Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Forcing Pastors to Conduct Gay Weddings?

I have been struck by the persistent fear that pastors might be forced to conduct weddings for LGBT couples even when opposed on religious grounds.  It keeps popping up on the Internet and in casual conversation, often from unexpected sources such as people who ought to know better.  

There are very few circumstances under which a pastor, regardless of denomination, can be forced by the state to do anything regarding the way he or she manages his or her religious practices.  Marriage in my denomination is considered a sacrament, and the conditions under which weddings are performed are a function of canon law and their interpretation by the diocesan bishop.  In any case, no priest can be compelled to officiate at any wedding.  Period.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the LGBT issue.

So might there be exceptions?  I recall a long ago friend from another denomination who was nicknamed Marry’n Marvin because he would officiate at any wedding anywhere, and his Saturdays were fully booked during the spring and early summer.  In a sense, he was in the business of providing a public service to anyone who wanted to pay for it.  Like the notorious wedding cake baker, he may have given up his right to include or exclude because he had become a seller of a public service.  

Here’s another.  There are churches that rent out the hall and their clergy for weddings, and wedding reenactments, with few questions asked.  No need to be a member of the parish, of the denomination, or even of the religion.  Weddings are a profit center with their own line item in the budget.  It seems to me that they also have given up their right to object on religious grounds.  They run a commercial enterprise just like the local diner or gas station.  

As for me, I’m not keen on the idea of clergy acting as agents of the state for any reason.   Persons are not required by the state to get a license to be baptized, receive Holy Communion, make confession, ask for anointing, or be present at their own funeral.   Clergy are not obliged to act as agents of the state by signing certificates attesting to each person’s reception of the sacraments.  Why marriage?  As far as the state is concerned, marriage is a legal contract defined by statute.  Religion is irrelevant.  Let the appropriate elected official do the certifying. 

Of course there were practical reasons for the way we do it now.  Married people have certain rights and responsibilities under the law that others do not.  Someone had to be responsible for certifying that couples were legally married in order for them to enjoy those rights and responsibilities.  Local judges and ministers were the obvious candidates because they were available and reliable (mostly).  That was then.  It’s time for a change.  Leave clergy out of it unless, like Marvin, they go into the business as a commercial enterprise.  Then license them as state agents.

There would have to be some cultural adjustments.  Couples would have to do whatever the state required of them at the local courthouse or licensed wedding emporium.   Those who desire to enter into the sacrament of holy matrimony would then go to their local church for the usual routine of premarital counseling in preparation for all the delight of a church wedding, but the state would not have anything to do with it. 

Oh, and by the way, would I officiate at an LGBT wedding?  It depends.  Are you Episcopalian?  Are you an active member of a parish?  Are you willing to endure six hours of premarital counseling?  Do you fully understand what the covenant of holy matrimony is about, and are willing to live into it?  If so, I would be delighted.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

It's not my practice to post sermon texts, but this one may be of some value to a few

Maundy Thursday, 2016

Have you ever been given an heirloom gift of unsurpassed value?  Perhaps a piece of jewelry that has been passed down from generation to generation.  It’s intrinsic value as a costly gem or work of artful beauty may not be all that much.  What gives it its unsurpassed value is the story that goes with it, and it cannot be given by one person to another without telling that story.

I don’t have anything like that, but I do have a book that was written about my great grandmother’s life as a pioneer woman on the Kansas prairie.  It isn’t great literature.  It’s not even well written, but whenever I pass a copy on to another member of the family, I am compelled to tell the story of the story so that they might appreciate how valuable it is.

On this night we remember Holy Communion, the Holy Eucharist, as the heirloom gift Jesus gave to his disciples and that has since been passed down, generation to generation, until has been given to us.  We cannot appreciate its unsurpassed value until we hear the story that gives value to it.

On this night we remember that he broke the bread, gave thanks, and declared that it was his body given for us.  Later he took the cup of wine and declared it to be the new covenant in his blood given to us for the remission of sins.  But what does that mean?

