Saturday, May 31, 2008

Which Inflammatory Pastor Are You?

A quiz from  Turns out I'm Arthur Tooth, who -- oh, wait, that was the Facebook "Great Anglo-Catholics" quiz.

McCain Team Unafraid of Grammar

On the hustings, Sen. McCain recently boasted that troops in Iraq had been drawn down to pre-surge levels.  They have not.  When confronted with his misrepresentation of the facts, McCain simply denied that he had made a mistake.  (Why?  Maybe he is afraid people will call him senile -- or maybe he's just another GOPer who doesn't want to be troubled by facts).

Confusion about troop levels does nothing to bolster our confidence in the mastery of military policy which is supposedly McCain's advantage in the coming race.  But far more serious, for our money, is his claim at the same conference that "things are quiet" in Mosul, on a day when suicide bombers killed 30 people.  It smacks of the claim that war is peace.

McCain's staff mounted a spirited and creative defense.  Advisor Randy Scheunemann told reporters it was all a question of "semantics," and said that "if you're going to start fact-checking verb tenses, we're going to make sure we start monitoring verb tenses a lot more closely than we have in this campaign."

An excellent idea, and we thank Mr. Scheunemann for volunteering to undertake monitor duty.  Because, as our old Latin teacher was at pains to make us understand, verb tenses actually make a difference in the meaning of a sentence.  "I am old" is a rather different thing than "I will be old," for example.  (And we thank Mr. Scheunemann for his observation that Sen. Obama is apparently confused about the number of states in the Union.)

Nonetheless, we at the Egg are concerned that McCain's team does not seem to grasp the distinctions among grammar (the rules that govern meaning in a language), semantics (the study of how meaning is communicated) and facts (the actual things that are meant).  McCain's initial error was one of fact, not of grammar:  155,000 American soldiers risking their lives in Iraq today is demonstrably not fewer than the 130,000 who did do before the surge.  He apparently attempted to argue that the error was a grammatical one, because the number of soldiers may someday -- perhaps even in July -- be smaller than it is now.  And his advisors seem to believe that the press has committed a semantic error by failing to conflate the present indicative and future subjunctive.

It is possible that McCain and his team are correct here.  It simply depends -- as someone close to the campaign once observed, in another context -- on what the meaning of "is" is.

Department of No Surprise: Vatican Edition

Times header:  "Vatican Asserts Rule that Bars Female Priests."

Really?  We hadn't guessed.  Oh, wait, we had guessed -- since the Vatican has ben utterly unwavering on this question since the dawn of time.  It is "news," by the broadest possible definition of that term, only because the challenge from groups like Womanpriest forces periodic restatements, most recently phrased in a terse threat of excommunication.

Side note to Womanpriest and its adherents:  So you want a Catholic Church that has been reformed?  Married priests, female priests, congregations choosing their own pastors?  maybe even a little flexibility on divorce?  But still identifiably catholic -- saints' days, vestments, a strong commitment to the reality of Christ's presence in the world, made visible by the sacraments?  The good news is that your dream church already exists.

We call it Lutheranism.  Join today.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Department of No Surprise: Sex (& City) Edition

The Times doesn't like the Sex and the City movie.  Per Manohla Dargis, it is "vulgar, shrill, shallow, and overlong."  Confirming what husbands and boyfriends all over the tristate region have been dreading.  We'll bet there isn't even a car chase.

In All Fairness to Geraldo ...

...who's still an idiot.  Click the link to read the kind of dumbassery he was referring to.  Obama's supposed "friend" Michael Pfleger, a Roman priest, stood in the pulpit of Trinity UCC and went off on Senator Clinton's campaign-trail tears as emblems of white privilege.  In no uncertain terms. So much for compassion.  

Pfleger has since apologized, which is the least he could do.  Obama's "friends" from church seem to be among his worst enemies.  Wright and Pfleger could not do the Obama campaign more harm if they tried -- which makes many of us wonder whether in fact they are trying.

Geraldo's an Idiot

Per the HuffPo:  Geraldo "Troop Locations" Rivera had a little hissyfit on TV this morning, complaining about religious figures who express political opinions.  Apparently, it "gives him the creeps."  His most quoted remark will certainly be:  "If I hear one more rabbi talking about Israel, excuse me:  shut up!"

While we confess a certain sympathy on this matter -- we too are irritated by churches that actually tell their members how to vote, as we are by Christians who go to church hoping to be told how to vote -- he is missing many of the bigger points.  A nation in which religious views are systematically excluded from matters of public policy is a nation teetering toward disaster (please read Bishop Nazir-Ali's essay, linked below).  

And we don't know that much about Judaism, but it occurs to us that a rabbi who doesn't talk about Israel is about as useless as a Christian priest who doesn't talk about Heaven.

Nice Schmattes, Your Grace

We at the Egg have a terrible confession to make.  We are dreadfully, pitifully shallow.

Here's a f'rinstance:  The Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester (that would be, ahem, the one in Britain) is one of the most potentially important figures in the emerging conversation about Christianity and Islam as they meet in the public square.  He is a native of Pakistan, and has served a priest both there and in England; he was an assistant to Archbishop Runcie, and advisor to Prince Charles.  And he has recently published an essay which lays out, as clearly as one could hope, the position of cultural conservatives, especially Christian ones, with regard to the vexed matter of passionate Muslims residing in a nation that grows steadily less Christian.

It is well-written, and not the least foolish.  Nazir-Ali describes the loss of a national identity, and national consensus on ethics, which emerged from and depended largely upon, Christianity. He contends that Islam, and specifically radical Islam, will fill the void, replacing "the Christian virtues of humility, service and sacrifice" with the Islamic ones, which he identifies as "honour, piety, and the importance of 'saving face.'"  (We may quibble with his lists -- both religions have a more complex value system, but certainly both can be reduced to something like this in the popular imagination).

While formally renouncing any vision of theocracy or legal coercion, he calls for his government to take greater notice of religious values, and for Christians to be more persuasive in arguing for the superiority of our values.  (He puts it more tactfully:  "to argue our case in terms of the common good.")  He also takes a swipe at Rowan Williams -- we almost typed Rowan Atkinson, such is our fury on this matter -- when he argues that although Muslims will "of course" continue to be guided by sharia law, "recognising its jurisdiction in terms of public law is fraught with difficulties because it arises from a different set of assumptions from the traditions of law here."  To say the least.

Irritatingly, Nazir-Ali roots the "fragmentation" of national identity in the student and related movements of the 1960s, and cites a series of almost-certainly-rightist scholars to support this. This is trite conservative cant.  In fact, worries about the loss of an ethical tradition, in which theology and  national identity were bound up, was at the heart of literary Modernism, from the First World War forward.  Think of Yeats' deaf falcon, or of every single word ever written by T.S. Eliot, including but and the.  It takes a lot more than some whiny undergrads, and a lot longer than a decade, to undermine centuries of social evolution.  The blame-the-60s crowd has always been shortsighted on this, probably because of Boomer self-regard.

So we do not by any means endorse or agree with everything in Bishop Nazir-Ali's essay, but we find the piece thoughtful, well-informed, and frank.  By all means click on the link to read it.

Ah, yes.  But what, you ask makes us shallow?  Only this:

Copy and paste the link to read a so-so press summary of the bishop's essay.  And then look at the picture.  Nazir-Ali may be thoughtful and all that, but he is wearing what must be the ugliest cope and mitre we have ever seen, and it breaks our shallow, shallow heart.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Bridge to Nowhere

It's not just for Alaska anymore.

Developers in the Middle East want to build the world's longest suspension bridge, 18 miles across the Red Sea, to connect Egypt to the Arabian peninsula.  It would make sense, I guess, except that the proposed Arabian end of the bridge would be a barely-inhabited rural desert in Yemen, a nation in which 80% of the population chews a narcotic called khat just to get through the day.  They don't need a bridge, they need rehab.

But the kicker, at least for Americans, is that one of the lead developers is Osama bin Laden's brother.  Sure, he's a legit entrepreneur, whose family cut ties to the bad boy, et cetera.  But still -- would you buy an 18-mile bridge from this man?

Vikings Come to Jurassic Park

Scientists raiding a pagan burial ground have retrieved useable DNA strands from ten Vikings, all dead about 1000 years.  (Apparently, not all Vikings were incinerated at sea).  It's a big deal, because previous efforts have been contaminated with modern DNA, leading some people to think we could never clone our ancestors.  Joke's on them, though.

Oh, they'll try to tell you it's all about the boring stuff that constitutes "real science" -- migration patterns, the origin of genetic diseases, yadda-yadda.  The authors of the paper even write that "retrieval of authentic DNA opens the way for a valuable use of prehistoric human remains to elucidate the genetic history of past and extant populations."

Sure it will, boys.  Sure it will.  But we all know what you're up to:  A cloned army of berserkers, sweeping down from the frozen north to pillage and destroy.  Or else a revolution in Minnesota football.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Paging Father Damian

Every day, according to an inside estimate, one person in Germany has a demon driven out of them in the rite of exorcism.  Apparently, the demand is steep (insert obligatory German joke here).  About one applicant in ten is actually exorcised; the others must make do with Thorazine.  Still, the demand is so high that -- when bishops don't authorize the rite frequently enough -- the possessed will seek help in neighboring countries, or from unauthorized exorcists.

Next January, we expect to read that a team of highly skilled exorcists has been called to Number One Observatory Circle, in DC.  'Cause He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will finally be gone, but who knows what he'll leave behind?

Department of No Surprise: Judas Edition

Remember the Gospel of Judas?  The National Geographic Society's big find, which was supposed to prove that Jesus and Judas were pals, and that the so-called traitor is actually the hero of the story?

Yeah.  Not so much, it turns out.  After the initial rush-job commissioned by the Society, scholars have started to look more carefully at the text, and the emerging consensus is that it was seriously misrepresented by the initial publicity.  The two scholars singled out, even by their collaborators, for an excess of revisionist zeal are Marvin Meyer and Bart Ehrman.  Click the link and scroll for the pricelss moment at which Elaine Pagels, the best friend Gnosticism ever had, grabs a microphone and forcefully disassociates herself from Ehrman's views.  

No surprise here -- Ehrman has recently replaced the Jesus Seminar people as the most irritating figure to take a permanent position at the strange crossroads where the Society for Biblical Literature meets Time magazine.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Awww, Davey

Richard Sutcliffe, the creator of Davey and Goliath, just died.  For those who don't know, it was a 60s stop-action cartoon about a boy and his dog, sponsored by the Lutheran Church in America.  

I think there were supposed to be moral lessons in every episode, but who remembers that stuff?  What I remember, forty years on, are the cute little figurines, the patient voices, the slow pace.  They all created a general sense that the world was a safe, essentially friendly place, and that conflicts were all manageable.  That was an important lesson for kids whose other TV watching taught us about political assassinations, Viet Nam body counts, soldiers killing kids at Kent State, bikers killing kids at Altamont, acid trips, domestic terrorism and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.

GOP Hopeful Courts "Dead People" Vote

Guy named Murray Sabrin is running for something in Jersey, and claims an endorsement from newspaper tycoon Frank Gannett.  Who died in 1957.

