Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Regarding Wine, We Have No Disagreements."

Father Anonymous rose early this morning -- well before dawn -- and trudged through the dim streets of a Central European city, in order to catch a 90-minute ride to St. Michael's Cathedral, and celebrate with his Papist brethren the thousandth year of their Alba Iulia archdiocese.  (Ask yourself:  How many things do you know of that are a thousand years old?)

It was quite a shindig.  The cathedral -- of which we have no pictures, sorry -- is a Romanesque building, begun in the 11th century but not completed until the 13th.  (Which explains the attractive Gothic apse.)  It was, at one time, the center of the Hungarian religious establishment.  Indeed, at one time the town, small but wealthy from its valuable grape crops -- was a sort of Transylvanian Oxford, boasting a world-class university.  Both the town and Transylvanian Catholicism have fallen on hard times, but you would not guess as much from today's celebration.

Fr. A. really was not prepared.  He expected to meet a few depressed-looking Romish priests, perhaps shake the archbishop's hand, then settle in to enjoy the smell of incense and the sound of ecclesiastical Latin.  Probably from the cheap seats.  That's what one does at these things, isn't it?

It was in the upstairs vesting room that he discovered his mistake.  The place was full of purple shirts.  Or, to be more literal, it was full of black cassocks trimmed in purple, topped by purple zucchettoes.  And at least two, by our count, were of a cardinalatial red.  One really doesn't see that very often.  It was a small room, and when we say that you could not swing a cat without hitting a bishop , we are being entirely literal.  

Most were of the Roman persuasion, although several were -- as their vesture made clear -- from Oriental rites.  Fr. A. had come with the local Lutheran bishop, for whom he works these days, and the Unitarian bishop. (Oh, what, you didn't know there were Unitarian bishops?  Welcome to central Europe.  We're through the looking-glass here, baby.)  They helped explain who was whom --   "That guy's the Archbishop of Budapest.  Maybe this guy will be Pope someday.  Maybe."  The conversation was in Hungarian and German.  (Pity poor Father A., who can make appropriate small talk in English, French or Spanish -- languages that proved to be of no value whatsoever.)  That's significant, because most of the people there, whether Roman or Evangelical or Unitarian (and of whatever citizenship), thought of themselves as Hungarian.

For the record, the Orthodox Patriarch of Romania wasn't there, although he did attend the liturgy -- with, perhaps, a slightly sour look on his face.  Those are difficult relationships.

The service itself was just what you might expect, and lots of it. Most of it was Hungarian or Romanian, and we have never in all our life been so grateful for a few words of Latin thrown into the liturgy.  The organ was fine -- we think we caught some Bach -- and the offertory procession was especially touching, as a small army of laypeople dressed in traditional Transylvanian outfits presented their gifts.  The sermon may have been excellent; the only words we could make out were "Benedictus," "Lumen Gentium," and "veritas in caritas."

Afterward, there was a reception at -- and we're not kidding -- a lonely roadside establishment called the Astoria Motel.  We'd noticed this place on the way into town -- there is a big chicken farm across the highway.  Turned out to be much better than it either looked or sounded, and the buffet was excellent.

During said buffet, we drank the best orange juice Father Anonymous has ever tasted, bar none, as well as a very fine local white wine bottled especially for the occasion.  This is a symbolic thing; remember that, in its glory days, wine was the source of the archdiocese's wealth.  And, with Christians of nearly every available tradition celebrating together, it was as though, for just a few hours, the glory and the unity of this community had been restored.

So when a Saxon pastor from somewhere near Sighisoara lifted his glass at the table and said, half-joking, "Regarding wine, we have no disagreements," leaving unspoken the qualifier "but only about theology," everybody took his point, and toasted happily.

Post-Scriptum:  And imagine Father A.'s joy when, returning home somewhat exhausted, he was summoned into the church office and presented with a card from some of his dearest friends in the United States, who had conspired to warm the Anonymous household with eight bottles of what is said to be the best wine made in Romania.  He could not have been happier, or more grateful, for this reminder of friendship and unity across time and distance.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Forrest Church is Dead

We liked his family name, but not too much else about him.

Oh, that's not true.  Exactly.  There was a lot to like about Forrest Church, longtime senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan.  He was, by all reports, a man of great intelligence, and a powerful preacher.  He stood up, publicly, for many of the right causes (at least in our eyes).  And even though he was an Unitarian (about which we will say much more in the coming weeks), it was Father A.'s experience as a pastor in NYC that many people found their way into the Church -- meaning the real, honest-to-God Trinitarian one -- after passing through a period of residency at All Souls.  So even if he didn't proclaim Christ, you could argue that he served as a useful warmup act.

But here's the thing.  In the Times obit, linked above, there is a brief remark:

While married to his first wife, Amy Furth Church, he met [Carolyn Buck Luce, who became his second wife]  as a member of his congregation. Their ensuing affair caused a public controversy, but the congregation voted overwhelmingly to keep him as senior minister.