For his disciples, it was a moment of such mind bending shock that it would make no sense until well after the resurrection.  Then at last they would understand its unsurpassed value, treasure it, and hand it on to the next generation.  For those early Christians, it was the most powerful gift they could imagine.  It not only symbolized the unbreakable fulfillment of God’s promise given to the Israelites who followed Moses into the desert, it was a participation with God in the event itself.  

Many centuries have passed since then, and for many of us the story of the gift has become diluted.  The significance of the bread is lost.  We don’t know why blood was so important.  If this is the new covenant, what was the old covenant?  What were once powerful symbols have lost their meaning, and our hearing has been dulled by the overtelling of an over simplified version the story.

When Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it, he was doing what every Jew would have done on a Sabbath Eve, as indeed all observant Jewish households do to this very day.   Everyone would have understood that by sharing in the bread, they were sharing in the blessing said over it in the prayer of thanksgiving.  What Jesus did was to make his own body a part of that blessing, so that those who ate it participated with him in becoming nourishment for the healing of the world. 

When he took the cup of wine, he did something even more extraordinary.  And here is where the story gets exciting.

It begins with the ancient understanding that blood was holy.  It was what contained the power of God to give and sustain life.  Way back in the story of the exodus (Ex. 24.6-8), God instructed Moses to take some sacrificial blood and sprinkle it on the altar, then take the rest of it and sprinkle it on the people.  This holy life giving substance, God said, was the symbol of the covenant between God and the people of God.  It sealed the covenant that God would never break, but that the people did. 

All the disciples knew that story by heart, and they knew it well. 

Centuries later, God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 31.31), promised that in place of the broken covenant, he would someday make a new and different one in which God’s people would know God face-to-face and in their hearts.  

The disciples also knew that story well.  Everyone did.  It was what they had been waiting for, for such a long time. 

They could not have been more shocked and dismayed when Jesus took that cup of wine and said that it was his blood of the new covenant.  They were not to be sprinkled with it, but to drink it.  The strictest of all the rules was the rule against eating or drinking blood, because blood contained the holy power of God that gave life.  And there they were, passing around a cup of wine that Jesus said was his blood of that long promised new covenant.

Moreover, this wine-blood was different.  It was not the power of God to give ordinary life.  It was the power of God to forgive sins and grant eternal life.  It was not to be sprinkled but consumed; taken in and made a part of one’s own body.

Like I said,  it must have been very confusing to them.  Only the resurrection would make sense of it.  The earliest Christian generations also knew those stories well. Their meaning was deep in their memories, and the resurrection made the bread and wine of Christ’s body and blood the  most holy of all possible things.  By participating in the Holy Eucharist, God was not simply for them and with them, God was in them.

May the power of that story be restored to us as we remember it this night, and as we share in the bread and wine that is the body and blood of Christ Jesus, the sign and symbol of the new covenant, the nourishment that not only gives new and eternal life, but empowers us to become agents of that new life in the world about us.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Paul and Inerrant Truth

One of the pleasures in reading Paul’s letters is that I get to walk with him as he slogs his way toward a deeper understanding of who Jesus is, and what it means to be a Christian.  The Journey from Thessalonica to Rome may have taken only five or six years, but the distance between them is great, and it took him thirty years to make it from where he had started back in Jerusalem. His side trips to Philippi and Ephesus reached as far as one could reach with two feet still planted firmly on the ground.  

It saddens me when others treat these letters as if they were dropped out of the sky, eternally etched in stone, having expressed precise and unchangeable truth that Paul is simply passing on.  It’s that literal inerrancy thing.  If the early church discerned his letters to be authentic scripture, I think they did so recognizing that they were records of journeys of faith, not of Paul’s only, but also of those to whom he wrote.  They begin in one place and move to other places as they search, not without conflict, for understanding.  They are holy journeys that, if nothing else, declare the journey itself to be an inerrant truth.  It is inerrantly true that we are called to a life of seeking understanding of God’s truth, and it is inerrantly true that our ability to understand is always changing.  