There's a bit more to the story.  Apparently, Gannett papers in NJ ran poll results showing that Sabrin is 20 points behind in whatever race he is running; he claims that he's the front-runner.  Yeah, sure, Murray.  And we're the freakin' Pope over here.

But we do like the idea of endorsements by the dead.  If old Father Anonymous ever runs for anything, he's going to seek endorsements from Charles Porterfield Krauth, George Bernard Shaw, and somebody else with a middle name.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Metro NY Synod 2008: Disturbing Footnote

During slow moments at the Westchester Marriott, when we weren't desperately attempting to keep Baby Anonymous entertained, we pored through the 2002 Essays and Reports of the Lutheran Historical Conference (fascinating and counterintuitive piece by Maria Erling, on what she calls the decline of the Lutheran Left).   When that ran out, we reluctantly turned to the only other reading material handy, the official Bulletin of Reports.

Flipping through the fine-print columns at the back, we found a useful analysis of congregational mission support -- that is, how much our various parishes give to the synod for its work.  We already knew which congregation was in first place, as we spent several years in their parsonage. So naturally, we wanted to know who was in last place -- schadenfreude, thy name is Father.

Turns out that, with 214 congregations reporting, there is a 17-way tie for last place.  About 8.0% of our congregations gave nothing to the synod in 2007.  Zip.  Zero.  Zilch. Nada.  Goose eggs. Donut holes.  Reagan's brain.

Now, as a friend quickly reminded us, a report like this can be misleading.  It reflects only direct Mission Support, not other forms of giving -- designated gifts, bequests, stock transfers, or gifts to specific synodical ministries that bypass the books.  Those things happen fairly often.  Nor is the report easy to interpret.  It ranks congregations according to Mission Support as a percentage of regular giving by members, so that even a very small congregation that gave a modest amount might, in theory, appear more generous than a larger one that gave many more dollars.  It does not reflect the comparative affluence or poverty of a particular area, or -- critically -- a congregation's sources of income beyond member giving.  A very small parish with a very large endowment, for example, might be able to give 100% of its member giving receipts, and suffer no ill effects. 

Still, a few things jump out at you.  And we're going to name names here.  (In the interest of fairness, we also invite those congregations to leave comments telling us why we are getting it wrong -- as we certainly may be.)

Two of the largest parishes in our synod, at least on paper, are St. Luke's, Farmingdale, and Cross of Christ, Lake Ronkonkoma.  They claim, respectively, memberships in excess of 2,000 and 1,600. Neither one gave a penny in 2007 Mission Support, according to the report.  Smaller parishes in comfortable suburbs -- Christ, Airmont; Advent, Elmont -- also gave nothing.  At least one endowed parish in very affluent urban community -- Zion, Brooklyn Heights -- gave nothing.  St. Peter's, on 219th St. in the Bronx, reported member giving in excess of $219,000, placing it in the top 14% of our churches, and yet offered not a cent to Mission Support.  (In contrast, Transfiguration, Bronx is half  the size, and located in a far poorer neighborhood; it offered 14.4% last year).  At least two churches with well-known and highly-regarded pastors (Trinity, Manhattan and Trinity, Wyandanch) gave nothing.

We don't really wonder why most of these congregations withheld their Mission Support. It is really, really hard to keep a small congregation running, and most of our congregations are very small.  If you have to choose between keeping the lights on and paying for plane tickets to Tanzania, the choice is obvious. And several churches on this list have made it pretty clear that they don't support the synod's mission, usually because of the genital-theology stuff.  (Never mind that other congregations facing the same challenges, or much worse, manage to scrape a few pennies together each year, and that other congregations with political reservations find other ways to express them).

Our only real question is why the zero-support congregations have voice or vote at a synod assembly. 

Martinis Keep You Young

Science says so.

Our friends in the Nerd Patrol may remember a scene in Never Say Never Again where M (re-imagined as a health fetishist) tells Bond that he needs to eliminate free radicals.  And Bond gets really excited until he discovers it's nutritional advice.  "Free radicals," he is crushed to learn, refers not to the Brigati Rossi but to the chemicals which cause aging and cancer.  Joke's on the brass, as usual.  Turns out the best way to eliminate free radicals is with a martini.  

Apparently, there is some little-understood synergy between the gin and vermouth (and possibly olives) which is especially effective at eliminating these free radicals.  Honestly.  And yes, shaken is better for you than stirred.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Department of No Surprise

AP Headline:  "NY Congressman Fossella Won't Seek Re-Election."

Yeah.  The combination of DWI, adultery and fathering an out-of-wedlock child are probably going to hurt his re-election chances.  Even with Republicans, who -- it begins to seem -- choose their leaders based on a certain aura of sexual mischievousness.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Metro NY Synod 2008: Chapter 4

And so the fifth and final ballot:
  • Rimbo 236
  • Wollenburg 232
  • Abstentions 7
  • Needed to elect 235.
Holy cats.  It was a squeaker, as close as the 1996 Bouman/Sudbrock election had been (although not as parricidal, and therefore not as fraught with emotion).  We certainly hope those who abstained did so purposefully, because they more than made the difference.

What have we learned from this?  There are a few obvious rules for becoming a synodical bishop, at least in New York:  (1) Don't live somewhere else; we may like you, but we don't want to pay for your plane ticket.  (2)  Don't be a woman.  Not yet, anyway.

Also some more nuanced guidelines:  (3) Have a degree from Concordia or Seminex; Rimbo is the fourth of our three ELCA bishops to have one, and, had he been elected, so would Wollenburg.  (4) Be pastor of Holy Trinity, on Central Park West.  Rimbo is, Lazareth was, and we could easily have elected Dick Jeske back in 1992. (5)  Be careful who's in your corner; it is quite possible that liberals, suspecting a mass effort by conservatives, decided that "the bishop of my enemy is my enemy," or something like that, without regard for the facts.  Call it the Schleef Syndrome.

