December 27, 2013

The King's Apology

King Herod was a man who weighed things in
the scale of his own judgment, in
his selfish-ordered world,
in which his life out-weighed all other lives.

So in his eyes expediency demanded that
this infant rival king be dealt with ere
he came of age to threaten Herod’s throne.
The other children were collateral loss,
indeed somewhat to be regretted
(as the later letter put it) due
to over-zealous overkill
by members of the royal forces.
(Politicians wipe away their crimes
as handily as crimes wipe out their foes.)

What? Never saw that letter?
Search the archives and I’m sure you’ll find
it, signed with Herod’s hand and seal.
“Condolences to all bereaved in Bethlehem
of Judah. Please accept my sorrow for
your loss, occasioned by excesses on
the army’s part. Those found responsible
will face review and discipline. Sincerely,
Herod, King.”

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
the image is “Aaronic Blessing #3 — The Holy Innocents” 12/26/13

December 25, 2013

Warning for Storytellers

Saint Stephen is considered the first martyr — the first Christian to perish as a result of his proclamation of the gospel. As I encounter the story year by year in the Daily Office, I can’t help but sympathize to some small extent with the rising anger the elders must have felt at his long retelling of the Sacred Story. “How dare this young pup lecture us on our own history!” they well might have said — in spite of the important role that repeating the tale held in their tradition.

That he had a Greek name, and likely a Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jew was also grating to these elders. And when, in the coda of his testimony, his language turned to prophetic invective, no doubt his fate was sealed.

Another young zealot, though of the opposing point of view, stood guard over the coats, and agreed with the slaughter. Saul himself would later sing from a different hymn-sheet, but at the stoning of Stephen, he stood firm with a smug sense of satisfaction that this upstart had been silenced.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The image is from my continued efforts to portray the saints as “real people” and is modeled on my Brother Richard Edward.

December 24, 2013

Christ Child's Play

We are called to welcome Christ, yet how often is he left out, outside in the cold in the feed-trough?

SJF • Christmas Eve 2013• Tobias Haller BSG
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.+

And so we come once again to this holy night, as the old song says, the night when the Savior was born. We hear the story as the historian Luke tells it, fixing the date by means of names of the rulers — that’s how people kept track of things in those days before we had B.C. and A.D., they referred to the politicians in office at the time, emperor and governor. Luke fixes the place by naming the towns and the regions: from Nazareth in Galilee on down to Bethlehem of Judea. And he pins down the people on the basis of their heritage — descended from the house and family of David. Nowadays we would call them Davidsons, of which this parish had its share in its early days, and for whom Davidson Avenue just a block to the east is named. History can teach you some unusual lessons!

So we gather here, in the first year of the second term of the presidency of Barack I, during the governorship of Cuomo son of Cuomo, in the church of Saint James on the road named for Jerome of Brooklyn and the Bronx, nigh unto Davidson Avenue. We, like the shepherds of old, are gathered to welcome a child; a promised child, who had been spoken of hundreds of years before he was born, and has been spoken of every Christmas since. This is the child of whom Isaiah spoke, the child who has been born for us, the son given to us; upon whose shoulders rests the authority of God, and to whom is given that powerful, wonderful, mighty, everlasting and royal name.

But let us not forget he is still a child — a newborn child; born in the cold season, in an uncomfortable place; wrapped to keep him as warm as possible, but placed in a feeding trough instead of a cradle, because there was no room for them in the inn. A child has been born to us; but where do we put him?

+ + +

I spoke this past Sunday about how we ought to welcome Christ and the grace he brings. As the hymn says, we are to “fling wide the portals of our hearts” to welcome Jesus in, to welcome his gracious entry into our hearts. And yet how often is he left out, outside in the cold in the feed-trough? We might hope to say, well we would never do that! But remember how he said, as you have done to the least of these you have done it unto me?

I could remind you that just the other day a man threw his three-year-old son of the roof of a building, and then jumped to his death himself. I could tell you that earlier today in the fantastic slums built upon and around the city dump in São Paulo Brazil, a little boy was picking over the few items he rescued from that stinking, dangerous, poisonous garbage pile, those few torn and tattered things which he can trade for a few cents. I could tell you that earlier today somewhere in Soweto there was a young girl, 9years old, moaning quietly and weeping on her cot as she tried to fall asleep and forget the pain and hurt and abuse she suffered when her uncle raped her, because he believed the fable that sleeping with a virgin would cure him of AIDS. I could tell you that even as I speak a 12-year-old boy in the suburbs of Denver Colorado holds his father’s unguarded handgun in his hands, ready in a moment to end the interminable bullying he has suffered by putting an end to his short, miserable life. I could tell you countless such stories; stories that show what this world too often does to children. After all, it is so terribly easy to say, “We would never send a newborn child off to sleep in a feed-trough.”

Nor was it different back then — not only was this special child Jesus born in a barn and laid in a feed-trough, but in short order the king sent shock troops to the town to kill him; and just to be sure they killed all the little boys in the village. Some things haven’t changed. Syria and the Sudan have taught us nothing new about genocide. There is nothing new about horror and abuse and poverty and tyranny.

It has been said that you can judge a society on the basis of how it treats its children — well, maybe other people’s children. How would our world be judged against the world into which Christ was born? Is it really any better, for all our advances? Will it stand well in the judgment? For believe you me, it will be judged, and by that same Christ! He will have all the experience he needs to judge just how well this world has done in welcoming him, compared to how well he was welcomed in the days of Augustus and Quirinius in the city of David called Bethlehem. Beware the judgment of this child; beware the wrath of the Lamb.

+ + +

But my! What a heavy message for Christmas! And it would be if I left us there; but there is good news in all of this, even if we have to hear those unpleasant truths first to get there. The good news is that the child born in the stable and laid in the manger is still with us. And he is mighty, he is wonderful, he is everlasting, and he is the Prince of peace. He is our Savior — and if we have failed to open the portals of our hearts to invite him in, he will not give up on us yet. Christ the Child will stand outside and knock, and call us to come out to him. He has the unparalleled patience of a child and a voice just as piercing! And remember that he not only said “as you have done to the least of these you have done to me” — he also said, “anyone who does not come to the kingdom of heaven as a child cannot enter it” and “You must be born again.”

He comes to us as a child, and calls us forth as children — and if we cannot open our adult hearts to let him in, he will help us to open our hearts so that we can go out and be born again, so that we can come out to be with him as children once again, out into the world where we can join with all of our brothers and sisters.

Jesus the Christ Child stands at the doors of our hearts and calls out in the bright voice of the child, “Can you come out to play?” His voice is so strong and clear he can call even to those who have been laid low by the sleep of death itself, a voice so powerful that it can not only wake the dead but call them forth, “Can Lazarus come out to play? Can Monica come out to play? Can Rosetta come out to play? Can Russell? Can Charles, and Sarah, and Diamond and Raquel? He is calling us, calling us all forth, this wonderful, mighty child! He is calling us forth to be born again, to be rejuvenated and restored to the innocence of children, to play with him, tonight, and every night and day.

But, be warned, this is no ordinary child’s play — this is the serious and earnest play that children play when they are most intent. They play with strict rules, children do: and among the most important is that the game can not begin until all of God’s children are gathered together. And the children will come streaming from the city dumps of São Paulo and Mexico City; they will come in procession from the South Bronx and Newark and Appalachia and Darfur; they will come in solemn procession from Newtown and Damascus; they will come running as fast as their little feet can carry them from the smokey toil of factories, from the backbreaking work of the pit-mines, from the slums, and from the cemeteries. And only when all of God’s children are gathered together — all of God’s children, from every family under heaven and on earth; from every place and every time — only then will the great game begin. Then, and only then, will the song the angels sang come true in earnest — true peace on earth, to all united in Godly wills.

