Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Grumpy Old Man

While we're on the same subject -- the proposed Anglican Covenant -- we submit for your approval an essay, linked above, by the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner, a well-known Episcopal writer who teaches theology at what Wikpedia calls a "low-church and evangelical" Anglican seminary in Toronto.  (And a tip o' the biretta to Our Beloved Godfather for pointing us toward the piece).

Like much of Radner's writing, it is engaging and clear, and often provoked the Egg review committee to murmurs of assent.  Radner says that he is "is "and remains" a member of the Episcopal Church, which is significant.  We have considerable respect for critics of the (D&FMS of the) PECUSA, or any other church, when they remain in communion despite disagreements on matters of moral theology.  Those we respect least, of course, are the ones who attempt to steal their parishes and property while leaving.  You know who you are, you dirtbags.

This essay certainly is critical.  According to Radner, the Episcopal Church is a decadent relic of its former glory:

[It] is simply no longer the church filled with even the strength of purpose we saw only 10 years ago ....  [E]ven then, it was church that was growing in outreach and faith.  That church, shimmering still with some of the vibrancy of love spent for the Gospel seen 140 years before, even 90 years before, is now gone.  And [it] will not survive in any real continuity with this past and its gifts.

His case goes like this:    (1) The Episcopal Church has lost members, and therefore money, since 2000, endangering (inter alia) its seminaries; (2) it has experienced a "moral unravelling" represented by unpleasant name-calling and expensive lawsuits, and connects to the "rapidly-accelerating habits of despising tradition" and "the notorious matter of sexuality;" and that therefore (3) the Episcopal Church, despite its relative wealth, can no longer offer spiritually credible mission support to the poorer churches of the "developing" world (much of which, as Radner rightly observes, isn't really developing at all).

As we said, murmurs of assent here.  It all sounds so intuitively right, doesn't it?  

The problem is that, upon more sober reflection, the essay itself started to sound suspicious.  It contains signs -- too many signs -- of a rarely-diagnosed condition which the Egg's ecclesiastical maladies board calls "Matthau's Disease."  Named after our second-favorite movie star of all time, the disease afflicts bright, brash, idiosyncratic persons, world-beaters in their youth (think of Matthau in Fail-Safe) by turning them into grumpy old men (think of Matthau in Bad News Bears and everything afterward).  As it progresses, the disease affects the organs of memory and judgment, bathing the recollected past in an artificial glow, and making the present appear comparatively wan.  Most at risk are those who once nourished unrealistically high expectations for themselves and for their world.

In its preterminal phase, Matthau's Disease provokes the patient -- so enraged by the imagined wretchedness of the present -- to lash out rhetorically, especially at younger colleagues.  This typically takes the form of unsubstantiated ad hominen attacks upon an individual or, more easily, an entire class of individuals.  (Readers may recall the sad case of Robert Benne, who shortly before losing the use of his faculties entirely, declared that all "elite ELCA ethical theologians" were guilty of shallowness and captivity to culture, without offering a single instance to substantiate, or even illustrate, his case.)

In Radner's essay, the symptoms are readily apparent.  To begin with, does anybody seriously accept his claim that, as recently as 2000, the PECUSA was "filled with strength of purpose," and "growing in outreach and faith," and that it has declined so rapidly from that position?  Lutherans remember, with considerable embarrassment, the 1991 remark by Walter "Skip" Sundberg, that going to bed with Episcopalians was the ecclesiastical equivalent of necrophilia.  It was rude and foolish, but it is remembered, in part, because it reflected such a widespread perception.

Of course Radner is correct about the loss of membership and money, although that is not remotely unique to the Episcopalians.  The entire mainline, including such supposedly protected conservative elements as the LCMS, is suffering.  Radner mentions the defection of some parishes to AMiA over the past decade, but doesn't consider the possibility that comparative membership and money totals ought properly to include former these former Episcopalians.  

For the sake of perspective, let's remember that the number of parishes in the PECUSA actually peaked in 1915, and the number of communicants in 1970.  So any complaints about numerical decline must properly be directed to the Department of Slowly Dying Protestantism, rather than to the Bureau of Recent Infighting.  (Even adjusted for inflation, receipts are at an all-time high, a seemingly "good" sign which, as Radner suggests, makes the thoughtful wary of disaster to come.)

