy with the laws of the state concerning civil marriage. Several states and jurisdictions now have laws governing the civil status of marriage which permit marriage to same-sex couples. At present the “laws of this Church” do not address the question of same-sex marriage at all, either to forbid or allow. The laws of the church are designed solely to govern marriage between a man and a woman, primarily to assure that capacity to marry and consent obtain. This is how section 2 describes it:

Sec. 2. Before solemnizing a marriage the Member of the Clergy shall have ascertained:
(a) That both parties have the right to contract a marriage according to the laws of the State.
(b) That both parties understand that Holy Matrimony is a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman, entered into within the community of faith, by mutual consent of heart, mind, and will, and with intent that it be lifelong.
(c) That both parties freely and knowingly consent to such marriage, without fraud, coercion, mistake as to identity of a partner, or mental reservation.
(d) That at least one of the parties has received Holy Baptism.
(e) That both parties have been instructed as to the nature, meaning, and purpose of Holy Matrimony by the Member of the Clergy, or that they have both received such instruction from persons known by the Member of the Clergy to be competent and responsible.

Clause (b) is a problem on a number of levels1 but not primarily as a restriction on same-sex marriage. For the “understanding” that holy matrimony involves a man and a woman falls upon the couple rather than the clergy, as does the similar language in the “declaration of intent” that the couple are somewhat redundantly2 obliged to sign. The crucial thing to observe is that none of this has any impact on the civil faculty of clergy to solemnize marriage, nor on the ecclesiastical faculty of blessing the marriage (which, as I note above, is the primary clergy task from a strictly ecclesiastical point of view.)

Rite of Way

A further level of complexity concerns the lack of a nationally authorized liturgy for the marriage of same-sex couples. This is where the “generous pastoral response” of the 2009 GC Resolution C056 comes in. This Resolution, which was adopted by overwhelming majorities in both the House of Bishops and House of Deputies, states, among other things:

That bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church...
Taking advantage of the bishops’ constitutional prerogative (Article X, and BCP page 13), to authorize special forms of liturgy for occasions not already provided for in the BCP, it is well within a bishop’s scope of action to do as some have done in allowing use of experimental liturgies such as have already been developed for same-sex marriages.

In Conclusion

It seems to me that it is fully appropriate for a bishop to authorize clergy of a diocese in which the civil law allows the solemnization of same-sex marriage to perform both the civil function of solemnization and the ecclesiastical function of witnessing, registering, and blessing the marriage, using forms authorized by the bishop to that end.


1. The main problem lies in the word “spiritual” — since the tradition, and the liturgy, do not define marriage as a “spiritual union” in the Western tradition, which holds that marriage ends at death. This biblical point of view (cf. Luke 20:35, 1 Cor 7:39) is not accepted in the East, which is one of the reasons the Eastern Orthodox are not sanguine about second marriages even in widowhood.

The secondary problem concerns the marriage being “entered into within the community of faith” since as the canon states (repeating a BCP rubric) only one of the parties need to be baptized and there is no requirement at all that the witnesses be baptized.

It would probably be best to delete this whole section “b” as superfluous.

2. The Declaration of Consent contained in I.18.3.e-g repeats the language of the BCP. That a couple should have to sign this declaration prior to making the declaration as part of the marriage liturgy seems a completely unnecessary requirement, rather like requiring an ordinand to sign the Oath of Conformity before signing the Oath of Conformity in the ordination liturgy.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 5, 2011

Hammers and Nails

The first chapter of Acts shows Jesus telling the Apostles to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Spirit. With understandable impatience, and some initiative, they decide instead to fill the absent spot in their number left by the betrayal of Judas, with the essentially backward-looking criterion that the candidates have been witnesses to all that Jesus had done from the beginning They elect Matthias, who is enrolled among their number — and about whom nothing else is heard.

For it appears that the Holy Spirit, for which the Apostles were too impatient to wait, had other ideas about the shape of ministry for the emerging church. The Apostles were concerned about office while the Holy Spirit was more concerned to raise up ministries.

The pattern repeats a few chapters later when the Apostles are called upon to address the complaints of the Greek-speaking community’s widows, cleverly appointing seven Greek deacons to this newly created office, to placate the complaints and address the concerns. But once again, Stephen, notable among the deacons, very quickly overleaps his job description and engages in a prophetic ministry of preaching and proclamation that ends in his martyrdom, perhaps even sowing the seeds of Saul’s later conversion.

The church — and let’s face it, almost any institution — is very often caught between the expressions of charismatic ministry emerging to meet unexpected needs, and the tendency almost immediately to stamp these ministries with some kind of official recognition. In many cases the office is maintained even after the need for which it was created may have changed or ceased altogether. In doing this the church loses the flexibility to address the actual needs presented to it by the world, and stumbles about trying to fit people with a truly rounded charismatic call to serve an emergent need into the square hole of an office not ideally suited to that work. Or the leaders may despair of finding a suitable candidate for an office that is really no longer needed — such is the power of the office itself to conform or induce conformity. There is an old saying that if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and this can happen with ministry as well as carpentry.

This is true not just of individual offices but of programs — a church begins a ministry of feeding the homeless, for example, to meet a real need. But after some years, when changes in the neighborhood or the demographics have reduced or eliminated the homeless population, the church still feels that it must perpetuate this program even though the need has lessened or disappeared. The church has become so identified with that program that it is no longer able to see the new and emerging needs staring it in the face.

The Spirit calls us to sit lightly in our offices and our programs, to keep our eyes open to the world around us. Parishes, dioceses and even national churches can be paralyzed into inaction when they become so set on filling offices that they miss the crying needs, and the Holy Spirit’s abounding grace providing ministries emerging in their midst.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 2, 2011

A Different Gospel

And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things. And when the day was now far spent, his disciples came unto him, and said, “This is a desert place, and now the time is far passed: Send them away, that they may go into the country round about, and into the villages, and buy themselves bread: for they have nothing to eat.” He answered and said unto them, “Give ye them to eat.” And they say unto him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread, and give them to eat?” He saith unto them, “How many loaves have ye? go and see.” And when they knew, they say, “Five, and two fishes.” And he commanded them to make all sit down by companies upon the green grass. And they sat down in ranks, by hundreds, and by fifties. And he drew near and said to the disciples, “Give ye me the loaves and the fishes, that the people might be fed.” But they drawing back said unto him, “Socialist!” And looking up to heaven, he rolled his eyes and sighed deeply.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Man of Crisis and Soul

Gracious God, we thank you for the witness of William Edward Burghardt DuBois, passionate prophet of civil rights, whose scholarship advanced the dignity of the souls of black folk; and we pray that we, like him, may use our gifts to do justice in the Name of Jesus Christ our Liberator and Advocate; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

ikon by the hand of Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG