Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Rising of the Sun. . . .

In a café, so this will be short and possibly incoherent, if that isn't assuming too much . . . .

One of the best Christmas moments: walking in a Devon lane with a collie on a lead, past holly and ivy with the sun rising—and starting a roe deer . . . .

Another: listening to the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin played by the astonishing Viktoria Mullova on Christmas night in front of a blazing fire in the sitting room, surrounded by cards, greens, soft light, with my friend, the collie and the cat . . . .

On Boxing day walking towards Wool Fardy (pronounced Woolsery—both are abbreviations of a much longer name), at a T intersection, whose name I forget, watching three parallel rainbows (single, double, triple) to the right over the hills, while to the left, storms pounded Dartmoor.

One of the worst, nauseating moments: passing a lovely medieval church in Plough Hill (pronounced Poil) with this notice on its board: "Remember the birthday boy and enjoy the full Christmas ['Christ' was underlined] festivities." I wished I'd had a permanent marker so I could have written at the bottom: "Bring on the holly, the ivy, the mistletoe, wassail, the mummers and the hobby, and up yours." Hasn't the idiot who wrote this read the Gospel of John? "ALL things were created through him. . . ."

Pray for my conversion in the New Year.

And may 2010 bring you peace and joy, Gentle Readers.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Luddite Christmas

My access to the internet will be intermittent from today until January 4.

I will try to post over the holiday if an opportunity arises; otherwise look for the next post the first week in January.

Gud Yule!

A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know ; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.

—John Donne

'Christmas Landscape' by Laurie Lee

[thanks to Bo for this]

Tonight the wind gnaws
With teeth of glass,
The jackdaw shivers
In caged branches of iron,
The stars have talons.

There is hunger in the mouth
Of vole and badger,
Silver agonies of breath
In the nostril of the fox,
Ice on the rabbit’s paw.

Tonight has no moon,
No food for the pilgrim;
The fruit tree is bare,
The rose bush a thorn
And the ground is bitter with stones.

But the mole sleeps, and the hedgehog
Lies curled in a womb of leaves,
The bean and the wheat-seed
Hug their germs in the earth
And the stream moves under the ice.

Tonight there is no moon,
But a new star opens
Like a silver trumpet over the dead.
Tonight in a nest of ruins
The blessed babe is laid.

And the fir tree warms to a bloom of candles,
The child lights his lantern,
Stares at his tinselled toy;
Our hearts and hearths
Smoulder with live ashes.

In the blood of our grief
The cold earth is suckled,
In our agony the womb
Convulses its seed,
In the cry of anguish
The child’s first breath is born.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Three Hats, Three Corners, and a Possible Impasse

Immediately after the election of Mary Glasspool as a bishop in Los Angeles, I received some email that heaped vitriol on Rowan Williams for his immediate and open opposition to TEC's going forward, while remaining silent on the proposed legislation that would make homosexuality a capital offense in Uganda.

The pastoral needs of TEC are self-evident and Mary Glasspool's election is a response to that need. Each church in the Anglican Communion has unique problems and must make unique responses to them. What TEC has done is 'prophetic' but if one bothers to read the bible, one finds that it is unrealistic to act prophetically and then expect to be loved and accepted (much less adored, which is what TEC seems to want).

TEC has its cake and now wants to eat it; some of the reactions of its members and officials are those of a spoilt brat. Subtlety is not its strong point. One cannot expect TEC to go backward, but equally, TEC cannot expect to escape the consequences of its self-absorbed heedlessness (which seems to be a large element in this 'prophetic' step) towards the larger situation in which it is involved.

The Anglican Communion is a voluntary gathering of churches that look to Canterbury as its point of unity. The structure and purpose of this organization is currently in flux. Furthermore, the very foundations on which it presumes (and there is a lot of presumption in the worst British sense of the word) to stake its identity are increasingly being called into question by a greater knowledge of history of the early church (see 'An Opportunity' posted here two weeks ago.) In effect, everything is up for grabs. As the degree of incline of the ship's rolling gets steeper, the screaming gets louder. It would be better if all this energy were devoted to finding a way to live together than to excoriate and demonize one another.

The claims about 'apostolic succession' so dear to TEC bishops who absurdly address one another in official correspondence as "dear successor to Apostles" are simply not true, except in the sense that all Christians share in the lineage of baptism and Eucharist. So-called apostolic succession, like the creeds, is far more about compromise with and pacification of the Empire than it is about the gospel. TEC does not seem about to adjust to what is true, but rather continue in its self-congratulatory, increasingly narcissistic and self-affirming "experience"-based adventure that has less and less to do with the gospels and more and more to do with the mall and the world of entertainment.

At some point it will have to choose between experience and the vision of God—if indeed the point of no return has not already been reached. When will it realize that 'experience' based living objectifies the world to suit its subjectivity, while destroying the possibility of the emergence of a true subject? Read Martin Buber (in I and Thou) on experience if you doubt what you read here. Christianity is about self-forgetfulness, not self-absorption. The squawking from TEC masks a particular set of problems which it needs to address; its complaints most certainly do not have the righteous base it would like the world to think it does. 'Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons' is a phrase that comes to mind. The posturing does not become it; nor does its destructive lack of reflection and distaste for subtlety.

The future of the Anglican Communion depends on such subtlety as, indeed, does the human race.

Rowan Williams wears at least three hats. He is the head of the Anglican Communion; he is Archbishop of Canterbury, covering the southern half of Britain, as well as being first among equals with the Archbishop of York. Additionally he is Bishop of Canterbury. He has a seat in the House of Lords. He is also a scholar, a diplomat, and an extremely private person. Rarely do all if any of these roles converge. He is scrupulous in keeping them separate, while being equally scrupulous about his integrity—it requires real genius to effect such a stance. Unfortunately his critics fail to appreciate this state of affairs.

As head of the Anglican Communion he needs to keep the conversation going, to keep members of the flock talking no matter how much they may disagree, to desire to go off in a huff, or kick some of the others out. So while he might as a private person, for example, favour Mary Glasspool's election (I do not know this to be either true or untrue), as Head of the Anglican Communion he must stick to the policy of restraint counselled by the recent Lambeth Conference and respond accordingly.

This election in LA comes at a time when Uganda is struggling to stem a tide of apocalypse. The threat of making homosexuality a capital offence (one has the feeling that the pressure for this legislation is coming from the top, in part from an increasingly embattled if not psychopathological Akinola) is symptomatic of scapegoating a far deeper turmoil, the aftermath of internal warfare, terrorism, violence, corruption and a sequence of horrors that stretch back forty years to Idi Amin, not to mention an AIDS epidemic that is out of control. Uganda is a country always on the edge of chaos; its citizens face a day-to-day struggle to stay alive that is inconceivable to Episcopalian Americans, who seem interested only in their self-image and their 'rights'.

Africa and Africans are quite rightly still very touchy about the colonial past, and extremely sensitive to the patronizing attitudes of white people, particularly Westerners. A wrong-footed declaration against the Ugandan legislation would more than likely provoke a reaction that would not only hasten its passage but perhaps make it even more wide-ranging than it already proposes to be.

I recently had the privilege of attending an ice cream social in a fairly strict Mennonite home (in America), a home distinguished by its simplicity and joy. Unfortunately this atmosphere was marred by a visiting elder, not very well educated, as po-faced and smooth a churchman as any Barchester cleric. His attitude was a left-over from the Raj. I was unsurprised when he told me that a Mennonite venture in which he had been involved that sought to bring a well to a remote African village had failed due to the resistance of the populace to doing the installation work even after all the equipment was delivered. This elder was, by God, going to force on Africans his idea of what Africans were and what they needed; he reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible. It was an example of the Africans' struggle to preserve human dignity in the face of the missionaries' degrading attitude towards them. The former would rather go without the well than engage in the shuffling and grinning that the latter expected of them. The negotiations were doomed to failure before they even began.

Anyone who had stopped to think (not something Americans are good at) would have realized that Rowan's silence on the subject of the proposed Ugandan legislation must have meant that there is a lot going on behind the scenes, a fact confirmed in today's papers. The rush to judgement to condemn Rowan for not speaking out immediately on this proposed legislation is not only short-sighted; it is simply stupid, just as stupid as wanting to be loved and adored for having elected Mary Glasspool.

If you're going to do something that might make sense in the smaller perspective but that is risky, if not defiant of or injurious to the reality in the larger perspective, then do it and take your lumps. It's TEC's outrage at not being internationally loved and adored for what it has done that is part of what is so repellent about this whole affair.

Realpolitik is a long way from the world of instantaneous reaction demanded by the media, that is operative in the cartoon world that life in the USA increasingly resembles, or that is essential to operating the computer games to which Americans seem increasingly addicted.

Unfortunately Americans, including, or maybe especially, members of TEC, are not known either for their restraint or their sense of the common good. Every issue is all about me, me, me and my real or imagined right; most of about my feeling good. Such attitudes are neither Christian nor even civilized. As Joseph Conrad showed us, one of civilization's most distinguishing marks is restraint. So while the TEC attitude towards same-sex oriented people may be civilized at one level, its unthinking, jingoistic, in-your-face, Dubya way of going about forcing its attitudes on other countries where the issue is enmeshed in an unimaginably complex situation is, in fact, counter-productive: it polarizes the situation, raises the stakes, makes all negotiations more complex and difficult for all involved, especially for Rowan Williams.

Last summer I had a conversation with an American clergywoman who has a thriving parish, is a bigwig in the diocese—and is going to take early retirement. "How long do you think it [TEC] will take to die?" was her opening gambit over lunch. "It will be long and slow, and accompanied a lot of whining," I responded, "but it is certainly not the context into which I made my vows." Nor was it for her, she said; nor is it for a (male) member of one of the most respected Anglican religious orders, as revealed in a conversation I had here in the UK yesterday evening.

There is so much that is basic to religion that has gone missing from TEC (and the C of E) that it is hard to know any longer what it is or what purpose it serves. It is rare, and getting rarer, that I go in to an Episcopal church and am able to stay and pray in community—there is no community, and there is no worship in the sense that going to church is a support for seeking and engaging the vision of God. Much of what passes for liturgy is repellent, banal ego-massage, reflecting the attitudes discussed in the post "Reader Query III" August 31, 2009 on this blog.

The unwarranted criticisms of Rowan that I have received in the last week are far more reflective of the decline of TEC than they are either of the situation they purport to comment on, or they are of him. If Americans want to know why they are often despised abroad, this recent spate of members of TEC shooting themselves in the foot by unthinking criticism of Rowan over the LA election and the Uganda situation should show them why. These knee-jerk reactions don't help to alleviate homophobia; they only inflame it. They don't help TEC's position in the Anglican Communion or an outsider's perception of it; they make TEC look ridiculous and eminently dismissable.

To be fair, there is a polite clergy correspondent in this morning's Times who makes the same error as my correspondents from America: why can't Rowan use his considerable spiritual authority to impose the correct viewpoints on the dim fundamentalists and Anglo-Catholics? So be comforted, TEC Americans; the C of E Brits can be just as unreflective as you.

Some weeks ago Rowan participated in a BBC programme called "Something Understood". Unfortunately I can't find it in the BBC archives or I'd recommend listening. The programme was on silence, and at one point Rowan said to the interviewer with a sigh (not a direct quote), 'Sometimes I sit in liturgies and think, why don't we all just shut up for a while?'

Monday, December 14, 2009

Remembering to Forget

[This article was originally published in Weavings in 2008 in an issue dedicated to readers who find Christmas difficult. If you are in a jolly mood, you might want to skip it.]


The English tend to approach things gently when they can. Television presenters who survey the weather forecast supplied by the Meteorological Office use phrases such as “bright” (read: light cloud cover), or “dull.” Around the middle of December they start getting real: “gloomy,” may be the word for the day, or “miserable,” or “blustery.”