I’m sympathetic with Thessalonians who were led (by Paul) to believe the end of time was imminent, and so quit worrying about the needs of daily life.  They were new Christians.  Paul was their teacher.  That’s what they were sure they heard.  The Anchor Bible Dictionary was not available to them.  I’m sympathetic with Paul who had to admit he didn’t quite get it right, and had to reframe his own understanding of what time means.  

I’m sympathetic with the Corinthians who were probably getting along just fine in their rowdy rather immoral seaport town, until Paul came along to tell them about Jesus.  Now they were Christians, but what did that mean?  Who knows how many letters it took to craft a fence around their many ways of misunderstanding and misadventuring.   It certainly made Paul think deeply about what baptism meant, what the Eucharist meant, and what eternal life might mean.  They kept learning and so did Paul.

I have no problem affirming that all scripture is inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, and I believe that in Paul’s case Godly inspiration has had much to do with showing us not only what a holy journey toward understanding looks like, it has also called us to go on our own life long journey.  Accepting Jesus is not enough to become a Christian, although it may be enough for salvation.  By itself it’s just a declarative statement that leaves one no better off than those early Corinthians and Thessalonians: eager, confused, and often dead wrong.  The glib faith journey that preachers so often prattle on about (including me sometimes) is also not a holy journey, because it often means little more than learning the catechism and becoming proficient in church speak.  

On his holy journey, Paul boldly stated that “Here is where I am now.  It’s not where I started, but I’m closer to the goal than I was yesterday, and I intend to press on.”  Now there is an inerrant truth to live into.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Jobs, Corporations, Unions, and Trade Agreements. That's all.

Heavy manufacturing jobs have moved off shore, as they have been doing for many decades.  The ripple effect has been the loss of well paid jobs in related businesses that supplied and serviced them.  Who do we blame?

NAFTA comes to the top among the people I talk with.  Others have blamed greedy unions that priced themselves out of the market.  Some blame even greedier financiers who have made their fortunes by tearing apart going concerns, selling them off piece by piece.  What do you think?

Without any hard data to back me up, I find it difficult to believe that NAFTA, or any other free trade agreement, has had much to do with it.  During the time that many nations recovered from WWII, and others entered into the industrialized age for the first time, it was natural that they would capitalize on what they could produce in quantity and quality to make money on the world market.  That’s been going on since the early 1950s. It’s time to get over the idea that we can recover what we had over a half century ago.  Corporations don’t care where they manufacture things.  They do care that they can manufacture and sell things at a cost that will keep them in business.  What troubles me is that many of the newly industrialized countries are grossly corrupt, permit abuse of workers and the environment, and restrict imports with high tariffs.  Corporations don’t care one way or the other.  To the extent that trade agreements can do something about that, good for them. 

What about greedy unions?  Some American unions never got over the tough guy, we’ll teach them a lesson mindset of the early days when unions had to fight for their lives, sometimes literally.  It worked up to a point, but that point ended when enough states advertised their anti-union “right to work” laws, other locales bid against each other to attract jobs through legal forms of bribery, and other countries could produce the same thing for less money.  Unions could be a potent force for economic prosperity, but not based on a model that worked OK in the late 1940s, and not very well since then.

As for financiers, there is much I don’t understand and don’t like.  I skimmed an article this morning about United Technologies moving 1,400 Carrier jobs to Mexico by shutting down well paying historical operations in Indianapolis.  The article included a notation that Wall Street was demanding a 17% return on investment in United Technologies in the face of projected revenue growth of 8% or less.  The question I have is, who is making the demands and what authority do they have to make them?  In this case Wall Street no doubt means a handful of institutional investors, or maybe a cabal of speculators, who are threatening a hostile takeover that would dismantle United Technologies, selling off the parts at a huge profit.  Maybe that’s a good idea.  The curious thing is that United Technologies, being the person the Supreme Court says it is, has a strong survival instinct.  It would rather sacrifice the lives of a few workers than let itself be carved up by a gang of speculators, at least for a few more years. 