And, finally, the most disturbing rule of all:  (6)  Don't tell the truth about scary things.  Sex may be okay, but not death.  No, sir or ma'am -- if you know perfectly well that congregations are going to die, and think we ought to have a frank conversation about how to go on living afterward, just keep that information to yourself.  

Still and all, despite our reservations about the process, this was not a bad election.  As we have already said, the top seven candidates were all solid, and certainly there were differences enough among them to give voters something to choose.  Rimbo is very bright and has experience in this difficult job.  We at the Egg will pray for his ministry, as we will also pray for his congregation which is -- again, and again suddenly -- thrust into the unknown.

Metro NY Synod 2008: Chapter 3

After the fourth ballot, there were three candidates:
  • Rimbo 192
  • Wollenburg 191
  • Mills 91
All had been gaining votes as the balloting continued, but Rimbo had been gaining votes fastest.  Remember the observation that bishop's assistants have a natural advantage, but that it is a transient one?  Here's proof.

One of the mixed pleasures of reaching the Final Three is that you get to answer some questions from the peanut gallery.  In years past, people actually stood up at the microphone and asked questions; not only that, but the candidates made themselves available after hours, in breakout rooms, for informal conversation and a chance for voters to take their measure.  Those days are apparently gone.  This year, questions had been submitted to the Synod VP, who chose his favorites and announced them in advance -- so that candidates had plenty of time to think about their answers. 

We consider this a significant step backward for an already flawed process.  First, because keeps us from seeing how a candidate does when fielding a left-field crazy ball, the specialty pitch of the church league.  You need to be able to deal with the ranters and obsessives to do this job.  And second, because it prevents either spontaneity or follow-up.  And when there is no follow-up, candidates who don't want to answer a question can simply sidestep it, to leave us wondering what the really believe.

All that said, the questions were pretty good.  They dealt with  a pervasive sense of disconnection; stewardship and administration; parish decline; and experiences that had formed a person's theology. Most of the answers were pretty good, too.  These are all smart, thoughtful men, deeply committed to the Church and its work.  And then came the one about sex.  Candidates were asked where they stood on rostering leaders in committed same-sex relationships.

Rimbo promised to work within the ELCA's rules, but to continue the Synod's practice of restraint in discipline while continuing his own work for full inclusion.  This was the most bluntly pro-gay position.

Mills also promised to abide by the ELCA's rules, and went on to say that he would work for healing within the synod, and trust that we were all united by grace at the Lord's table.  

Wollenburg called this "the issue of a generation," and promised to support gay and lesbian clergy, without spelling out what that meant.  He started to talk about Scripture, and the profound hermeneutical differences that people bring to it, but never went far in that direction. 

Neither Mills not Wollenburg took much of a position, and thereby -- we suspect -- hangs a tale.  Our guess, and it is nothing more, is that highly motivated conservative listeners, knowing both men, read between the lines, and heard from Mills an evasion of his pro-gay stance, and from Wollenburg at least a sliver of hope that he was evading the articulation of an anti-gay stance.  Not, once again, because that's the truth, but merely because, as Simon and Garfunkel put it, "a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.  Li-lee-li."

Now, there are a lot of other factors at work.  Mills, one of the smartest men we know, is also tough and honest, as a result of which he has been asked by several successive bishops to deliver hard messages to people who didn't want to hear them.  He has done so faithfully, and in all likelihood earned some enemies on the way.  Wollenburg, like Rimbo, was once part of the Missouri Synod, and partisans of that sad mockery continue to believe that its pastors are better trained than those of the LCA or ALC (or God).

In any case, and for whatever reasons, Mills was out after the fourth ballot.  And then were left the Two Bobs.  Both Seminex grads, both sixtyish.  Their styles are different, but both appealing:  Wollenburg is cool, Rimbo runs hot.  Their pastoral experience is different, but not vastly so.  Rimbo has already served as a bishop (in Detroit), which is hard to top.  But Wollenburg, like Mills, has been an integral part of the bishop's staff, and not in another synod, but here in ours.

It was a tough choice.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Metro NY Synod 2008: Chapter 2

The second ballot for bishop was cast on Friday morning.  There were 23 names to choose from.  A third ballot followed, winnowing the number down to 7.

Candidates unwilling or unable to serve had been instructed to remove their names from the list, and had done so, with one exception -- a popular former bishop's assistant, now living out of town.  We were told officially that she missed the deadline, but passed on a message that voters should not consider her.  We have since been told, unofficially, that she later changed her mind, and asked that this message be disregarded.  It wasn't, and so her named appeared on the ballot and voters were told to ignore it -- even though she had a right, and actually had expressed a desire, to be considered.  We aver no hanky-panky of any kind here; it seems that the message was cut off.  But this does remind us of the key point:  our process, for all the solemn care given to its administration, just doesn't get the job done.

Anyhoo, here are the top 7, after the third ballot:
  • Wollenburg 170
  • Rimbo 79
  • Mills 73
  • Kolbo 64
  • Loufman 51
  • Baum 50
  • Tiemeyer 22
We should say that this is a hell of a line-up.  Almost any of them might make a good bishop, and several of them probably will, someday.

These poor devils were invited to give brief speeches, letting the assembly know what they were about.  They were all interesting, each in their own way.  Interestingly, the two female candidates preached, really, while the men spoke.  There is a difference.  

But of the seven speeches, only one struck home with us.  William Baum is a pastor from Queens and a native of upstate New York.  He is also, so far as we can tell, the only one of these seven to have conducted his entire ordained ministry in the Metro New York Synod.  He is also, and perhaps not coincidentally, the only one to address head-on the issue of congregational decline.  He talked about the experience of his home town, once a healthy manufacturing center, where houses now sell for $10,000 on eBay.  He described the years of pointless dithering as town leaders blamed each other and sought quick fixes.  And he challenged us to give up the business of blame and denial, and to begin thinking creatively about a future in which less time and money is spent trying to resuscitate dying churches, and more is spent on Spirit-led mission work.  He described a synod with fewer churches, but a richer spiritual life.

We at the Egg were practically on our feet cheering.  Baum was telling the truth, and we are big fans of the truth.  But we also remembered Bishop Olson's solemn admonition at the Ministerium, that nobody could speak that much truth and hope to be elected.

Metro NY Synod 2008: Chapter 1

Well, that was a big bust.  Not the Assembly, about which more presently; we mean our promise to blog daily from the hotel.  Turns out they charge you extra for an Internet connection.  Oh, and the Egg creative team turned out to be kinda busy assembling.

But rather than recount the weekend's joys in one epic post, we'll break them up a little.  If you read from the bottom of the page upward, you can re-create the suspense of the event.  If that's what floats your boat.

So.  First things first.  The single most important thing to come out of this assembly was the announcement on Thursday night that after five years, the ELCA's Metro NY Synod has actually achieved its goal, and created a million-dollar permanent endowment to support Christian education in the Tanzania.  We will drop our customary mask of world-weary cynicism, and recognize that this is a truly important achievement, which glorifies God and has the potential to spread the Gospel in transformative ways for years to come.  Everybody involved should be damned proud of themselves.

Now then.  Let's put that mask back on, shall we?  The announcement was part of a long presentation by the relevant committee, in which tokens of affection were exchanged, bishops shook hands, and dashikis played a prominent role.  It was quite jolly, but it was, we say again, rather long.  Suspiciously long.  Almost as if the agenda had been rigged somewhat in order to highlight the accomplishments of our former bishop, who had returned for the occasion, and of his assistant for stewardship, who had done major work on the project -- and who was also a candidate for the Big Hat.

The first ballot had already been cast by the time this happened, but in a process like this ("pure" ecclesiastical ballot), a lot depends on what comes later, and any number of observers have remarked on the abnormal attention given to one likely candidate early on the process.  

None of this is meant to disparage that candidate, a fine pastor whom we have known for many years, and whose ministry was an inspiration to us in our youth.  He's a sincere, soft-spoken, deeply humble guy whom we genuinely love and respect.  If we suspect a little favoritism, and we are not sure whether we do or not, he is in no way responsible.

That said, he was ahead when the results of the first ballot were announced, by a significant margin over his nearest competitor, another assistant.  And this returns us to Father A.'s favorite theme of late, the inadequacy of our process for choosing bishops.  Because the ecclesiastical ballot is cast with no preliminaries, a natural advantage goes to people whose profiles are already high -- and no profile is higher than an incumbent bishop's assistant.  They get a lot of votes, and our previous two bishops had served in that capacity before their election.  That was the case in this instance as well:  of the top 11 candidates after the first ballot, five either were or had been assistants to the former bishop.

If you have never enjoyed the fruits of a pure ecclesiastical ballot, gentle reader, let us share some of the wackiness with you:  that first vote produced 81 candidates.  Of these, the leader had 96 votes, the second-placer exactly half as many, and the lowest-ranking 29 candidates received precisely one vote each.  Presumably not their own.  (Father A., it should be pointed out, received not one solitary vote -- not from his members, his wife or his son.  Next time, he brings the family dog.)

The ranking of the top candidates, listed below, provoked some discussion.  Former or current bishop's assistants are in italics.  
  • Robert Wollenburg -- 96 votes
  • Gary Mills -- 48 votes
  • Robert Rimbo -- 29 votes
  • Jeffrey Kolbo -- 27 votes
  • William Baum -- 21 votes
  • Dianne Loufman -- 16 votes
  • Elise Brown -- 14 votes
  • Richard Hill -- 14 votes
  • Ann Tiemeyer -- 12 votes
  • Cherlyne Beck -- 10 votes
  • David Anglada -- 9 votes
Frankly, Wollenburg's early front runner status was a surprise to us at the Egg.  Once again, he's a fine pastor and has been a fine assistant.  But is he twice as fine as Gary Mills?  Of course not.  They are very similar in many respects:  white men in middle age, with experience as mission developers and, later, as administrators.  Wollenburg had been instrumental in funding the endowment, but Mills had been instrumental in creating the relationship with Tanzania.  So why the spread?  We were inclined to suspect that one faction of the voting body -- the conservatives -- had coalesced around Wollenburg.

Why?  Not because Bob is especially conservative on most issues, at least so far as we know.  But there is one subject, and only one, which has shown a repeated capacity to polarize and paralyze our synod assemblies, and which seems to color many of our relationships:  the gays, and what to do about 'em.  Both Mills and Rimbo are known to have pretty staunchly pro-gay positions, as do several of the other top candidates.  Wollenburg isn't known to have any position at all, at least publicly, and one can't help thinking that the ALPB crowd fastened on him as their only hope.

Yet again, for those who may not be getting it:  this isn't a reflection on Wollenburg, a good man of almost compulsively mild manners.  It is speculation about why other people made him the early front-runner. 