So harken, my sisters and brothers, to the voice of the Christ Child when he knocks at the doors of your heart. Be born again, become a child, accept his invitation. Turn not that Child away, but join him in that newborn world; go forth and join him in his gracious play.+


Surprise

Amdist all the busyness of Christmas, including the best-laid plans that go awry, and the expectations that fail to come to pass, recall this:
  • that Mary never expected to be the Mother of God
  • that Joseph never expected to have to be guided on his course by angelic intervention
  • that they didn’t expect the inn to be full, or to have to shelter in a barn, of all things
  • that the arrival of shepherds and astrologers wasn’t in the least on their minds, to say nothing of how startled were both shepherds and astrologers, and
  • that in the long run God has this way of unsettling our settled worlds, coming in the middle of a cold winter night two thousand years ago, and threatening to come at any moment like a thief or a long-absent master returning to find the servants either busy at their duties, or neglectfully pining like a Norwegian Blue.
So buck up, me darlings, and have a wonderful Feast of God’s Inbreaking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our joy at God’s coming were as much a surprise to God as God’s coming is to us?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 20, 2013

Believing "In"

When I say "I believe in God" I am not just affirming a proposition concerning my opinion about God. I am affirming something stranger and stronger: that I believe my belief is conceived, sustained, and energized because I am "in God" — that is, in God's Body, the church. Read the Nicene Creed with that understanding in mind, and observe what a great and wonderful crowd of supporters sustains and empowers your belief — not just by being "in" the Triune God, but "in" the church, "in" the communion of saints and "in" the sacraments, and ultimately "in" the body of the resurrection itself and on into the life of the world to come.

It was an encounter with that body of the resurrected Jesus that finally allowed doubting Thomas to believe "in" the one whom he had doubted. So may we who have not seen, find our beliefs strengthened by our incorporation among the cloud of witnesses who cheer us on the Way, through the Truth, and into Life.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
ikon of Thomas from my series of "real people" portrayals of the saints

Weaned from a Pickle

The perennial question of the location of the headquarters for The Episcopal Church is on the table once more, in part in response to a resolution from the 2012 General Convention mandating a departure from the Church Center building at 815 Second Avenue, NYC. Note that this resolution only concerns the building, not NYC, as some seem to think. Still, many want that question reopened, even as a major study is going on concerning just what the structure of TEC is to be down the road, including whether it should even have an HQ at all.

The latest step in this peculiar dance is a survey designed to receive input on all sorts of aspects of a possible HQ, including its location. (Disclosure: I tried to take the survey yesterday soon after its announcement, but I think I engaged it as it was still under construction; on my second and successful "go" one of the questions I'd answered in the first round had disappeared.)

Having been a part of many such surveys in the past, however, I do wonder at the soundness of this approach to decision-making. Too many times I've seen survey results ignored as a particular juggernaut presses forward regardless of results. (The adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary is a telling case in point.) It's a good thing Moses didn't survey the Israelites as to location issues. They wanted to go back to Egypt! Oh the leeks, oh the cucumbers! It is hard to be weaned from a pickle.

Frankly, when it comes to the Church Center and its location, I've seen this road traveled so many times it has become extremely tedious. I've been around long enough to see the plans under Presiding Bishop Allin to move to the Seamen's Church Institute undone by city office-space code; the sale of Seabury House in Connecticut; the decades of various studies and plans brought to GC; and the collapse of the General Theological Seminary space-sharing scheme.

Dealing with location issues -- by survey or study or any other means -- prior to making decisions as to restructuring seems to me to be utter madness. Form follows function... or you're stuck with the form and it shapes how you function! And a diet of pickles makes for a sour disposition.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 18, 2013

Homophobia Test

This is a test of the homophobia detection system, designed particularly for the people who say that they are not homophobic, just firmly convinced on rational grounds of the wrongness of same-sex relationships.

The test requires some honesty, but it also reveals honesty when it happens. It is quite simple, and consists of a single stimulus and response. Here goes:

Stimulus: You see two men kissing passionately.
Response: If you feel any negative emotion ranging from discomfort to disgust, you are homophobic. If you calmly and unemotionally reflect, "This is contrary to Scripture," you are homophobic, because, of course, it isn't contrary to Scripture. If you sense any arousal, you are probably gay, but may also be homophobic (this is an ambiguous test result; no test is perfect!).

We now return to our regularly scheduled broadcast. A blessed remainder of Advent, and a reminder that the judge is waiting at the door.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 14, 2013

Religion as Shield for Bigotry

A thought for anti-gay religious people who don't want to be thought of as homophobes

Consider this: the fact that a given belief has a religious basis, or can be claimed to have a religious basis, does not shield the believer from being answerable to charges that the belief is wrong, false, or otherwise flawed. For many years racism had a readily available religious justification, and chattel slavery had its ardent religious defenders in most churches until well into the mid-late nineteenth century. But slavery was always morally wrong. It's just that, for example, the cultures in which Scriptures were written were not able to see past their own economic situation. It is ironic that some who protest that changes in standards amount to giving into cultural pressure, fail to recognize the degree to which cultural pressures created the very standards they think should be beyond reform.

For dealing with any such issue today, the telling indicator will be the degree to which believers apply the same rules and methods of biblical interpretation or religious thinking to actions they themselves condone or practice. A selectively applied religious standard is an offense in the eyes of God and Humanity. That is why the prophets were so offended by unequal weights and measures -- and hypocrisy.

Religion ought not be a shield, but a beacon.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 13, 2013

John of the Cross, 1591

Juan de la Cruz was a Carmelite mystic who died on December 14, 1591. He is famed for the phrase, “dark night of the soul” — the title of one of his two great mystical poems. The other, the Spiritual Canticle, is Juan’s adaptation of the Biblical Song of Songs and portrays the longing of the soul for God imagined as a lover seeking the beloved.

One of his visions was of the crucified Christ seen from above. He made a small ink drawing of this image, which later inspired Salvador Dalí to produce his famous painting, Christ of St John of the Cross.

The Collect
Judge eternal, throned in splendor, you gave Juan de la Cruz strength of purpose and mystical faith that sustained him even through the dark night of the soul: Shed your light on all who love you, in unity with Jesus Christ our Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
the model for the image is my Brother-in-Christ Francis Sebastian, a fellow seeker after the divine Beloved

Thought for 12.13.13

On Salvation Through Christ Alone
I tend to think it's a bit like gravity. "Nothing falls to the earth, including sparrows, except through gravity." The sparrow doesn't have to "believe in" gravity in order to be touched by it. Who am I to question the secret working of the power of God in human hearts, perhaps by means of which even the one worked on is ignorant?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
on the 16th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood

December 11, 2013

Not Just Stuff

Jim Naughton reports on an interview between Patricia Churchland and Graham Lawton, concerning her book Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain. Perhaps in a Freudian slip, she refers to her conclusions as, "unnerving..." But if you take away the nerves, by her standards, there can be no ideas!

The "mind-body" debate is a very old one, with a great deal of nuance. Even materialism has to first decide what "matter" is, and I don't think physics has yet plumbed the depths of material and energetic nature to the extent of absolute assurance. I don't think it is likely ever to be settled, as Churchland seems to think it is, through her process of elimination — which I fear looks a bit like a mere reluctance to accept others' perceptions as "real" — a hands over the ears and "la la la la" refusal even to accept the possibility that there is more to the mind than the brain, more to reality than just matter and energy.

Ultimately, neuroexistentialism is just another minimalizing answer to the question of Mind. I find such reductionist models less than helpful — and after all, why should I believe what Churchland or any other collection of tissues suggests is the ultimate reality?

Further questions remain: What if there is an ultimate reality to which, as Neal Stephenson suggests in Anathem, nerve tissue is uniquely sensitive and responsive? What if the brain, even if "just" tissue, is a sense organ designed to pick up on realities not otherwise sensible? What if Spirit is just as real as atoms?

If human beings are just sacks of meat, then soylent green is in our future. No thank you, P.C., I'll stick with the mind as more than the sum of its parts. As Teilhard so wisely said, "My matter is not a 'part' of the universe that I possess totaliter. It is the totality of the universe possessed by me partialiter." My mind exists outside my body, including in other minds — even as you read these words.

So here's to an expansionist, rather than a reductionist, understanding of the mind.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 10, 2013

Rachel Weeps

From my 1980 Requiem for Children.


MP3 File

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and wailing.
Rachel cries for her children and will not be consoled,
because they are not.
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.
A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and wailing.
Rachel cries for her children and will not be consoled,
because they are not.

December 7, 2013

Welcome Bishop-Elect Shin

Happy to report that the Diocese of New York has elected Allen K Shin as Bishop Suffragan, on the fourth ballot.

I thought we might be at the Convention until late in the day; but the Holy Spirit, I truly do believe, was with us from the start, and the trend was clear and manifest by the fourth ballot. God bless Allen and the beginning of a new ministry, on the anniversary of his priestly ordination, no less.

Also very happy to report that the Baptistery Chapel was reserved for prayer throughout the day, and a few of us found respite from the caucusing there -- in peaceful quiet. The placement in the Baptistery is poignant for me, as my slot in the columbarium is right there staring me in the face; a sobering call to prayer, but in this case, joyfully answered!

I knew Allen from seminary, where he was a year ahead of me. His experience in multiple cultural contexts, and internationally, will bring some new perspectives to the House of Bishops, and be a good fit for the multiplex that is the Diocese of New York. And he sings rather well.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 5, 2013

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas of Myra is the patron of children, sailors, and pawnbrokers — as well as many another town or nation. No wonder he is considered a jolly saint, to be patron to such a jolly bunch.

Many legends surround him, including calming storms, reviving pickled boys, and saving girls from life on the game by tossing bags of money down the chimney — whence we derive a good part of the current secularized job description. There is no indication in the legend that he was Bishop of the Arctic!

Herewith, however, I add my own contribution to the legend with an icon modeled on my Brother-in-Christ Nathanael Deward — a musician and director of choirs. If anyone learns the gentle art of addressing fallen humanity, including children and sailors, it is a skilled director of choirs, especially church choirs. So here is a gentle face that draws you to do better than you think you can, inspiring you to be as "good" as possible! Remember, he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good, for goodness sake!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 2, 2013

Thought of Train

The terrible train accident yesterday took place only about ten minutes by bus away from my church. It is a train line I take quite often when heading north. Waking to the news, I was struck at how much the Gospel of the day echoed the suddenness and peril of life: "Two are in the field, one is taken and another left... two are at the mill, one is taken and the other left..." Two are in a railway carriage, one is taken and another left.

I was relieved to hear later in the afternoon that my brother in Christ William Francis wasn't on the train, having made the uncharacteristic choice to miss the solemn liturgy at SMV. Again, as the Bard observed, there's a destiny shapes our ends... Or, as it is written in the annals of Dune, When it is time for one to die, there arises in that one a longing to go to the place of its death. It was not WF's time, and for that I give thanks, even while mourning the deaths and injuries of those whose time had come.


I was surprised, even later yesterday, to see on the news the more detailed reports that the train was being pushed, with the locomotive at the north end. That seems to be a recipe for disaster, as any problem with the southernmost carriage will cause a pile up -- which appears to be exactly what happened at that curve in the track. I've been around trains all my life, and I know this pushing mode is used from time to time, sometimes as an assist. But to run an entire trip from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan in this mode seems to me not to be a good practice.

Let us hope that the evidence shows the cause of the tragic accident, and provides recommendations to avoid any more on this heavily traveled corridor.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Mission East

Channing Moore Williams
Missionary Bishop in China and Japan, 1910

How does a poor farmer's son grow up to be a bearer of the Gospel half-way round the world? One answer is the Holy Spirit, coupled with that young man's willingness to cast his eyes and heart into a mission of such scope. This is a word to the church: God works for the people of the world only to the extent that willing human servants offer themselves to do that work. We have a job description, and have received our marching orders. Sometimes that march will take us to our own neighborhood, at other times to the ends of the earth. Williams took his march to China and Japan, though just at the end of his life he returned to the soil of his Virginia homeland. May all of us make such circuits and accomplish such works, in larger or smaller orbits.

Collect
Almighty and everlasting God, we thank you for your servant Channing Moore Williams, whom you called to preach the Gospel to the people of China and Japan. Raise up in this and every land evangelists and heralds of your kingdom, that your Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 29, 2013

Episcopal Elections

Over at Facebook I posted a comment, as follows, which has engendered a lively discussion.

I am distressed to see that our upcoming election for a suffragan bishop includes provision for caucusing spaces (in the chapels, no less), seconding speeches, and all the paraphernalia of politics. The only times listed for prayer are the opening Eucharist and at Noonday.

I was asked by two of the candidates if I’d give the “seconding” speech. To both I noted that I couldn’t in conscience, as I think these speeches are unnecessary (the diocesan canon allows for them but doesn’t require them) and they contribute to the “popularity contest” that is already too much of the process.

I'd love it if we spent 20 minutes in silent prayer — or singing Taizé or the Psalms — after each ballot instead of caucusing.

But in New York that is likely a lost cause... :-(

What’s your perspective? Or the practice in your diocese? As far as I know, for background, the “caucus model” in NY dates back to the election of Bishop Grein; right after the first ballot, dearly beloved suffragan (and Visitor to BSG) Bishop Walter Dennis, who was the front-runner, collapsed and was rushed to hospital (he recovered, Deo gratias, but was out of the election.) This threw the election into chaos and people started gathering in affinity agglutinations in the various chaples motu proprio. Now it is the way things are done.

Weigh in here or at FB.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 27, 2013

Thought for 11.27.13

Reading all of the debate on the attempted settlement to the English “women bishops” row, I noted someone claiming that “Our Lady” would be pleased with the continued provision of a place that those opposed to women in the episcopate could deem “safe.”

But, what if, on the other had, “Our Lady” might approve of the ordination of women — not as “headship” or power, but as an office of service and dedication. I’ve long thought that the model most helpful to the church — and the bishop — is that of “bishop as midwife.” 

If “the lowly and weak” are to be “lifted up” — as Mary sang — she evidently intended there to be no stained-glass ceiling. But the lifting up is being raised and called to serve, not pontificate.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 24, 2013

Holiness in Action

James Otis Sargent Huntington was a man who believed in life — religious life to be exact; but a religious life lived not in isolation from his fellow pilgrims, but with and among them, in a community consisting not only of the monastics, but of those among whom they served. It is fitting that his feast day is observed in the Episcopal Church not on the day of his death, but on the anniversary of his making life vows on November 25, 1884.

James was a major player in the development of religious life in the Episcopal tradition and context, part of that burgeoning interest in the late 19th century, a flowering of Anglo-Catholic social consciousness and Christian socialism — views not nourished at the bosom of Marx, but perhaps of St Mark, an example of the dangerous power of the Gospel when taken seriously and put into practice.

God be praised for the faithful work of this servant of Christ.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 23, 2013

In Paradisium

“Father, forgive them...”

There is a place that’s not a place
Where every memory wears a face,
Where nothing moves but all things race
Towards the throne of grace.

The Lamb of God is seated there,
A Monarch willing yet to share
In every joy, in every care,
With those who see his face.

Before his face are gathered in,
With every joy and every sin
Some who were lost — but all there win
Who run and end this race.