The same goes for Christmas. In September, there may be a few festive items on a back shelf in a shop, or in a curtained-off area that's being turned into a grotto for Father Christmas, but the dreaded word is not spoken.

NOVEMBER 7, 2007

This past weekend the first “how to survive Christmas” article appeared, tucked away in the Food section of one of the papers. Soon the “how to survive” articles will spill over into the weekday editions; the papers seem to vie for the best psychological advice on how to cope with the annual family nightmare. In the last week before Christmas there will also be splashy ads for Christmas-free holidays for those who have decided that they simply can’t face it again.


The best Christmases I have had have been monastic. The deepening dark through Advent is matched by a deepening silence in the house; the only decorations are the Advent candles in the refectory. The liturgy is full of prophecy and vision, sparks of light almost visible as the words chant themselves, unwinding their ceaseless golden thread in the middle of the night. Then the great O antiphons, giving voice to our longing. And as we file in for Vespers on Christmas Eve, the church bursting with the smell of greens, candles waiting in expectation of midnight, an empty manger with cow and donkey and a few sheep munching contentedly.

I love the tradition that they are wiser than we are. They receive unfathomable mystery of the divine in the ordinary with mild eyes and gentle nods as they reach for another mouthful of hay. Of course this is the way it is, they seem to say, how could you have thought otherwise? I like to imagine that Mary and Joseph have absorbed some of this matter-of-fact calm by the time the kings arrive so that they, too, have a time—probably the only time for the rest of their lives—of simplicity and peace.

After Vespers, supper; Compline, a nap if one can quell the rising joy enough to sleep; then a candle flame scattering the light before each of us as we pace silently through the dark cloisters to the church. And after the glorious all-night liturgy, a day in silence to behold the mystery.

These days most monasteries, rightly or wrongly, won’t take guests at Christmas; if I could find one that did, I would go in a minute, happy to scrape carrots or dust the choir in exchange for these few days out of time. But you can’t go home again.

You see, I’m trying to go gently into the memories of other Christmases. They are harrowing, and sad.

NOVEMBER 14, 2007

This year’s big Yuletide topic is binge drinking. The figures are alarming: ninety-five percent increase in liver disease in the last seven years, mostly among young people; thirteen children a day treated in hospitals for alcohol-related problems. People don’t consider they’ve drunk enough until they’re paralytic.

My parents came out of the social drinking culture of the 1930s. Because my father was never a sloppy drunk, and because my mother rarely drank enough to be really plastered, at least in my presence, the thought that they might be alcoholic never crossed my mind until a community I was living next to had to face its own alcohol problems. Then the penny dropped.

As my father started drinking at a young age, it’s hard to know how much of what we suffered as a family was due to the booze or to the fact that he lost his mother when he was seven years old, an event that scarred him deeply. I don’t think he ever forgave her for dying, or himself for not forgiving her. He looked like her, though without the tender expression that came through her eyes in the only photo I’ve seen.

He hated the way he looked. I had the bad luck to look like him and worse luck to look even more like her, though our features were a different shape. When I saw that photo of her, I understood that much of my father's hatred of me was the pain he must have felt whenever he saw his mother's face looking out of mine. But there is no question that alcohol exacerbated an endemic depression and deep-seated misogyny. He never forgave my mother for producing three girls.

He had the alcoholic’s grandiosity; he demanded that we match his moods; he had a Jekyll and Hyde personality. He wanted absolute control over all of us at all times, including our thoughts and attitudes. He decided in advance, according to looks, who among us would be a credit to him and who would not (me), and treated us accordingly.

In order to survive I have become very good at forgetting, but the two earliest Christmases I remember stick in my mind. The first was in 1945 when I was four years old. My father was in Burma. We knew he was coming home, but we didn’t know when. We put up a Christmas tree, which we vowed to keep until he arrived. Months later when he came back, it was still in the house, devoid of needles, with his presents underneath.

The next Christmas I remember was much worse, perhaps the worst of my life. It was just after I had turned five years old. We were at my grandmother’s house because ours had been sold. After months of tension, and anxiety levels that made beginning school a positive relief, we were moving to Washington, D.C. This would be the third move, at least, since I had been born. I was happy where we were; I liked my school; I adored my grandmother, whose house was full of treasures, including a Meissen porcelain angel in a glass cabinet to whom I silently confided my hopes and fears. I couldn’t bear the tension; I didn’t want to go.

In spite of the beautiful old German winter scene under the tree with its wind-up train scooting through snow-covered tunnels, Christmas morning was a disaster. I remember tension you could cut with a butter knife. Doubtless there had been some serious drinking the night before, but hangovers were only part of it. My older sister and I were given dolls and baby carriages. “She won’t notice,” someone muttered, but of course I did notice the vast gulf between the set my sister had been given and mine. Anyway, I never played with dolls. But I hid my disappointment; I already knew better than to say anything. The grownups went up to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. I don’t know where my sister went.

I lingered, wallowing in a pool of misery. Then I spied the beautiful fabric scissors my mother had been given as a present. In some blind chthonic trance I seized the scissors and went to work on my hair. I suppose I thought that if I made myself even uglier, my parents would be too embarrassed to be seen with me and either I would be left behind or they would cancel the move. There was hell to pay, of course. Two days later I was jammed into a chair at a beauty salon, my mother almost hysterical with recriminations, while the beautician tried, vainly, to repair the damage.

The happiest Christmas I had at home occurred in what was one of the unhappiest years of my life. I was ten years old. I had been forced to leave a school where I was doing extremely well. My first autumn in the new school was more than traumatic. I was continually sick with ear infections. Not only did I miss a lot of school, but my eardrum abscessed and had to be lanced. I was routinely dropped off at the doctor. I will never forget the pain, or the conflicting emotions: relief that my hand-wringing mother wasn’t present, yet wanting a mother, any mother, to be there with me.

Christmas was coming. “The whole family will be together,” my father intoned, while the rest of us cringed. “Won’t that be nice.” No response. Finally, my mother, meekly, “Yes, dear.” "The whole family" omitted his flakey sister who worked for Central Casting, and his aunt who was a highly successful business woman, both considered by him too embarrassing or threatening to be included.

In the school art room I seized on clay; after a few false starts crêche figures began to emerge. I was slow; the figures were primitive in the extreme, but for me they were magical. They would change Christmas into something wonderful. We would become a family at last. My father would stop hating me, my older sister would stop making me take the blame for her mischief and would want to have a loving relationship. My mother would stop being anxious, and we would do things together, instead of my hiding in my attic room, or in the woods. I loved my family dearly; the magic of Christmas would help them accept that love. Of course it was not to be. In retrospect, something far more wonderful happened.

In violation of the rules, the art teacher sent me home for the vacation with a large wodge of clay and pots of gouache. “Take your time,” was all she said. Being literal, I took her advice. I spent all day, every day in the cellar working on my figures. I would not let anyone see them. The day before Christmas I went out in the yard and cut boughs of evergreen and holly, stuck them behind pictures hanging on the wall; decorated every surface with a spray or some sprigs of holly; created a bower on the mantelpiece for my crêche. Perhaps because my mother was originally an artist, I was allowed to do this.

Just before supper on Christmas Eve the last daub of paint went on the last figurine: gold for the face of the babe in the manger, who radiated light. My mother agreed I could be late to supper. My father hadn’t come home yet. I don’t know where my sister was. Carefully I arranged the figures among the hemlock and holly on the fireplace mantel, guardian angels at each end, shepherds, sheep, donkey, white and red cow (from the carol), and, far off, the kings on their way.

Thankfully, I don’t remember what the reactions were; I don’t remember anything more about that Christmas. I do know that many years later, when I was clearing my things out of my parents’ California attic with the support of a friend, I opened a box to find the crêche from long ago. I had forgotten all about it, ashamed, perhaps, that it didn’t resemble the Neapolitan one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which is what I am sure my mother would have preferred.