But here's another neat factoid about Lutheran elections.  The natural advantage of which we were speaking above is also known to fade in the course of several ballots.  Thursday evening at the bar, we heard several stories of elections in other synods in which the front-runner in early voting had been a popular assistant to the outgoing bishops, only to be defeated in the end.  As for the organized support of conservatives, we have seen it both help a candidate (Stephen Bouman) and hurt one (Roger Schleef).  So we did not know what to expect.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Metro NY Synod 2008: Prologue

Tomorrow morning, we will load up the Eggwagon and drive to Tarrytown for the annual assembly of our synod, Metropolitan New York.  "We," in this case, means cranky old Father Anonymous, the lovely Mother Anonymous and -- in his second appearance at one of these solemnities -- adorable little Baby Anonymous.

The chief order of business is the election of a new synodical bishop.  We have already shared some of our misgivings in the post below, "Death Be/Be Not Proud." (Click the link up top if you missed it).  To make it as simple as possible, we believe that there has been so much misinformation given out over so many years -- decades, really -- that neither the clergy nor the laity in attendance will be able to vote for somebody who tells them the truth.

This is a serious concern, because the truth really does have the power to set us free.  It is frightening to hear the fact that many of our parishes have withered and died, that many are withering now and that many will, almost certainly, die in the years to come.  

But it does not have to be frightening.  If we have the ears to hear it, the simple statement of this fact, without blame or shame attached to it, can be liberating.  "Okay," we can say to ourselves.  "This is the case.  Barring immediate divine intervention, we're going to be a smaller synod, at least for a while.  Is smaller necessarily worse?"  Of course not.  We have something like 225 parishes now, many of them ailing.  (By "ailing," we mean a combination of things:  losing members, prone to severe and sustained conflict, and struggling to pay the bills.  By the way, we at the Egg believe firmly that congregational health can be quantified and measured, at least crudely.  Ask us someday for our metrics checklist.)  A lot of time, energy and money goes into strategies intended to reverse the fortunes of those parishes, and only rarely does it pay a significant dividend.  If in a few years we found ourselves with, say, 175 healthy parishes, we would be far better able to do God's work.  (By "healthier," we mean stable or growing, able to resolve conflict and move on, with enough cash on hand to pay the bills and invest some the kind of serious growth-oriented mission activities that currently elude us).

So one of the questions facing us as a synod is:  can we change our focus from parish survival to parish health?  And, when our parishes see the end in sight, can we learn to love the bit about a grain of wheat falling into the earth?

Of course, there are a lot of other questions facing us as well.  A recent Synod Audit -- essentially, a series of interviews and small-group conversations -- reported some of them:  (1) Disconnection.  City and suburban churches don't feel that they have much in common; neither do the upstate and downstate regions, nor in many cases large churches and small ones.  Many pastors apparently feel isolated from, their colleagues (which is odd, considering how close some of our churches actually are to each other; maybe they need a map).  (2) Administration.  Our synod has a fairly large staff, made up of (mostly) able people; but truth be told, they don't seem to work well as a team.  Phone calls don't get answered, messages don't get shared, problems don't get solved.  Can a new bishop use the staff (this one or another) more effectively?  (3) Focus.  Like most church groups, we can easily be motivated by a stirring message.  Talk to us about foreign missions, immigration, the urban poor, or some other worthy cause, and we will quickly vote to make it our new "vision."  We've done this so often in the past few years that the damned visions are all blurring together; it is hard to tell whether we are on Mt Nebo looking at the Promised Land, or the Nabatean desert, or maybe -- oh, crap, those are pyramids, aren't they? 

There's a lot more where this came from.  And while the Egg usually steers clear of too much local news, we're going to make an exception.  For the benefit of our regular reader (happy birthday, Mom!) and anybody else who can't be in beautiful Tarrytown this week, we intend to provide end-of-the-day wrapups and commentary, at least briefly.   And at least until Baby Anonymous needs to sleep.  

"The Alien is My Brother"

The Osservatore Romano headline is typically humane.  We all know that, pace Tom Tancredo, the Vatican encourages love and support for aliens, whether legal or illegal.

In this case, however, they are talking about space aliens.  Klingons, Romulans, and like that.

The Vatican's chief astronomer, Fr. Gabriel Funes, writes that God may well have created intelligent life on other planets.  It's a bit of showmanship, meant to attract media attention (you're welcome), because the Vatican is launching a religion-and-science initiative, including a 2009 conference to mark the bicentennial of Darwin's birth.  Apparently they've gotten over the whole Galileo thing.

Frankly, we're just impressed that they have a Chief Astronomer.  The Lutheran chief astronomer was Tycho Brahe.  He's been dead for 406 years. 

Arma Mulierisque Cano

Per the Chronicle of Higher Ed, poet and classicist Sarah Ruden will soon be the first woman to publish a translation of Virgil's Aeneid.  The linked article is a fascinating glimpse at Ruden, and at the many other scholars working on this most contemporary of all epics.

Long ago, we at the Egg wrote a rambling master's thesis -- something about Hinduism or feminism, we forget which but it seemed important at the time.  One chapter was on the Aeneid, for which we confess an intemperate love, and especially on the role of women in same.  We argued that Virgil, even as he sings the glories of the Roman Empire, identifies with gimlet sharpness the cost of that empire.  It has been won, he says, at the cost of conquered peoples throughout the world:  the Carthaginians, whose queen is driven to suicide; the Rutulians, whose prince may be the noblest character in the poem; and the Volscians, whose crypto-amazonian princess represents the feminine power which appalled the ancients and fascinates us moderns.  

It is in fact Turnus, the Rutulian, who despises the Trojans/Romans because they are "given to hatred of all womankind."  That's not his only case against them -- they are conquering his country, after all -- but it is an important part of Virgil's astonishing self-subversion.  None of the men, women or nations put down by Rome are bad people, says Virgil; on the contrary, they are worthy, valorous, and often seem to have the moral upper hand.  Their shades press the question (literally, in Book 6) of whether Aeneas' manifest destiny is worth the price.