There peace with conflict’s end is found,
With righteousness and mercy bound,
And sinners’ songs with saints’ resound
Around the throne of grace.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
November  2013 — for the feast of Christ the King

November 21, 2013

Why I'm Here

Tomorrow, November 22, is the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, but also the 50th anniversary of the death of C S Lewis. Lewis was a storyteller, a poet, an apologist, and a scholar. He was also a Christian who managed to put into words some of what Christianity might mean in a mid-century context. He had his faults, to be sure, his blind spots, as all of us do. But his vision, when he got it right, was "spot on."


It was largely as a result of discovering his work in the mid 60s, along with that of Teilhard de Chardin (and there's an unlikely combo for you!) that I was led back into Christianity from a kind of earnest agnosticism and romantic orientalism. I'm not about to launch into a chorus of Amazing Grace, but boy, I'm glad I found Lewis (the Narnia books and then the "Space Trilogy" before launching into his apologia and polemics). After a fashion, he saved my life... or at the very least helped to make it what it is. To God be the Glory, and thanks for giving the world C S L.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
icon from earlier this year, tempera on panel

November 12, 2013

Song of Another Simeon

Charles Simeon was a leader in the Evangelical revival of the Church of England, calling the clergy especially to a high standard of devotion and practice. Among his more influential acts is his role in the founding of the Church Missionary Society in 1799 — a strong force in the outreach of the Church of England around the globe. Among those he influenced was the young Henry Martyn, who traveled to India and the Middle East, translating the Scriptures and the Book of Common Prayer into the languages of the people.

Let us pray. O loving God, we know that all things are ordered by your unerring wisdom and unbounded love: Grant us in all things to see your hand; that, following the example and teaching of your servant Charles Simeon, we may walk with Christ in all simplicity, and serve you with a quiet and contented mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 8, 2013

Creating Problems

The most recent reflections from GAFCON assert that same-sexuality is a rebellion against or a departure from “the created order.” This position of course of necessity must take as an underlying premise that sexual orientation is not real, but is rather a collection of behaviors or inclinations. This enters into muddy metaphysical waters (“Is the mind real or is it only the behavior of the brain?” And if the latter, “What makes the brain behave that way?”). It also must of itself require that heterosexual orientation is equally mere behavior, not being — so we are back where we started with having to decide that some behaviors are good and others bad. Morality, after all, is about behavior, not being.

There are grave problems with the thesis that gay and lesbian relationships — even those evincing moral values such as fidelity — are rebellions against creation, and they go to the source of the notion. Those who hold this position admit that it is upon the first chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans that they base this claim. However, when one turns to Romans 1, one does not find Paul critiquing those who rebel against creation, but those who exalt the creature. Created things, Paul affirms (1:20), are a means by which God’s divinity has been revealed, but the foolish mortals who fall under Paul’s condemnation have stopped short, mistaking the message for the messenger. They have made idols in the form of created things (1:23) and have begun to worship these stand-ins rather than the Creator (1:25). And it is for this reason, because of this, that God has given them over to futility and degradation: their punishments reflecting the futility of the worship of idols and the degradation of the Creator replaced with the creature.

Now, there is no question that Paul’s portrayal of this futile degradation includes the frenzied passions of male same-sex orgies. (It is not clear that female same-sexuality is mentioned in this passage. I’ve addressed this at length in Reasonable and Holy.) However, the catalogue of vices concluding this passage (1:29-30) makes it abundantly clear that Paul’s concern with idolaters has little or nothing to do with the same-sex relationships of faithful Christians.

No, if there is an error of interpretation concerning this passage, it must lie with those who employ it as a generalized repudiation of any and all same-sex relationships, when only particular relationships, of a kind that would be culpable even among mixed-sex groups, are mentioned; and those as a sign of punishment.

More serious, however, is the error of those who insist on exalting mixed-sex marriage, or “male and female” beyond their traditional and scriptural roles as symbols, to some kind of reification of divinity. This falls exactly into the same category of mistake with which Paul charges the idolaters: they have mistaken the symbol for the thing symbolized, exalting the creature to the Creator’s place. Such efforts to equate a married couple with the Persons of the Trinity, to insist that the divine image is only realized in the union of male and female, and all such other questionable novelties, are produced in the effort to ward off any positive exploration of the moral values of relationships regardless of sex — it is telling that such notions only began to emerge when questions of the morality of same-sex relationships (and non-procreative sex) began to be raised in the last century, and some anxious defenders of the status quo launched a rear-guard effort to find some “theology” to bolster the traditional opposition.

These theological novelties have to be examined on their own merits, just as the novelty of recognizing same-sex relationships, and blessing them, or even bringing them under the heading of marriage, must be examined. My research has shown that the efforts to theologize the sexes as the divine image, in addition to being a radical departure from the tradition that sees the divine image in each human being, does not appear to add anything to the theological store-house, and renders crucial articles of the faith (such as the Incarnation) inexplicable (if male and female together “present” the divine, Jesus was deficient). Efforts to bring the Trinity into the picture stumble even more egregiously into modalism or functionalism. When a thesis raised in defense of an aspect of pastoral theology runs up against well-established principles of dogmatic theology, it is time to set it aside.

No, if one is to decide whether same-sex relationships are good or not, one must apply the recognizable moral categories, not biological realities. It is, after all, the mind and the heart wherein the moral lies. Morality is about behavior, not being; about virtue, not anatomy.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG



November 5, 2013

Born that way... a thought

Whenever someone makes the claim that people are “not born gay” I am tempted to remind them that people are also not born with beards or buxom breasts. These characteristics are not “natural” in that they are not natal. They develop. And if the secondary sexual characteristics develop, so too does sexual orientation — without doubt under the guiding interplay of “nature” (what one is born with) and nurture.

I am also tempted to remind the religious-minded opponents of marriage equality that people are neither born Christian nor married. Both are estates into which one enters, the former sometimes without ones consent, but the latter never properly without it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
who was reminded of this when reflecting on the fact that some in the early church, such as Clement of Alexandria, regarded a grown man shaving off his beard as a peculiarly serious moral failing

To this Temple...

William Temple was Bishop of Manchester, Archbishop of York, and briefly of Canterbury, before his untimely death in 1944, in the midst of the war. His was a brilliant and penetrating mind, but not one stuck in the attic of an ivory tower, academic or ecclesiastical. Perhaps one of his most famous quips says it best:

The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.

It is also telling to note that, in spite of the claims that no one really knew what was going on in Europe with regard to the wholesale elimination of European Jewry, Temple addressed the House of Lords in 1943 (March 23) with this:

My chief protest is against procrastination of any kind. ... The Jews are being slaughtered at the rate of tens of thousands a day on many days. ... It is always true that the obligations of decent men are decided for them by contingencies which they did not themselves create and very largely by the action of wicked men. The priest and the Levite in the parable were not in the least responsible for the traveller's wounds as he lay there by the roadside and no doubt they had many other pressing things to attend to, but they stand as the picture of those who are condemned for neglecting the opportunity of showing mercy. We at this moment have upon us a tremendous responsibility. We stand at the bar of history, of humanity and of God.

God bless this good and faithful speaker of the truth.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
icon written 11/4/2013

October 18, 2013

Mission [Not] Abort

A review of Gravity, a film directed by Alfonso Cuarón. (Note: contains spoilers. Just go see it.)

In this film technology and acting merge in probably the most effective blend since Avatar, though with a simpler story line and a more profound message. The plot can be summed up in a single headline: woman survives accident in space; but that would not do justice to the richness of the portrayal and the tension in the story-telling. For the technology not only portrays what an accident in weightless orbit would look like, but allows the director a God’s eye POV: a camera that can move from outside the swelling scene to a view from within the astronaut’s helmet and — one presumes — her eyes. In an almost dreamlike transition the audience moves from empathy to identity, from beholding to becoming. This has a powerful effect in drawing the viewer literally into the story.

This is a well-told story not just about survival, but about the choice to survive rather than to go gently into that dear night of death, a transition painfully easy in the vacuum of space, with the supply of oxygen expendable and the hermetically sealed refuges very few and very far between. The principle character — indeed for much of the film the only character, superbly played by Sandra Bullock — is presented with challenge after challenge, and ultimately with ghostly encouragement to surmount all challenges to come to a kind of rebirth. The message is not simply survival, but affirmation of life.

It might seem odd, indeed a massive misreading, to see a right-to-life message in a movie associated with a well-known liberal such as George Clooney (who also gives a fine, though rather chivalrously downplayed performance). However, one image in the film strongly suggested such a reading to me. After reaching the refuge of a sealed capsule, Bullock slowly removes her spacesuit and floats in fetal position surrounded by the umbilical of some piece of hardware. The image is unmistakable, and if unintentional more of a coincidence than I can imagine for a director so well attuned to the visual, and whose crew had to labor over every frame to produce the perfect simulacrum of life and death in space.


However, it is also possible to see this as a pro-choice message, as Bullock makes the choice to live — this is not just about life, but the choice for life. True, it is the ghostly reminder of some half-remembered aspect of the technology that presents this scientist-out-of-her-depth with the opportunity to choose life rather than death. But she makes that choice, she takes that slender chance, as fragile as a guy-line, as thin as the skin of a space suit, as hit or miss as shooting oneself out of a cannon at a net some hundreds of miles away.

Life is, after all, worth living, and this film supports that hope, and places that challenge: which would you choose. Bullock chooses life, and lives.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG








October 12, 2013

The Poem to Its Reader

It seems not fair to have to spend my time
imprisoned, ink on paper, on a page,
awaiting you, Dear Reader, to engage
me, read me, give life to my rhyme.
My life is spent in slumber on a shelf,
so unaware I do not know myself,
until your hand, your eye, your mind awake
me: I from you my living substance take.

But not just you, my present mortal friend ,
who, unlike me, must reach a final end.
When you are dead, I’ll merely fall asleep,
for I am patient, and my slumber deep.
While you are gone, another day will find
that I live still within another mind.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
October 12, 2013

October 11, 2013

Semi-Seminary

In my previous post I noted with some sadness an article about the transformation of parts of The General Theological Seminary into the High Line Hotel. I've heard from the Dean and President, the Very Rev Kurt Dunkle, that the article is in error in part, and certainly gives the wrong impression concerning the Refectory — which is leased for use by the Hotel only when not being used by the Seminary. That is good news, and actually the kind of arrangement of which I heartily approved, as it is wise use of an asset during its "dormant" phase.

I still regret the decisions to part with so much else of the property, but do hope that the new administration will bring some forward thinking.

The Dean's comment can be seen here.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

October 10, 2013

Sold Down the River View

Update: see comment below.

The aptly named Vanity Fair has published a story about the High Line Hotel that was created from portions of The General Theological Seminary, also for a time part of the Tutu Center. The fact is that this portion of the seminary facilities, along with several others (the old administration building on 9th Avenue, which housed the Library; the West Building, in which I had the privilege of studying Hebrew with Dr Richard Corney) are either razed or not used for purposes other than originally planned.

I am by no means insensitive to the plight of the Seminary — as is true of many churches and other bodies, including my own parish. Times are tight, and the rental, sale or lease of property is a tempting solution to an empty purse. I do not envy the new Dean, nor the Board, as they deal with decisions made in part by their predecessors. Still, the transformation of Seminary to Hotel is a poignant transition, made all the more so by Vanity Fair covering the story. But what’s done is done, and I can’t help but wonder if this was the wisest move. I do not envy the incumbents their tasks for the future, now with depleted facilities to do the primary work of the seminary. Money will soon be spent; but the spaces are gone from their use.

I attended The General during what many regard as a time of lost focus and purpose. I recall a conversation with a staff member during my time there. “It actually costs the seminary more for each student than we take in by tuition. If only we could get rid of the seminarians we'd be able to run effectively.” (I'm not making this up, and it was not said in jest.) When institutions lose touch with their primary purpose, they can begin to sell their patrimony for a mess of short term income. In my valedictory sermon I touched the chapel wall and reminded the assembly never to let anyone tell them this was “just an institution. It is God’s treasury, and you are God’s treasure.”
I hope some spirit and vision can be recaptured, and the work continued and fostered. Herewith is the text of my sermon from 16 years ago.


The Church’s Treasury

Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG
General Theological Seminary Commencement Day Eucharist, 1997
(Various Occasions #24) Psalm 8 - Eccles. 3.1,9-13 - 1 Peter 2.11-17 - Matt 6.19-24

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Today’s readings might well be paraphrased as, Don’t Worry be Happy, Be a Good Citizen, and Try Not to Make too Much Money. The first — Don’t Worry Be Happy — is engraved on the outer wall of the Hoffman Refectory, in its more formal Latin version, Carpe diem; the second — Be a Good Citizen — is sound advice only so long as one lives in a good city, a good state.

Of the three, it is the third, Try Not to Make Too Much Money, that appears to be particularly directed at those who serve in the church. Anyone who goes to seminary on the basis of the promise found on a matchbook cover, Go to College to Increase Your Earning Power, has either pulled the wrong catalogue off the shelf, or is two sandwiches shy of a picnic. True, the church leaves its threshing oxen unmuzzled, — but it keeps them on a short leash and moving in circles at a hectic pace. In short, devoting one’s life to the work of the church — as most of us here have chosen to do — or have been chosen to do — is an effective way to follow our Lord’s advice not to lay up treasure on earth.

If, that is, we are talking about the kind of treasure that comes printed with portraits of dead politicians, in various denominations. But there is another kind of treasure that is more beguiling than the folding green. And it exists in various denominations, too: Not fives, tens and twenties, but Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran... It is a treasure which those who serve the church, and the church itself, are tempted to store up, perhaps compensating for getting less of the kind with a politician’s image and likeness on them: whether that politician be Tiberius Caesar or Andrew Jackson.

This compensation is the treasure of respectability, of stability, of survival achieved by walking the safe road of compromise. It is the treasure of becoming established of becoming an institution.
The First Letter of Peter shows this process at work; it counsels good citizenship as a strategy for survival in the Empire. Fortunately for the church, the Empire got so bad that “good” citizenship became impossible; for if the church was to remain the church it must eventually collide with Caesar.
Those who had counseled accommodation then found themselves called to re-evaluate — surely Saint Peter repented of his advice to honor the emperor when crucified head-down; and just as surely Saint Paul must have reconsidered the wisdom of appealing to Caesar’s justice when he faced Caesar’s sword. Both apostles eventually realized that they could not serve two masters — Christ and Caesar — though too late for them to leave epistles to that effect.

Imperial persecution clarified the church’s vision with the bright light of the refiners fire, and empowered it to see that survival on Caesar’s terms was not worth survival. Thank God for the martyrs whose blood tempered the steel of the early church; thank God for the confessors who realized that the time had passed for playing goody two-sandals.

And, strange as it may sound, thank God for the Caesars, the Domitians and the Diocletians and all the others who gave the church something to stand up to, something to stand up for. It was persecution that reminded the church of its primary mission: not to survive at all costs, not to survive by ceasing to be itself — but to spend itself for the life of the world, as its Lord had done.
 