But it is in the margins of his argument that Radner truly betrays Matthau's Disease.  His most shocking claim is this one:

Episcopalian ministers and scholars generally have received some of the best-resourced educations within the Christian churches;  in their ranks are some of the most lively minds and engaging personalities. ... But they remain among the most intellectually lazy Christians I know, most of whom stopped reading rigorously years ago, prefer arguments based on prejudice, and have contributed virtually nothing to the Anglican and larger Christian theological forum for decades now. 

Really?  For decades?  Pardon us for a sudden case of Sundberg Syndrome, but a quick poll of the Egg's historical theology department suggests that "centuries" might be more appropriate.  Or, since Radner is limiting himself to the American province, "ever."  It sounds harsh to say this, and we beg the forbearance of our many Episcopalian friends.  But the truth, more gently worded, is that the rest of us have never really looked to you for your distinctively intellectual contributions.

On the contrary, we have admired your custodianship of the ecumenical church's history and traditions, specifically as those are embodied in your marvelous liturgical formularies.  We have envied your good taste, both in architecture and in vesture.  We -- and especially we Lutherans -- have marveled at your ability to keep under one roof people with such sharply different convictions.  But for philosophy and theology, we usually look somewhere else.  From the death of Richard Hooker, and certainly from the beginning of the Enlightenment, the burden of theology for its own sake has been carried by the intellectually disciplined and theory-obsessed writers of northern Europe, whence it is now spreading elsewhere.  (Whether and to what degree this is a good thing is another question; perhaps we are just lazy ourselves, but we sometimes wonder whether the Church as a whole is actually improved by Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Troeltsch, Barth, Rahner, Moltmann et al., or whether they are just decorations on the cake).

Still, assuming that we are wrong in this estimation of Anglican theology through history, it seems to us that Radner has an obligation to spell things out.  If in fact his colleagues are now intellectual lazyboneses, he should be able to point to a time when they clearly were not, and describe the failures by which they came to be.  Absent such a narrative, this simply sounds like "things were better in my day, when men were men and Bishop Pike was an embarrassment."

There's more evidence.  Early on, he tells a delicious anecdote:  

I know a young person who sneered at the faith of an Episcopalian – a more conservative person – who chose to leave TEC for another set of ecclesial structures.  “You would do such a thing”, this young person said to him:  “yours is the generation, after all, who invented no-fault divorce”. 

This is a note-perfect instance of why we cannot take the generation of mildly-conservative Protestant clergymen now in their late 50s to mid-60s all that seriously when they complain about the present condition of the church.  Like any other good Boomers, they want what they themselves asked for:  a church which marries priests, ordains women, worships in modern English, engages with the political realm and speaks frankly about sex.  What they can't bear is that the generations which grew up with these freedoms might regard them differently or consider them stations rather than destinations. 

So unable is Radner to hear this criticism that he dismisses it in an almost unitelligible wave of the hand:   

In fact, in this case, the complaint was less directed at a purported hypocrite, than at what he perceived to be the witness of an impotent God, unable to garner the sacrificial steadiness of His adherents.  

Later, Radner practically shouts the name of his illness in one grammatically troublesome paragraph:

And it is hard for me to say all this – after almost 30 years of ministry, once high hopes, and actual experience for some brief but glorious times, if mixed with struggle, of witness in all of its giving, forgiving, and abundantly receptive modes, bound to persons whose lives once shared are now the fodder of division without quarter.   There are days we weep.

So enchanted is he by his memory of those "high hopes" and "brief but glorious times" that he loses sight of a central (albeit subsidiary) truth of Christian history:  the days are always right for weeping.  After Eden, there has been no Golden Age, but only an endless march of folly (hey, good title for a book!), punctuated now and then by brief victories of justice and decency, and made bearable by the presence of Christ among us, promising an end to life as we know it.  Sunt rerum lacrimae and so forth,.

For all this grumpiness, though, the essay manages to end on a note of hopeful expectation.  Whether his hope -- in a working group and its new covenant -- is reasonably placed, only time will tell.  God has used stranger instruments.

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