One wishes that the contemporary exponents of empire and imperialism were able to handle this degree of ambiguity.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Moral Minority

Some years back, we listened as Father Ron (all pseudonyms today) ripped bloody chunks of rhetorical meat from the flank of his erstwhile seminary classmate and supposed friend, Father Ben.  It was a strikingly vicious display, for which we sincerely hope he has since done harsh penance.

And what provoked this verbal rampage?  Ron had just learned that Ben was a registered Democrat.  To Ron, this was utterly unacceptable for a Christian, because in his mind the GOP had a lock on matters of morality.  He went on at considerable length, and volume, about the "godless Democrats," a phrase that left Ben sputtering with frustration.

Both men were Boomers, and Ron was a convert from Presbyterianism who retained a certain legalistic habitude.  For him, morality, at least in public affairs, consisted more or less entirely of where one stood on the question of abortion.  Other issues held little interest for him.  He did not consider the size or cost of government to have a moral dimension, nor did he care about them as practical matters.  He didn't like poverty, but didn't seem to think that the government had any particular responsibility to address the problem.  War and peace were gray areas at best, as well as being matters on which he was stunningly stupid:  in the spring of 2002, he assured us privately that the members of his Pennsylvania parish had already forgotten 9/11, and that "the war" -- meaning Afghanistan -- "is already winding down."

But abortion -- !  Well, that was a different matter.  It was, to Father Ron, the sole difference of any importance between the two major parties, or between any two candidates for office.  And where all those other matters -- wealth and poverty, war and peace -- were complex and debatable policy questions, this one was in his mind a stark matter of good and evil.  One side was holy, and the other was godless.

This was a Manichaean view of the world popular among many Boomers.  For a generation of voters, especially people now in their 50s and especially those with strong religious commitments, abortion competed with and finally replaced the battle against Communism as the ultimate issue.  It was the wedge used by Richard Mellon Scaife and his army of mercenary ministers to pry religious voters, and especially Roman Catholics, away from their traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party.  It was the cement which held the Republican coalition together.  People who didn't agree about trade or fiscal policy, about military matters or racial issues or even personal morality, could all make common cause against what some called the right to choose, but they called the slaughter of the innocents.  

They have experimented with other issues -- opposition to the rights of women and gay people, for example -- but none of those has ever struck the same nerve. 

We mention all this because of yet another article on the young evangelical Christians who are beginning to desert the Republican Party.  (Click the link, and read the last line for a chuckle).  They aren't liberals, and they aren't signing up with the Dems, at least in any large numbers.  But they are ticked off at the Party of God and its agents for launching a freakishly unjust war, and then fighting it badly; for disregarding the God-given rights of all human beings not to be tortured; for disingenuously mocking those who warned that the rape of the planet might have serious consequences; for filling political government posts with adulterers and gay-baiting closet cases; for encouraging fear and rage against the immigrants who drive our economy, and for whom our freedoms are often the last, best hope.

In other words, they are still eager to vote based on moral issues -- but they recognize, at last, that there are a lot of moral issues to think about.

No mistake:  this is not some new hope for the wheezing Democratic Party.  This is new hope for American democracy.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Lutherans Stop Buying Books

Augsburg-Fortress, the ELCA's publishing house, lost $200 grand in the first quarter of the year, after having expected to make more than $700,000.  The reason is their new hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

ELW was introduced in 2007, and sales were huge -- for a while.  Then people actually looked at the thing.

Anyway, that's one theory.  Another is that Augsburg is chronically ill-run.  We expect the management has another theory altogether, something about aliens or Baptists (six of one), or maybe just a nationwide recession.  Could be something to that last one.

But we at the Egg have been using ELW for over a year now, and we can't claim to be happy.  It's an impressive book, in many ways, with some admirable features:  ten Mass settings, improved harmonies on the hymns, and very attractive graphics.  A good collection of Eucharistic Prayers.  

But the ELW Psalter is so badly translated -- or rather, paraphrased -- that we cannot use it for congregational worship.  The collects -- which in Cranmer's translation quickly became a treasure of the English language -- have with each succeeding modernization grown duller and dimmer.  ELW's collects are a cold, brutalized relic.  Because of its super-thin paper, the book is able to squeeze in many services that once would not have been included in a pew edition -- but most of them are in such an abbreviated form that their inclusion here does no real good, since a separate printed version is required.

We use the ELW, except for the Psalms, because of our Nordic commitment to doing the right thing even (or especially) when it hurts.  But we can see why sales might droop a bit.

"Constantine's Sword" vs. "Fitna"

Interesting HuffPo piece by professional atheist Sam Harris on Fitna, the Dutch movie which has aroused the wrath of the Muslim world by juxtaposing verse from the Quran with images of violence. Many threats of death have ensued, as well as self-censoring by Western governments and media outlets.

As we have said before, the wrath of the Muslim world is almost comically easy to arouse -- cartoons, anybody?  (It would be funnier if there were less actual murder involved.) We have also argued, as Harris does, that Western nations should be ashamed of themselves for gutlessly deserting their commitment to the freedom of expression.

In contrast, consider a new documentary that makes much the same case against Christianity.  Constantine's Sword, based on the book by professional ex-priest James Carroll, draws a bead on Christian violence, especially against Jews.  It blames the Church for a familiar litany of sins, beginning with the Gospels' account of the Passion and continuing through the Middle Ages to the Holocaust.