It took the Caesars to remind the church that those who seek to save their life will lose it. It took the Caesars to remind the church that it was the body of Christ — Christ crucified under Pontius Pilate, who suffered death and was buried, and only then was raised from the dead. Christ set the pattern for the church’s life. Only by losing one’s life can one’s life be saved; only what dies can be raised again.
Much time has passed since those fiery, foundry days. The world’s animosity towards the church — with a few notable exceptions — has cooled to chilly toleration. And how has the church responded? How does the church expend its energy these days, now that Caesar no longer persecutes so vehemently? Isn’t most of the church’s warfare these days intramural? Where is the church’s treasure being spent — on outgoing mission, or ongoing questions of self-definition?

Is the church laying up treasure in heaven where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and thieves cannot break in — or is it squandering its wealth on the ecclesiastical equivalents of mothballs, Rustoleum, and security systems?

It happens in parishes, national churches, religious orders — it even happens in seminaries! ....so I’m told... The focus shifts from the mission to the mission agency, from the work itself to the procedures, protocols, and policies for carrying out that work; from the apostolic mission to the apostolic order; from the vision to the vision statement.

The church’s vision, once turned outward to take in the needs of a suffering world, turns inward. When this happens, the church’s vision is in danger of the double darkness of which Christ warns in the Gospel — blindness that thinks it sees. The church’s view and perspective become blinded by its own bulk, its own reflection, its own precious self.

When this happens, the church risks its title as a wonderful and sacred mystery and is on the verge of becoming an institution like any other. A church preoccupied with survival rather than with mission, risks abdicating its role as bride of Christ and becoming more like Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Preoccupation with self-perpetuation transforms the church from a wedding festival with lamps ablaze and eyes bright with future hope, to a draped and shuttered room whose lonely inhabitant tries in vain to preserve a past that never was.

Am I exaggerating? Think of the energy and resources that have gone into addressing the fears of those who see the Episcopal-Lutheran Concordat as the end of the church as we know it. The Episcopal Church treasures the episcopate, and rightly so — but here is an opportunity to extend the very thing we treasure if we are willing to set aside preoccupation with its substance for a time to focus on its purpose.

The apostolic order is not an end in itself, but the chosen means for the apostolic ministry and the apostolic message:— it is the chosen vessel to bear the good news to the ends of the earth.
We are called and commissioned in that apostolic succession, to that apostolic mission, called to risk what we treasure, to spend what we have for the sake of the gospel, to risk what is most precious to us in order to share it.

And the gospel message we share is strengthened when we share it in a gospel fashion: only those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them; only what dies can be raised; only what is spent can be redeemed. True wealth, after all, is revealed in what you are willing to spend, not in how much you possess. The life of the church is death to self; and the church is most truly itself when it spends itself with an abandon that matches the liberality of the spendthrift Christ — Christ who gave himself up on the cross, who spent himself completely, who emptied himself and took a servant’s form. And he did it all for love, for the love of his bride, the church.

Christ and his bride are that perfectly mad young couple who store up no treasure — who spend all they have on each other, but having each other need nothing else. You know the story: she cut off her hair and sold it to the wigmaker to buy him a watch-fob; he pawned his watch to buy her a tortoise-shell comb — gifts, that in their purchase and giving were rendered utterly useless and yet infinitely precious, for they represented the gift of the self for the other.

What, then, is the church’s true wealth? Only Christ, and him crucified. Are we mad? Yes, we are, but so is Christ, who with divine madness values each of us poor fragile creatures as chosen and precious treasures. As the old, old, love song tells it, Solomon’s love song, the Song of Songs sung to a Christian tune: Christ is our treasure, and we are his.

Long, long ago, a good deacon faced the powers of Caesar as they oppressed the church. The authorities demanded he turn over the church’s treasures. Expecting him to bring forth gold and silver, how surprised and angered they were when he assembled the poor and the sick and said, This is the church’s treasure.

We — the members of Christ’s body — are the church’s treasure still, because beloved and treasured by Christ, because we are where his heart is, and no moth, no rust, no thief can touch us. We are the treasure of the church, and this holy place is its treasury. This place, and every place where the church gathers, and every place from which it is sent forth, though they be earthen vessels, are God’s treasury. Don’t you ever let anyone tell you they are just institutions. And don’t you ever let anyone make them so. You who teach and you who learn, you who worship and you who proclaim, you who administer and steward and care for the fabric of these vessels, keep your vision clear, always turned to the needs of the world that the church is called to serve. Carpe diem: Seize the day — the time is now. Christ is risen and ascended, and the Spirit is poised to shower us with gifts. Realize your citizenship in God’s kingdom — the country without borders where there are no aliens.

We are Christ’s treasure, and Christ is our treasure, — Christ who gives himself into our hands, precious fragile treasures of bread and wine that feed and strengthen us to spend ourselves in Christ’s service, to turn from the service of self, to do the work God gives us to do in truth and beauty for the common good. May we now and ever spend ourselves freely — spend ourselves selflessly in company with the saints: those gone before, those sitting here now, and those yet to come — all those saints who bought by Christ, are free to serve — Christ’s treasure on earth as he is ours in heaven.+


October 9, 2013

Modest Political Proposals

I don't often wander into politics, but the current state of affairs in Washington has me thinking. However, I have to admit, after watching any number of talking heads for the last week, that instead of a shutdown I'd welcome a shut-up for a spell. That being said, I want to offer an observation not entirely unrelated to the present situation.

The buzzword of "compromise" is in the air, and it led me to think back to the original compromises that gave us our present system: the "Great Compromise" that gave us two houses with proportional and fixed representation respectively; and the "3/5 Compromise" that counted slaves as partial people in terms of fixing the former.

The latter got me thinking: representation in the House is based on population -- but given the finagling with voting rights and the shapes of districts, the possible disenfranchisement of a number of citizens and the over-enfranchisement of select populations, I wondered if a constitutional amendment to fix representation based on the electoral roll rather than the population might not be a good idea: that is, that the representatives would represent those who actually voted for them. Maybe, mirroring the compromise of the past, the non-voters could be counted as three-fifths persons, just as the non-voting slaves were counted; but, say, an average of the number of voters in the previous three election cycles, possible with a proportion of the non-voters as determined by census, would determine the representation a state would have in the House. This might have the effect of discouraging discouraging people from registering to vote.

My point is that with theoretical universal suffrage but only a portion of the eligible taking part, the whole notion of representation takes on a new meaning. This seems to me to be a reasonable compromise.

Finally, a word to the Supreme Court: please recall that the notion of democracy is "government by the people" not "people buy the government."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 21, 2013

(Inter)National House


This is not about the W.C. Fields film of that name, but the recent struggles in the Episcopal Church over possible name change for the staff at The Episcopal Church Center to become "The Missionary Society."

 There is nothing new about struggle or tension between the three (or four) entities that serve The Episcopal Church: the General Convention (GC), the Executive (formerly the "National") Council (EC), and the "staff" whether at 281 Park Avenue South ("Church Missions House") or 815 Second Ave ("The Episcopal Church Center", aka ECC). I served in the press and communications office at "815" beginning in the days of John Maury Allin. He always described it as a "service center" there to serve the needs of the church in supporting "SWEEP" — Stewardship, Worship, Education, Evangelism, and Pastoral Care; and of course national and international mission, for which a handy acronym wasn't, well, handy. There was also a finance department to keep those wheels greased, and a communication office (where I served) to support all of the rest in producing resources, print and video. The staff structure was ordered along those lines, and each week the PB would meet with the department heads of each of the "units." The notion seems a bit quaint now, but it seemed to have worked relatively well.

In addition to, and contrasting with this relative clarity, there was significant question as to "whose" staff the staff were: were they the staff of the "National/Executive" Council, or of the PB? This was and is a lively tension; exacerbated by the fact that the General Convention also had offices in the building, but were not "staff" to either the PB or the Council. On that wing of the triangle, there was always some tension between GC and EC as to who was doing what and when.