So what can be done?  I’m not sure.  Most of the lost jobs in heavy industry are not coming back.  It’s no one’s fault.  It’s just what happened when the global economy began to mature, but there are some steps I think worth considering.

Corporations are not persons, other than as an abstraction in law.  They have no rights under the Constitution.  They are whatever the law permits them to be, and we might want to think about what we want them to be. 

Modest changes in corporate tax law to bring down the marginal rate and make repatriation of foreign income more competitive might be a good idea.  

Sticking with corporations for bit longer, Eisenhower was right. We need to examine the military-industrial complex.  Do we want to be the biggest arms dealer in the world?  Should anybody?  Is that how we want to keep high paying jobs?  How moral is that?

Anti-union laws and rhetoric are obsolete and counter productive. They should go.  Along with them, union leadership needs to knock off whatever is left of their pugilistic attitude toward management.  Something akin to the German model might be worth considering.  Read that carefully please: something akin, not something the same as.

States and localities need to stop bribing companies to relocate to their jurisdictions.  It wastes public money and seldom results in a return on investment.  

Management needs to recognize that decent pay has something to do with efficiency, quality, and profitability.  And not just in heavy industry, but in every line of business.  In like manner, super salaries at the very top are egregious wastes providing absolutely no return.  Maybe we need to go back to a very steep marginal tax rate on income.  It would create disincentives for super salaries, and likely create incentives for improvement in other wages.

Trade agreements are not bad things.  Our tariffs are already low.  They have been without trade agreements.  If future agreements can be negotiated that lower the tariffs of our trading partners, combining that with negotiated protections for labor and the environment may improve prospects for American exports.  If you think they can stop the flow of jobs going over seas, forget it.  Other countries are going to be creating their own jobs in competition with ours anyway.   Trade agreements can’t stop that.

I have no idea what to do about reining in Wall Street sharks.  I think they are a bunch of opportunistic parasites.  On the other hand, why shouldn’t United Technologies be dismantled?  Near monopolistic corporate behemoths seem like bad ideas in so many ways.  They are amoral creatures with no loyalty to any place or nation.  The ideal of American capitalism delights in competition among many competitors.  Monopolies and near monopolies work against that.  Teddy Roosevelt understood.  It’s time we did too.

Finally, we must reverse Citizens United, and put an end to Super PACS.  That won’t be easy.


That’s all for now.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Knots of Friends – or not

Regular readers know that we recently returned from a trip that started in Buenos Aires and included a cruise around Cape Horn following Dr. Bob Carson, professor of geology at Whitman, who lectured about the region and led hikes: during, pre, and post.  There were almost a hundred of us from the Walla Walla area.  What surprised me was how little mixing there was between and among the Walla Walla crowd.

You would think that a hundred of us from the same town would mix, mingle, and get to know each other better during two weeks on a ship carrying thirteen hundred passengers.  That didn’t happen.  Small knots of friends stuck together.  Casual acquaintances greeted each other but tended to pass on.  Making an effort to meet someone new often ran into a polite boundary that said, in essence, “I don’t know you back home, why are you greeting me here?”  It was’t meant in a snobbish way.  It was more out of surprise at being greeted unexpectedly.  It seemed that names and faces were soon forgotten even when introductions were made.  Dianna, my wife, has an excellent memory for faces.  Once she meets someone, that’s it: she never forgets.  Both on the trip and after, she would see someone she had met, give them a friendly greeting and ask about the trip.  A common response has been a blank stare of no recognition. 

This from people who are residents of a small city once crowned The Friendliest Town in America.

So what was going on?

Well, let me speak for myself.  We didn’t go to Buenos Aires as a group.  Each of us had our own travel plans.  As for us, we were coming from Maui, and it was a long, long flight from there to Seattle to Houston to Buenos Aires.  Nevertheless, we were assured that someone would meet us.  Wandering around outside customs looking for whoever that was, I was relieved to spot people I knew back home.  A little knot of old friends is a powerful social magnet.  “I don’t know where I am and don’t understand what’s going on, but there are my friends.  I’ll start there.”  

We’ve traveled around the globe, and have never had much trouble finding our way.  I could have done the same with any group of equally confused tourists.  One time in China we managed our confusion with the help of a couple of Chinese equally confused with us.  It can be done, but our little band of a hundred wasn’t made up of strangers.  It was made up of knots of friends and acquaintances.  Our knots were people with whom I looked forward to sharing the adventures that lay ahead, adventures we would talk about for years to come.  It wasn’t intended to exclude anyone else, but it leaned in that direction.

And that’s what tended to happen throughout the trip.  Who got left out were people who were not a part of any particular knot of friends and acquaintances, and what a shame that was.  The thing is, we really are a friendly community.  Our group of a hundred was undoubtedly among the most friendly.  Experience indicates that it isn’t hard to break into a group, or make new friends, and strangers are warmly welcomed by most.  The problem is that it takes some initiative by the one who is not in a knot, and that takes an enormous amount of social courage, more than many of us have.

We were invited to an on board cocktail reception that did not include anyone from our group.  I spotted a couple not talking to anyone, so I went over to introduce myself and see if I could get a knot going.  They assumed I was part of the ship’s staff because I took the initiative to introduce myself and ask about them.  They told me they were from a place in northern England, were sure they were the only Brits on the ship, and felt a little lonely.  I pointed out a gaggle of Brits not ten feet away, and not just Brits, but from the same region.  I knew that because the larger group had welcomed me into their knot not long before.  Later on I noticed the couple tentatively edging their way toward them, but not seeing an easy opening in the circle they retreated to a corner by themselves.  Social courage is hard to come by.  The fear of rejection is deep in each of us.  I know.  At heart I’m a shy, introverted person.

Social awareness of what is going on around us appears to be hard to come by also.  How hard can it be to sense a person hovering near by who wants to be noticed and included, but is reluctant to butt in?

What struck me is that what happened on our trip is the same thing that happens in congregations all across the country Sunday after Sunday.  We proclaim ourselves to be churches where everyone is welcome.  We work hard to recruit greeters and guides of one kind or another.  It works for a short time, and then it’s back to knots of friends visiting with each other and ignoring those who are not in a knot.  It’s not intentional.  It just happens.  Now and then someone has the courage to break in, but not often.  Now and then a congregation is blessed with someone like my wife who recognizes the stranger, enjoys the prospect of meeting him or her, and never forgets a face or name.  We could use more like her.  I work on it, but not always that well. 

What’s the solution?  I don’t know.  Maybe you do.  If so, let’s have it.  If you want to leave a comment you have to log on through www.countyparson.blogspot.com.  I don't know why.  That's just the way it works.

Monday, March 14, 2016

A Palm Sunday Question

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the end of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week.  Some churches will have a special part of their service devoted to a procession of palm branches leading from readings in scripture about Jesus entering Jerusalem led by cheering crowds waving palms and laying them down in a carpet of welcome.  Actually, this year’s reading from Luke has them laying down their garments, not palm branches.  Maybe Luke was distracted by too many Macy’s Easter sale ads.  Anyway, it’s Palm Sunday.  But it’s also Passion Sunday, and the two do not fit well together.  The dissonance irreconcilably grinds our senses against each other.

Before the last echo of Hosannah dies away, the story will turn dark.  The readings from scripture will move abruptly to Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion.   The emotional tension created by the violent collision of Hosannah and Crucify Him is not hard to understand, it is impossible.  How can they have cheered him on in one moment and killed him in the next?  It’s a question scripture forces us to ask, and we have many unsatisfactory answers.  The crowd that cheered Hosanna is different from the one that shouted for his crucifixion.  The people loved him but the leaders hated him.  The Hosannah crowd was a small group whose impromptu parade went unnoticed in the big city.  We can come up with all kinds of speculative answers that appear to make at least some sense. 

Scripture doesn’t let us off that easy because it demands that we ask again how it can be that Jesus is cheered on one day and crucified on the next.  This time it demands that we ask it not about a people who lived two thousand years ago, but about ourselves.  How can we proclaim Jesus as Lord, singing Hosannahs on Sunday, and crucify him on Monday through our casual disregard for everything he taught and did?  How can we lay down palms of welcome on Sunday, and fail to be agents of his reconciling love on Monday?  How can we follow him on Sunday, and pretend that we don’t know him on Monday?  How can we receive new life on Sunday, and squash the life out of others on Monday?  How can we!?

It’s a hard question; one that every Christian must ask with fearless honesty of himself and herself.  At no other time in the Christian year are we so urgently encouraged to remember that in all the cares and occupations of our daily lives we are ever walking in God’s sight.  Being mindful of that makes all the difference in what we do and how we treat others because it encourages us to inwardly offer hosannahs at all times, in very place, and for all persons.  

Being mindful of that encourages us to resist the moments amidst the cares and occupations of our daily lives when we are tempted to shout out Crucify Him when confronted by others we don’t like, or hate, or fear, or believe to be our enemies.

Remembering that we are ever walking in God’s sight does not remove the cross from our lives.  It makes walking in the way of the cross none other than the way of life and peace.  Indeed, for us it is the only way of life and peace, but we are prone to wander far from it.

A favorite hymn says it well.  “Oh to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!  Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee: prone to wander, Lord I fee it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, oh take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.”  ( Come thou fount of every blessing)

We cannot leap from Palms to Resurrection without going through the pain of trial and crucifixion.  The journey through Holy Week is a journey into our own souls that asks hard questions and demands honest answers.  But it is not a lonesome road that any of us must walk by ourself.  It is a road that Jesus has already trod and will trod it again, walking by our sides.


Friday, March 11, 2016

Harvey

This story is about Harvey.  I met Harvey while taking a tour of the Falkland War battle fields a few weeks ago.  In one sense it was the usual bus tour except that we spent most of it outside in the freezing, windy cold.  It turned out that there was another tour in private cars following  along with us that had been organized by a retired British veteran of the Falkland War.  He had arranged for other veterans to revisit the places where their demons were born, and maybe drive them away.  There were about twenty of them.  We tried to give them space and respect when they gathered around monuments, but it didn’t take long to get mixed together.  And so I met Harvey.

Harvey is a probation officer in England.  In 1982 he was a Scots Guard aboard a ship anchored in a cove on the west side of the islands when it was attacked by Argentine planes.  Many of his fellow guardsmen where killed. Those who survived clambered onto the beach in the midst of winter rain and wind without enough gear.  Ill equipped, they managed to begin their planned movements across the flat, treeless terrain under fire from surrounding heights.  They succeeded.  Harvey thought he would never see this place again, nor did he want to, but the demons of war had haunted him all these years, and he knew his only choice was to come back and confront them head on.  He had been here not much longer than we had, so we talked about the fearful, healing pain and relief that he was feeling.  We also talked, or rather Harvey talked, about his probation clients who are increasingly veterans of the interminable conflicts in the Middle East.  They face their own demons, have difficulty living as civilians, have a hard time holding jobs, and find crime one way to survive.  At least one man he is working with does not want probation but prison because he will be safe in prison behind the fortified walls that protect him from the dangers of the civilian world.  Harvey wants to get him, and others who are not quite as bad off, into treatment, but he despairs at the lack of resources available.  In any case, this trip was a way for him to confront and banish his own demons so that he can be a better help for the probationers under his care.  May God bless Harvey.  May his demons be cast into the sea.  And may he become a healer for others.  