And as you might expect, the wrath of the Christians has been aroused!  Why, the Catholic News Service ran a fiercely critical review.  They said things like "may elicit some passing interest" and even -- get this! -- "considerably flawed."  Why, we'll bet those cowards at our local multiplex don't dare to show this movie!   Or maybe they just don't think it will make as much money as Iron Man.  

Monday, May 05, 2008

Pope Spits in Wind

"The Vatican has come to the aid of Rowan Williams," writes the Guardian.   Err, yeah.  Whatever. 

Benedict XVI is sending Ivan Cardinal Dias to the 2008 Lambeth Conference, in what is reported as an attempt to show support for Archbishop Williams in his time of trial.  Dias is an Indian, and serves as Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, a name which must surely sound better in Latin.

This is all very sweet, in that typically Vatican way.  You know, a bit of diplomacy fraught with coded symbolism, touching in its heartfelt obscurity.  But we're not sure that, given the climate of the Anglican Communion, it will make any difference.  At this point, the global-south bishops are drunk with their newfound power, while the Americans are as utterly convinced as ever of their moral duty to deliver the rest of the planet from its backwardness.  Williams, lucky feller, is standing right between the unstoppable force and the immoveable object. It will take rather more than a visiting dignitary to pull him out.

He could die, dramatically and heroically, saving a child from horrible death.  And his last words, gasped into the ears of both Peter Akinola and Katherine Jefferts Schori, could be "Woman, behold thy son."  That might -- conceivably -- prevent Williams from being the bishop who presided over the Great Anglican Schism (or as future Church History students will write on their flash-cards, "Welshman passed G.A.S.").  But not much else.

So Benedict's gesture, while sweet on its own terms, is only one among the many futile things we have to look forward to before and during Lambeth.  Stay tuned.

Friday, May 02, 2008

A New Look for Major Barbara?

The Salvation Army goes Bolshevik.

I'm not sure which part I like best:  corporate sponsors at the "Vladimir Lenin" and "Che Guevara" levels, or that they're doing this in Kansas City.

Uh-Oh. Methodists.

The United Methodist Church has voted to accept a proposal for full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Now the fun begins.

Since its formation in 1988, the ELCA has been schizophrenic on the matter of ecumenical relationships.  Early on, it pushed very forcefully for "full-communion" agreements, in which partner churches not only recognize the Gospel in one another, but agree to share clergy and other ministries when it is appropriate.  This pushes a lot of buttons deep down in the Lutheran psyche, though.  We tend to worry about our identity.  A lot.

One agreement, with the Moravians, caused only a little angst; after all, there aren't really that many Moravians in the world, and, golly, "Moravia" sounds comfortingly Teutonic.  There was more fuss over a deal with three Reformed churches, and sensibly so.  We have been arguing forcefully (albeit with comparative civility) since Marburg, and the Formula of Agreement simply acknowledged the argument, declared it non-divisive, and moved on, rather like a prim auntie who doesn't care why the kids are fighting but wants them to simmer down here at the zoo.  Or something. 

The real pyrotechnic display accompanied the Lutheran agreement with the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (as it is officially known here at the Egg).  Whoa, Nellie, was that a big 'un.  This was a classic Lutheran grudge match, in which all the skeletons of history, theology and class anxiety that rattle around in our collective closet came tumbling out, sword in hand.  Comically, the fight was almost entirely inter nos -- nobody asked the Episcopalians what they thought, or much cared when they offered opinions.  (A few Anglo-Catholics adopted the haughty -- and misinformed -- antiLutheran line of the old Tractarians, only to discover that nobody on either side was listening to them).

Now come the quirky colonial stepchildren of Canterbury.  "Baptists who can read," goes the old slur.  We've been talking, officially, since 1977.  But what do we really know about them?  Most Lutherans have a soft spot for the Wesleys -- good hymns, good preaching, in the Pietist vein; and yet John took his Anglican orders pretty seriously, and never intended the schism to occur, which sounds a little like Luther.  That's one for each of the two main Lutheran camps.  On the other hand, John Wesley had an Arminian streak, which ticked off the Calvinist Anglicans pretty badly.  Augustus ("Rock of Ages") Toplady called him a "rancorous hater of the Gospel-system."  That doesn't sound good.  On the third hand, Methodists have signed on the the Lutheran-Roman Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

An agreement with the Methodists does have a couple of noteworthy elements.  It would be the ELCA's first full-communion agreement with a principally American church body, and the first with a church body that was numerically much larger than itself.  In a sense, it is a way to move beyond the dialectics of the Reformation, and engage a major player in post-Reformation American Christianity.  If that's really something we want to do.

So.  The Magdalene's Egg Ecclesiastical Throw-Down Betting Pool is now open.  Will the ELCA's 2009 Churchwide Assembly give a collective sigh of fatigue, vote the agreement up, and then move on as if nothing had ever happened?  Will there be a bitter fight, pitting Lutheran Forum against WordAlone?  Will the vote be deferred, and if so how many times?  At which point will Missouri take some money from its Schwan Fund to publish a book declaring us all apostate?  (Because you know they will.)

One feels a little sad for the poor Methodists, who have no idea what is coming.

Our Two Favorite Sunday School Teachers

Colbert interviews Anne Lamott.

It's not his funniest moment -- Anne is trying to play along, but she isn't a professional sparkler.  But y'know what?  We don't care.  We at the Egg love Anne Lamott in a way that verges on wholly inappropriate.   We don't just buy her books; we read them, give them to friends, and then buy new copies for ourselves.  We look at the little b&w picture on the inside back flap, at her gorgeous dreadlocks and mischievous eyes, and wonder what it would be like if we'd met her before ... well.  Ahem.  Never mind.