But on that hot summer afternoon my eyes were opened. One by one I pulled the figures out of their protective wrappings. By the time I finished, my friend and I were in tears. The figures were primitive, yes, but there was something in their body language, and, above all, the expressions on their faces, that sent the message of the reality of Christmas: that the most precious gift we can bring to the manger is not gold or frankincense or myrrh, but our suffering; which, in the light radiating from the Babe in the straw, will be transfigured into joy.


Someone told me with a shudder that carols were now playing at Marks and Spencer, but the other day when I had to go in, dreading the assault, it was pleasantly silent except for the usual shopping noise. While I’ve heard of some outlying villages done up to the nines, Oxford seems to be much lower key this year. Perhaps it is the times; perhaps the economy. Perhaps I’m just not going into places where Christmas is being sold with brickbats.

All the same I have a mounting dread that pushes me towards international train timetables, and the desire to escape on a trans-Channel express to a place where I can get lost in the liturgy and the silence, the “healing of strangeness.”

DECEMBER 5, 2007

Woke up with a really, really bad case of Christmas depression, not so much specifically about the feast, but all those old inarticulate bad feelings. All the techniques in the world can’t take away the miasma in the pit of your stomach that you somehow have to work through alone. Fortunately I know it is not the reality, no matter what it feels like. But you still have to get through it, even if, paradoxically, at the deepest layer you are also drinking from the springs of stillness.

DECEMBER 6, 2007

The family residual has always made merely staying alive a very difficult task; underneath all the static, however, is something else. As Clément reminds us, we fall through despair into the hand of God.

DECEMBER 18, 2007

This seems to be the year that Christian Christmas disappeared from the High Street. I haven’t seen a single crêche. Christianity today is where Judaism was when “Jesus” showed up.

The carols for the Readers at the Bodleian were heartbreakingly beautiful, and utterly authentic. The community of scholars, the Bodley village as it were, gathered in the gothic Divinity School. There were electric piano, violin and clarinet, and a choir of mostly women from the staff. To top it all off, it was Charles Wesley’s 300th birthday. The piety was simple and naked in the most restrained English way, somehow both informal and formal at the same time. This carol service is always my Christmas; everything after is an anti-climax. I can’t think about the words as I sing, though; the tears come all too readily. It gets worse as I get older; fewer and fewer texts that I can sing or read aloud without breaking down.

JANUARY 2, 2008

My sermon for Epiphany is more or less done. During the Eucharist yesterday the words of “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” leapt out as if I were seeing them for the first time:

The carol “It came upon the midnight clear” states the problem with devastating clarity, if only we will pay attention. “The world in silent stillness lay / To hear the angels sing.” For it is only in silent stillness that we can hear them, echoing the silent Word. This song has never stopped, the hymn tells us, but we are so lost in Babel, the kingdom of noise, that the prophecies concerning the nations go as yet unfulfilled. Instead, “Beneath the angel-strain have rolled / Two thousand years of wrong.” The trammeled poet then cries, “O hush the noise, ye men of strife / And hear the angels sing.” He knows full well that it is only when we learn silence that we are able to join the angelic chorus, to “. . . .give back the song/That now the angels sing.”


And so Christmas ends, a better one than most for me, perhaps because of this diary, perhaps just because I am learning to let go of things a little more quickly, without desensitizing myself. A tricky business. But it showed in the sermon this morning, which from the preaching angle felt better than any I have ever done, relaxed and completely taken over by the text.

Only seven weeks left in the UK. I hope the treacle-brain that is the psychological consequence of Christmases past doesn’t return when I go back to the USA, since for the first time in many years, I seem to be on a roll in terms of writing.

But I have to leave it all in the hands of God.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

An Opportunity

Last Wednesday evening I had the privilege to attend the book launch for Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of Christianity. The presentation also had clips from the excellent TV series of the same name, currently being broadcast on BBC4 or on iPlayer (in the UK), if you can't get the digital channels. The launch was, appropriately enough, in the University Church here in Oxford where both Catholic and Protestant martyrs were taken before they were burned. The stone pulpit from which Cranmer recanted has, alas, been taken down and replaced with a bronze memorial. While church's sightlines are better, I miss it. I miss the resonances, which have grown fainter in its absence.

In any event, it was a splendid occasion. In addition to the clips, MacCulloch spoke, and Sarah Foot gave a live review. Afterwards there were canapés (tasty if cold, but then the church is cold) and very nice wine. Assembled theologians and book types circulated; I kept overhearing top scholars say that MacCulloch said things on TV they'd never heard of, but that he is an impeccable scholar. The book is huge but enormously readable, and will be out in the USA early in 2010. In the UK edition, so the editor at Penguin told us, the index had to be cut by 25% or else the book couldn't have been bound. (The full index can be found at the St Cross College website.)

This occasion sounds ordinary enough, but the combination of this book (one review begins with the word "WOW!") and the television series, which is going out to millions of people, has the potential to change the religious world and the way millions of people look at religious institutions, Christian institutions in particular.

MacCulloch is forthright in his challenge to the more dogmatic churches. He points out that the doctrine of apostolic succession was dreamed up by Damasus I in the 4th century, a time when a lot of mythmaking was going for the sake of holding the empire together; the creation of the creeds served a similar purpose (so why do we say them? They say too much in the first place). In exposing this myth and many others, MacCulloch offers an opportunity to Rome, Canterbury and other churches for backing themselves out of the corners they have painted themselves into, making truth-claims that are, in fact, untrue; myths at best, just plain lies at worst. They could say, for example, yes, these are myths, they perhaps were needed at the time but they have served their purpose, and now it's time to try to create a system and a religion that is more in touch with the gospels and real life. I spoke to MacCulloch about this notion, and he admitted that one of the main motivations in agreeing to the project was to offer just such a face-saving opportunity.

At what point in the life of an institution does the word myth become euphemism for a lie? Especially when truth claims and doctrines are based on known falsehoods, for example, the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary which was based on a forgery recognized as such as early as the 5th century? With more and more laypeople knowing more and more about early church history, in particular the fact that Jesus never intended to found a church in the first place, the cracks are far too wide for the wallpaper to cover any longer. Are the institutions going to take the initiative, or are they going to continue to think that the laity are too stupid to notice and wait until the pews are empty of all but those who wish to be fooled?

And why, aside from the need to keep some kind of conversation going, does the Anglican Communion continue the ARCIC conversations whose assumptions are based on the fairytale that Damasus I created? I spoke to one scholar who told me he had turned down a position on ARIC some years ago for precisely this reason.

Like a lot of people I have struggled with the contradictions (they are not paradoxes) between the facts of church history and the mythology (to use the polite term) enshrined in ecclesiology, liturgy and clericalism. The tension is reaching the breaking point, not because of gay and lesbian bishops, not because of women priests, not because of homosexual marriage, not even because African bishops like Sentamu are throwing their weight around like tribal chiefs, running roughshod over clergy and lay people alike; but because of the foundations of sand on which the entire institutional (as opposed to the body of the increasingly unchurched faithful) enterprise called "Christianity" rests.

There is much in Christianity that is worth saving; some of its mythology and liturgy speak truths that can be made evident in no other way. But what is good in Christianity is rapidly being submerged in the noisy struggle for self-perpetuation of a clerical system that is completely without justification, and a set of clerical attitudes that are destructive to the message of the gospels, not to mention the business model that is the subtext. There are still faithful ordained servants left, but they struggle against the overwhelming cynicism of their peers.

Witness a priest's lament: "For me the most telling part of our ordination process is that people get ordained who don't have a prayer life. Didn't anybody bother to ask them at some point along the way? We have a new diocesan resident—a young man right out of seminary who will be with us at least two years. When I asked him about his daily discipline of prayer, silence, or whatever, he looked at me like I was from Mars. My other colleague, a sixty-five year old woman, ordained for several years now, just doesn't get it when I talk about the centrality of contemplative prayer to the life of this community. Last Sunday we had our usual first Sunday of Advent contemplative Eucharists at all three morning services (lots of silence interspersed between readings and pieces of the liturgy. I could sense her disgust with the whole thing."