We did talk a little about differences between his war in 1982 and theirs.  He and his mates had a purpose: recapture British territory from the invaders, secure it, and go home.   Today’s soldiers can see no purpose, no end, and no worthwhile thing to be achieved.  We dehumanize the other in order to kill them with a better conscience while they are doing the same, but no one knows why, and what the politicians say cannot be trusted.


Harvey and I said goodbye at a battle field memorial before we boarded our bus and he went on by car. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Home - Almost

We've been away for a few weeks.  I find myself sitting in the Seattle Airport waiting for a flight home to Walla Walla. With access to the Internet, I'm posting a few short essays written while away.  Enjoy or ignore as you choose.

Cultural Catholics Have Something We Don't

Coming back from our glacier viewing hike in the mountains outside Ushuaia, Chile, three couples sat behind us on the bus having a great time, and making it clear by the volume of their voices that they were coreligionists of the Roman Catholic variety.  They were not offensive in any way, but their conversation made it known that they were Catholics disinterested in the company of others who were not.   “Did you go to mass last night?” opened banter about going or not going and what that meant.  Worship was not the point of it.  It was not about God.  It was about fishing.  Whether one went to mass was the key to whether one was successful as a fisherman, or not.  No one went fishing on a mountain hike at the tip of South America, so the story telling moved quickly to other times and places closer to home, and they were all about fishing.  Going to mass was not about the Christian faith, but about fulfilling the cultural obligations of being Catholic.  What the lessons were, what the homily was about, what the sacrament meant was irrelevant.  What mattered was doing what Catholics do, and sharing stories about it with other Catholics in their social circle through humor that leaned close to ritual superstition not unlike rubbing the Buddha’s tummy.

I suspect they go to mass not because they believe, but because they are Catholics and that is what Catholics do.  There is more to it than just that, and the thing that is more is something most Episcopalians lack.  For that matter, generic white bread Catholics also lack it.  So what is it that they have and most Episcopalians lack.  Alas, we were not born with the ethnic-cultural umbilical cord that ties us to a Church in the same way that some Catholics were.  Not so many years ago it was still true that Episcopalians tended to be habitual church goers, but not in the same way.  It may have had something to do with being a distinctly English church that is more comfortable with the respectable ways of the gentry.  Fifty or sixty years ago if you wanted to be seen with the right sort of people on Sunday, an Episcopal Church was the place to go.  Episcopalians did not, as a rule, cater to the masses the way Methodists or Presbyterians did, and the rabble rousing ways of Evangelicals was anathema.  We pretended to be more discerning than that, making discreet suggestions to God in the form of prayers laced with thee and thou, and reminding him that sinners tho we may be, we were the right kind of sinners.  Maybe that was never true, or true only in certain places, but the myth has hung on even as we see in the mirror a relatively small denomination of rather ordinary people.   

Like Catholics, we pay dignified homage to the hierarchy, but with little sense of obligation to pay it much attention otherwise.  We can get away with it because we have stripped our bishops of the resources needed to exercise the limited authority we have left to them.  Our liturgy is exemplary, and when done well it draws us into a deeper more holy communion with God.  It’s one of the things I treasure about being an Episcopalian, but it doesn’t seem to be a big draw.

What we don’t have in any form is the ethnic and cultural connection with the Church that many Catholics have.  Maybe it has something to do with the places from which some Catholic families immigrated, and the ethnic communities in which they have remained for several generations.  It may also have something to do with a sense of safety that some Catholics have knowing they are part of a church embodied by a unifying worldwide hierarchy that offers clear definitive answers to life’s complex problems.  They may disagree with and ignore the Church’s teachings, but they know what they are, and there is a certain comfort in that.