Sounds almost trivial, doesn't it?  But it's not.  Those of us who lived, and especially those who ministered, in New York at the time are unlikely to forget this event.  When the high-profile leader of a major religious institution is publicly revealed to be carrying on an adulterous relationship with one of his members, it sends ripples out through every religious community. At least to some degree, it caused the faithful of many churches to question the  integrity of their own pastors. 

(For the record, in our synod, this behavior would be grounds for what we call, somewhat clinically, removal from the roster of ordained persons.  We'd defrock the SOB.  In fact, much of the Egg's contempt for pastors who huff and puff about leaving the ELCA for supposed theological reasons has to do with a couple of gents who were found to have done just such things, and who left before we could kick their sorry asses to the curb.  And remember that they joined just the sort of dissident organizations which now claim to offer some sort of moral high ground in defense of marriage.  Ptui!).

But the tale of Forrest Church gets worse.  As reported in the Times back then, Church not only carried on an affair with one of his church members, but he sent a letter to her husband, offering marital counseling.

Seriously.  As gross misconduct goes by a public figure, this may not quite rank with the crystal meth and callboys.  But as pastoral misconduct -- that is, a specific betrayal of one's duty to the flock -- it exceeds it, by a good mile or more.

So, sure, he was a passionate defender of good liberal causes.  But guess what?  They're dime a dozen.  Sure, he built a smallish congregation into a large one.  But guess what?  He was recruiting secular humanists on the East Side of Manhattan -- it's like shooting fish in a barrel.

No, for us, Forrest Church was in life and will remain in death a reminder of what Calvinism gets right, and the rest of us forget at our peril:  the utter depravity of human beings after the Fall.  In which he did not believe.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

How About Queen Freaking Victoria?

Stumbled across this lede, from the Oregon Statesman-Journal:

If you are put on the spot and asked to name three famous Lutherans, the first one comes easily to mind — the namesake of the faith, the 16th century German reformer Martin Luther.  The next might be public radio humorist Garrison Keillor.

The third might come a little slower, but not for many religious folks. That is Dr. Martin E. Marty, renowned historical theologian and author.

Oh, Statesman-Journal!  Is that really the best you can do?  

First off, Keillor is an Episcopalian.  Second, among "religious folks" who read enough to recognize Marty's name, we can only believe that Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer jump more readily to mind.  Not to mention Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Soren Kierkegaard, and Rudolf Bultmann.  (Make no mistake, gentle readers:  We wish those same erudite types thought first of Wilhelm Loehe, Charles Porterfield Krauth,  and Carl Braaten -- but they don't.)

But for the not-so-erudite, or even not-so-religious, we expect there still a  lot of Lutherans more famous than Marty or even Keillor.  How about Bach?  And Mendelssohn? And Sibelius?  Or Dr. Seuss, Hubert Humphrey, and (we admit with some shame) Wernher von Braun?  As well as the English royals, from George I through the First World War.

Honestly, there aren't that many Lutherans who are famous for being Lutheran, largely because Lutherans just don't think that way.  (Unlike some religious communities we could name.  And we're looking at you, Dalai Lama.)  But there are a lot of famous Lutherans, many of them famous for reasons which are intrinsically connected to their Lutheranism (like Bach or, and we're not kidding, Dr. Seuss).

For those who have somehow missed it, there is a very funny, not to mention encyclopedic, song on this subject by Lost and Found.  Lyrics here, song here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dragons Live Forever ...

...not so for little boys.  Or pop/folk icons.

Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary (and Puff the Magic Dragon) is dead at 72.

Schroedinger's (Lutheran) Cat

Unsurprisingly, there are some Lutherans -- many Lutherans -- unhappy with the prospect of gay pastors abandoning lives of "celibacy" (by which we mean, as often as not, tortured promiscuity) for those of lifelong commitment to a single partner.  And, also unsurprisingly, some of them are looking for institutional ways to show their disapproval.

What is a little surprising is that they are trying to do this in a way that both does and does not involve leaving their denomination.  Per Beliefnet:

[A] conservative network of clergy and lay Lutherans plans to gather and hatch plans to "reconfigure" Lutheranism in North America. [Editor's note:  "planning to hatch plans," eh?  These people are better organized than most church groups.]

The leaders of Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Reform) are not encouraging fellow believers to bolt from the ELCA for a more conservative denomination, but neither do they want to remain part of one that has "fallen into heresy," they say.

Thus, CORE is laying plans for a "free-standing synod" that would include current members of the ELCA along with others that have exited, or plan to exit, from the denomination. ...

The free-standing synod, should the idea be accepted, would hire and train its own clergy, redirect donations from ELCA headquarters to CORE, plant churches and support missionaries, [WordAlone honcho Mark] Chavez said. Some members will disassociate from their local (geographic) synods and stop participating in the ELCA's biennial assemblies. But others who are part of conservative synods that are not expected to hire gay and lesbian clergy may choose to remain part of the ELCA, he added.