The Browning years brought a massive combined simplification and complexification to the staff structure, with both consolidation and more levels of hierarchy — including "senior" executives in a whole new — and very well remunerated — level separating the PB from the people actually in charge of the various areas of work. In spite of the evident problems to which this led, it remains more or less the same, with clusters instead of units, and changes in terminology.

Add to the existing tensions between the three structures, the now emerging tensions with DFMS (short for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America) -- previously a more or less silent partner (due to the overreach of the 19th century urge to make everyone a missionary without asking them first -- a noble gesture but prone to fail as many a noble gesture does). In latter days DFMS primarily served as the skeleton and support for fiscal operations, with very little involvement in the actual program or mission.

The real question that rarely gets asked -- and I do believe the aptly acronym’d "revisioning" task force, TREC, is asking it -- is why a church that functions mostly at the local or regional level needs such a complex entanglement of (inter)national structures? I leave it to others to do the math, but if one looks at the Gross Episcopal Product (for example the total receipts for all parishes in 2008 was over $2 billion... and that doesn't count foundations and auxiliary bodies) and compares it with the relatively small budgets of the GC and EC and ECC (as it was) one begins to wonder if all the turmoil at the (inter)national level is really worth it, and that a radical revisioning as a network isn't the best idea.

As to ECC being known as "815" -- "branding" isn't going to change it. Trying to "create" the next meme isn't going to work. Things catch on because they are catchy, and "The Missionary Society" -- as important (and misunderstood) as mission is -- ain’t. I can recall when someone in the staff there even made a tee-shirt for the Episcopal Church Center (ECC), "815" -- emblazoned with the text of Ecc. 8:15. Look it up, it's quite amusing...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 18, 2013

Vive la difference

One of the things the anti-same-sex marriage wing whinges on about is the lack of "difference" that they think essentially constitutive of marriage. The problem is that, as with race, the differences between members of the same sex is often greater than the difference between idealized abstractions of the sexes. A man might be mistaken for a woman at a distance, but no one would mistake Joel Grey for Orson Welles.

Each person is different from every other person. That's what "other" means.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 7, 2013

Untied Thank Offering

There has been a lot of tooing and froing about the fate and future of the United Thank Offering (UTO), and whether or not it should be untied from the structures of the Episcopal Corporation (DFMS), or more closely united to it. You can read all the background as helpfully provided by the Presiding Bishop.

Just this morning, though, I was thinking, "Wouldn't it be simplest for the UTO to incorporate as a 501(c)3 entity, just as did Episcopal Relief and Development?" Then I discovered this had been part of the discussions some years ago, but was nixed, or advised against, by some advisors. To the point of advice, I'm not sure the UTO is bound to follow it. There seems to me to be nothing to stop UTO from incorporating, and there is no need that I can see for Executive Council to "approve" such a movement, since UTO was never formally a part of the institutional structure of DFMS, but an auxiliary entity that functioned, and functioned quite well, primarily as a ministry of and by women (when they were prevented from a large sector of possible ministries in the church). The UTO always worked in cooperation with the existing structures of the church and the Episcopal Church Women, from the parish on up through the dioceses and provinces; and at the national level through the Triennial. It could still continue to do that, but with the financial donations coming directly to UTO (instead of through the parish mechanisms) and grants being made autonomously by their own duly elected board.

When in The Episcopal Church we hear talk of restructuring for greater flexibility and decentralization on one hand, and then moves that seem to be trending towards holding UTO ever closer to the institutional structure, I have to wonder if an important opportunity hasn't been missed.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 6, 2013

Decline: Causes and Circumstances

Over at Facebook someone has posted a link to a year old article blaming "progressives" for the decline of the Episcopal Church. And just about every other decline, including the decline in numbers of Roman Catholic nuns.

Well, I'm rather familiar with both subjects. Let's address the nuns first. The real "progressive" move that had major impact on religious communities was the shift in teaching regarding the superiority of celibacy over marriage. The latter, for over a millennium point five, was officially seen as a concession to weakness, and a necessity to keep the world (and the church) going; but if you really wanted to be an earnest Christian, you'd best be a nun or a priest. (This took rather seriously the Gospel passage we will hear this coming Sunday, by the way, about what it takes to be "a disciple.")

When in mid-20th-century terms the issue was reexamined, the teaching was nudged to place marriage on an equal, if not even slightly higher, plane. (This is when we started seeing misguided efforts to liken a married couple to the "image of God.") This move, hardly "progressive," had impact on women religious in particular, where the "bride of Christ" analogy had been played for all it was worth. I recall hearing from one late-middle-aged nun, the angry recrimination, "You mean I gave up my life and now you're telling me it's all the same!"

A similar shift in emphasis came with lightening the strict observance of Sundays and Days of Obligation, which — I can recall from childhood in pre-Vatican II circumstances — were held over our heads with dire threat of serious sin. As soon as you lighten the leash that has been held firmly in place, the critter will try to run free. Again, I would hardly call this "progressive."

When it comes to the Episcopal Church, the author does not present a terrifically accurate portrait, at its writing in 2012 or now. Decline in the Mainstream Churches has little to do with progressive / conservative issues. It has to do with a shift in the culture away from "church-going" as the primary focus for one's spiritual life. The 50s were anomalous in terms of the "institutional church" — a boom period connected to post-war and cold war angst (that certainly fueled the Merton-led phenomenon of young folks flocking to religion) and a culture of conformity and propriety. When the post-war fervor faded, distrust with "institutions" of all sorts evolved post-Vietnam, the door to the monasteries was found to swing both ways, and the kids (whose parents diligently forced them to attend) forsook "organized" religion when they reached adulthood in the 70s and 80s. They are not visiting the requirement of religious conformity on their children.

The world caught on, of course, and around the same time started doing things on the formerly sacrosanct sabbath — the Blue Laws have faded to pale grey, like parish records kept in fugitive ink. I can recall the announcement when Macys first said they'd be open on Sunday. Gimbels soon followed. Now even liquor stores are open on Sunday in some places, schools plan major sporting events on Sunday morning, and people have found they have better things to do with their time than attend worship which, as C S Lewis once quipped, makes it seem that "God is a nice old man who likes to be read to." If they are going to read, it will be in bed with the Sunday Times.

What's new attracts — for a time. But even the megachurches are seeing declines, as the novelty wears off. Churches that put on a good show — whether Rock or Roccoco, praise band or plainchant — still "draw" and likely have a future. Good preaching, good fellowship, a sense of identity and mission — these all help. But the days when the culture simply "expected" people to be church-goers is gone, and it isn't coming back.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 1, 2013

The Price of Folly

There was a story on NPR this morning (9/1/13) about a Texas megachurch that is the epicenter of a measles outbreak in part because leadership there has spoken against vaccination in the past. I was astounded by the current pastor addressing the issue with this statement: "Facts are the facts, but then we know that the truth always overcomes facts."

I have always believed that facts — while not the whole Truth (which St Paul tells us in unknowable) — at least place limits on the truth. While it is important to have our facts straight, surely no "truth" can stand against a demonstrable fact that contradicts it.

I believe, on the contrary to this pastor, that Facts are the outward surface of Truth. They do not tell us everything, but they tell us something. There are also, I believe, some true things that cannot be established by facts, but surely anything that contradicts the facts cannot be true.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 30, 2013

Old is New

Oscar Watkins writes,

This question is still beyond all doubt one of the most difficult questions on the subject of marriage with which the Church is confronted.

He writes this in 1895*. He is referring to the “question” of whether mixed marriage — that is, marriage between a Christian and a person of a different faith or no faith at all — is permitted, or even constitutes a “marriage.” He notes that in the time of Constantius II (339) marriage of a Christian with a Jew was a capital offense, though this was lessened to equivalence with adultery within fifty years.