Anglicans have a worldwide hierarchy that works toward collegial unity without the authority to impose it, and no interest in creating it.  Well, there has been some interest.  A recent effort of construct a more cohesive structure for the Anglican Communion, including something like a disciplinary authority, met with a resounding No! from enough representatives to sink the idea as deep as it could be sunk.  We have no teaching authority within the Communion, nor in any of the English speaking churches.  In spite of sharing deep roots in the Church of England, the Church in England going back to Roman times, and in shared liturgies germinating from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, each national Church stoutly defends its independence from the others except through the bonds of collegiality, which we euphemistically call the bonds of unity.  Each Church within the communion is its own teaching authority, and American Episcopalians, who love bishops, dioceses, and democracy, may have the messiest, least efficient way of arriving at a teaching as any denomination in the history of religion.  When we finally arrive at a new teaching, usually after several decades of prayerful, discerning debate, we have no structural means of enforcing it.  I love it, but it can be difficult for those who want clear instruction on what to believe and what to do.

I’m digressing to a degree, but only to point out that our lack of an ethnic-cultural umbilical cord tying us to the Church, and our faithfulness to the ancient offices of ministry combined with our unwillingness to grant the hierarchy any more than minimal authority does not lend itself to generations of loyalty to the Church as an institution.  The cultural Catholics I overheard do have that umbilical cord connected to a far more authoritarian church hierarchy, but they seem to lack much interest in having a probing relationship with God.

I wouldn’t trade places with them, but I am deeply impressed by their loyalty to the Church.  It may be theologically thin, but it’s generations deep.


Blessing Chants

This is  very short article about blessings.  In the continental United States one seldom, if ever, hears about public blessings at events, or of things, or of places.  And let’s be honest, the ubiquitous ‘God bless America’ delivered at the end of every politician’s speech, is not a blessing, not even a prayer.  I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean.  In Hawaii public blessings are not just common.  They are expected for events, things, and places all the time and everywhere.  Theologically speaking they tend toward the animistic or pantheistic, and no one finds that unusual because they are so deeply respectful of the event, thing, or place, and the spirit that they hope will be present in it.  They are not, so far as I know, denominational in any sense of the word, but they are not the vapid ‘to whom it may concern’ blather that often passes as an invocation in various places on the mainland.

Most are offered through Hawaiian chants.  I imagine you have heard a Hawaiian chant somewhere along the line.  You have if you have ever gone to a luau.  Chants come in many forms and tell family stories, recall favorite myths, call attention to important events, and implore blessings of many kinds.  What especially interests me are the special chants offered before entering certain lands that seek the blessing of the land, and the plants and animals inhabiting it.  In a sense it is like calling ahead to let a friend know you are coming over to visit, ringing the doorbell when you arrive, and offering a friendly greeting before entering.  It’s just good manners.  These blessing chants are intended to prepare one to seek communion with the place and its inhabitants of the place.  I like that, and am determined to be more intentional about doing something similar more often in more places. 

As Christians, should it matter if that borders on the animistic?  Episcopalians deeply rooted in the Anglican tradition, itself rooted in Celtic Christianity that has a high regard for the presence of the holy in all creation.  Another way of saying that is that our incarnational theology delights in the presence of God’s Spirit in all things.  What we may have to work on is whether all things may have spirits of their own.  Does it matter whether it is the spirit of the place, or God’s Spirit that abides in it, or both?  The psalmist implored all creatures to clap their hands (98), and to sing out in thanksgiving to God (148).  Scripture is not unaware that plants, animals, hills, streams, and all of creation have spirit and reflect God’s Spirit.  The spirit of a place exists without knowing or caring about the ways in which philosophers, theologians, and scientists work hard to divide the spiritual from the material.  Hawaiian chants honor the spirit of a place by recognizing it and asking its blessing on those who will enter that place.

As I write this I’m a day away from entering the harbor at Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands.  Am I going to stand at the rail of the ship offering a Hawaiian chant before going ashore.  No! Among other things, it would be presumptuous.  That’s for Hawaiians to do, not for me.  But they remind me that I can offer, in my own language, recognition of the spirit of the place and of God’s Spirit in it.  I can offer a blessing and ask for its blessing as I enter in.  Becoming more consistent in doing that will be one of my Lenten disciplines this year. 


P.S.  Posting this will have to wait for land based Internet.  That may take a while.