Pedantic note:  The word "synod," in US Lutheran use, has two distinct means, both of them explicitly juridical.  Prior to 1918, it referred to independent church bodies (what other people might call separate denominations), with different standards of faith and practice.  Today, the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods preserve this usage.  In 1918, the ULCA  came into existence as a federation of such synods.  This began the process, completed in the LCA and continued in the ELCA, of creating a second meaning for the word synod -- a regional judicatory.  Essentially, a diocese.  (In both the LCA and ELCA, there has been one sole exception, a non-geographic synod uniting the Slovak churches -- not for theological reasons, but for practical, and largely linguistic, ones.)

So what does CORE have in mind, exactly?  It isn't entirely clear from this article.  But only two choices present themselves:  (1) to create a new church body, which they claim they don't want to do; or (2) to create a non-geographic body within the ELCA's formal structure, united by a common objection to the ELCA's policy and somehow magically including  groups which are not part of the ELCA.  This seems to defeat the purpose of remaining in the ELCA, doesn't it?

(As an historical matter, it seems to us that this latter choice would really be something closer to what 19th century Lutherans called "a free conference," and intended as a forum for discussion among  members of different synods, but lacking the power to commit anybody's actual synod to any definite action.  [The LCMS generally asked for these in order to avoid any serious discussion of synodical unification.]  But of course to be truly "free," in the sense it was used in those days, the discussion would need to include people from other parts of the Lutheran world, such as Lutherans Concerned -- a move which, again, defeats the announced purpose of the plan.)

So CORE says they want to be in the ELCA and not be in the ELCA, and imagines that somehow this can be achieved within the ELCA's own polity.  Theirs is a strange, Schroedinger's-cat vision of ecclesiastical geometry.  (You remember -- the cat was both alive and dead at the same time.  Oh, quantum physics, how you task us!)  But it is one which has become familiar over the past quarter-century.  

Early on, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ started talking this way, and WordAlone stole the idea and has gone further with it.  They use phrases like "loyal opposition," and insist that they exist within the mother church, while rejecting that church's policies and independently establishing fellowship with churches it does not recognize.  The idea, we strongly suspect, is to weaken the structures of the ELCA -- undermining its ability to manage either its own internal discipline or its external ecumenical relationships.

"We are loyal to our church, even though we hate it and seek to destroy it."  This is classic Scandinavian passive aggression, like the dog that jumps up to lick your face while peeing on your pants.  And it creates a semantic mess, in which people work hard to sound as though they are saying something else.

But what amuses us most about this dark comedy of ill-defined terms and expressions that mean their own opposite, is another quotation in the Beliefnet article:

"There are lots of congregations that are going to leave, lots of traditionalist congregations that are going to stay, and lots that have already left," said Ryan Schwarz of Washington, a member of CORE's steering committee. "We want to create a churchly structure that gathers all those categories."

Churchly?  They really think it is "churchly" to stop supporting the seminaries and missionaries of your own church?  We suppose that's what you should expect from people who can't tell when the cat is dead.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Best. Movie. Ever.

We are talking about Julie & Julia.

And, okay, it's not the best movie ever. (First off, no androids. Second, where's Joseph Cotten?) It's a pretty good movie, though, especially if you happen to be moving from Long Island City to Europe. And -- funny thing -- some of us are.

The scenes in LIC are overdone -- it's a great neighborhood in a great city, and any reasonable person would be happy to live here. Amy Adams should stop complaining and explore the best neighborhood in the best city on earth. (Why, she even shops at K & T Meats, around the corner from the Anonymous Rectory. And she may get all pouty-faced about it, but the nice guys at K & T have often slipped us some free sausage for our Easter breakfast).

The scenes in Paris are also overdone. Yes, it's the second-best-city on earth, but it isn't actually Heaven. So when the movie shows actual gates of pearl and a foundation of chrysoprase and jacinth, you know the producers have gone overboard. Still, they do make you want to be very, very good, so that you can go there someday.

But even if the picture is hard on New York and soft on the Frogs, it gets one thing exactly right. This is a little embarrassing, but we're just going to come out and say it, knowing that several readers will get where we're coming from. If a movie can't have androids, and it can't have Joseph Cotten, then there's only one way it can redeem itself, and that's where Julie & Julia shines: Lots of hot, steamy tall-girl-and-short-guy love scenes.

Granted, Mery Streep was wearing lifts, because Hollywood actresses aren't actually allowed to be tall. But Julia Child was a bruiser, and the movie doesn't shy away from that. The producers let her be tall, and they let Paul Child be short, and they let their lifelong romance be tender and sweet and actually surprisingly steamy for a picture which sometimes risks joining the Masterpiece Theatre school of bloodlessly mummified history. They're way hotter than Amy Adams and her whiny guy whose name escapes me but who looks like every other actor his age.

Good movie. But it would still have been better with androids.