By his present (our past) time, the “question” of marriage between persons of opposite sects has come under wider consideration on the Continent, in part due to the opening of the New World to European adventures four centuries prior, and the more recent colonization of the Far East and Africa. Watkins, writing in the thick of things as senior chaplain on Her Majesty’s Bengal Establishment, evidences clear distaste for the “insidious system of Papal dispensations” allowing for mixed marriages in such settings, “without, as it would seem, any attempt to find justification or authority in the mind of the Church.”

For the English themselves, this has not been a lively issue until recently (in Watkins’ terms) as “until the seventeenth century England had no possessions in heathen countries, and that the Jews were expelled from the kingdom from Edward I, and were not re-admitted until the time of the Commonwealth.” Things are changing, however, and this important “question” is now before the church and state of England itself.

In eerily familiar language, identical in tone but different only in number, Watkins summarily concludes that except in the deplorable case of Papal dispensation, “the results of eighteen and a half centuries of Christian teaching and practice are that… marriages between baptized persons and persons unbaptized stand prohibited.”

There has, of course, been a good deal of water under several bridges since 1895. Perhaps one might say the bridges have been washed away. A rubric of the 1979 BCP indicates with limpid clarity that precisely what “1,850 years of Christian teaching” had forbidden is now perfectly licit, and without any dispensation. Interfaith marriage is also now permitted in the Church of England.†

So much for the claim that Christian teaching and practice on marriage has not changed — the requirement of same-sects marriage is a thing of the past.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


* Oscar D. Watkins, Holy Matrimony: A Treatise on the Divine Laws of Marriage (London: Rivington, Percival & Co., 1895), pages 489ff. passim

† see the 2004 GUIDELINES FOR THE CELEBRATION OF INTER FAITH MARRIAGES IN CHURCH from the Mission and Public Affairs Council of the C of E

August 29, 2013

Continuing Discussions Down Under

I've been engaged in a sometimes interesting, sometimes slightly frustrating, Internet conversation on Peter Carrell's blog. It's on the usual topic, same-sex marriage, and I became involved because one of the commenters there alleged as how he had refuted my "trenchant argument" in Reasonable and Holy concerning the necessity of procreation for marriage. His response involved an appeal to the subjunctive, noting that an infertile mixed-sex couple would be capable of procreation if they were capable of procreation, while a same-sex couple would be in a different class. As I noted in my response, this does not actually address the issue of whether procreation is essential to marriage, but only restates that there is a difference between same- and mixed-sex couples, a fact which, on the ground of the participants, no one I know of contests. "Virtual procreation" is essentially meaningless both on logical and moral grounds, and returning the discussion to the relative sex of the couple is circular argument. Even Dr Radner gets into the discussion at one point, and I welcome the opportunity for further conversation with him.

The conversation then quickly moved on to what I regard as some rather thin but fulsomely expressed arguments alleging some kind of likeness between a mixed-sex married couple and the Persons of the Trinity, but I found these suggestions to be confusing if not erroneous (as to Trinitarian doctrine.) Again, no one is arguing that there isn't a difference between a same- and a mixed-sex couple as far as the relative sexes of each couple is concerned. The point of debate is whether this difference constitutes a reason to restrict marriage to mixed-sex couples. It seems that "being able to be analogized to the Trinity" is not a requirement. It is really not ultimately a possibility as the Trinity is not fully analogous to anything in the created order.

As far as the "difference" in the Trinity goes, my argument is that any individual is "different" from (or as the English say, "to") any other; that the difference between the Father and the Son is relational, not substantial (to be technical, a difference in hypostasis, not ousia, in which each is personally distinct by relationship yet each is by nature "God") just as the difference between spouses — as spouses — is relational (a spouse is a spouse by virtue of relation to the other spouse, yet still complete in themselves as individual persons each of whom is by nature fully "human") and that this is the case regardless of the gender of the spouses.

There are a number of other side-streams and assertions in the conversation, including a brief foray into the thesis that the original human was an androgyne split in two (as in Plato's Symposium), but as I note that view does not hold up to a close reading of Genesis 1-3 or how the text was used in the NT references to it.

I commend the whole conversation to those with the patience to wade through it. I hope it provides more light than heat. I continue these conversations largely because they reassure me that I'm headed in the right direction. As I've said before, it isn't for me to convince the prosecution, but the jury.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 26, 2013

The Anglican State: On the Edge, or Wandering?

Thinking Anglicans reports on reactions to a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Mexico. In it, he pictured the state of the Anglican Communion as,

...a narrow path we walk as Anglicans at present. On one side is the steep fall into an absence of any core beliefs, a chasm where we lose touch with God, and thus we rely only on ourselves and our own message. On the other side there is a vast fall into a ravine of intolerance and cruel exclusion. It is for those who claim all truth, and exclude any who question. When we fall into this place, we lose touch with human beings and create a small church, or rather many small churches – divided, ineffective in serving the poor, the hungry and the suffering, incapable of living with each other, and incomprehensible to those outside the church…
For what it’s worth, my concern is not that there is a narrow ridge with obvious precipices to either side, but that the Communion offers a fairly wide path that slopes to each side so gently that one can stray to the extreme without realizing it. That is where I sense the real danger, not in the catastrophic bang, but the subtle whimper; the danger we might just “drift apart” if we lose sight of Jesus; who will, I trust, as the true Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, still seek out those who have wandered afar, whichever way we stray.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 10, 2013

Living With the Questions

Thanks to Savi Hensman for a measured response to Andrew Goddard’s essay on the process of the Church of England attempting to come to terms with reality. Pointing out that it is better to be uncertain rather than certain but wrong, she nails the "stopped clock is right twice a day" modality of Goddard.

It can also be noted that the case against same-sex marriage, in terms of Scriptural clarity, is sorely lacking in certainty, and only Scriptural certainty will suffice for Anglicans when it comes to prohibition or mandate. (Article XX) Tolerance or allowance is the generous world in which Anglicans pitch their tents when certainty eludes us, and a reasonable doubt can be raised concerning the prosecution's case.

I explored this aspect of Anglican tradition in a post on Reasonable and Holy Doubt, in response to a long but rather unhelpful review of some of my work on the subject, by Dr Radner. He is also continuing to press what he can make of his case, but still seems to me to be confecting certainty where reasonable doubt is manifest, and proof is wanting, in spite of his impassioned insistence. And the chief problem is that he doesn't appear to recognize that toleration does not need to rest on proof, while prohibition does. Thus, when it comes to Scripture, he can assert (imprecisely) that there are "prohibitions of homosexual acts" in both the Old and New Testament; but while acknowledging these texts are few, he fails to note just how little these texts — none of them definitely referring to female same-sex acts, by the way, and those referring to males very likely limited in scope to particular situations — actually relate to the question of faithful, monogamous same-sex marriage; any more than the numerous prohibitions on various forms of heterosexual activity constitute a restriction on mixed-sex marriage. (Jacob Milgrom has presented the thesis of one of his students  that the Leviticus 18 text — with its partner in 20 the only precise Scriptural prohibition of male same-sex acts — is meant solely to forbid male homosexual incest to the same extent as the heterosexual forms listed in the chapter!)

The arguments from Goddard and others on his side of the divide will do little to convince anyone still on the fence on this matter, though perhaps they may ironically tip a few folks to the affirmative. Fair-minded people don't like what appears to be intolerance. (The debate in the House of Lords revealed the way in which the anti arguments pushed in the opposite direction to their intent, as the sea of pink carnations by the end revealed.)

Meanwhile, Fulcrum might rename itself Bulwark, as the wagons circle in defense of an idea that cannot long stand against the real moral values of love and fidelity, against which there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG