Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Little Thing, But ...

... in English, the adjective precedes the noun, except in poetry and wilful archaism.

So when people talk about "the Church catholic," both our priestly and English-major hackles are raised. They wouldn't say "the Church Lutheran," would they? Likely not.

Obviously, they just can't stomach saying "the catholic Church." And they probably tell themselves that they are avoiding some confusion with the Church Roman.

But in fact, it is just that confusion which the papal party of the Reformation has been exploiting for centuries, identifying itself with the very idea of catholicity. And Protestants have aided and abetted.

Well, we're putting them all on notice. The Church is catholic. It is, therefore, the catholic Church. By definition, and according to the customary syntax of the English language. And those who say otherwise (as the New ALC people do repeatedly in their vision statement) had best prepare to be treated as either bigoted or syntactically ignorant. We'll let them choose.

Off to a Bad Start

After having fibbed a bit to its members regarding the timeline for schism, the New ALC is now roaring forward with its plans to reconfigure Lutheranism. Well, lurching forward.

First, let's put this in context. According to the last figures released by the ELCA, 188 congregations have voted to leave the ELCA. Another 64 congregations, presumably very conservative ones, have raised the matter for congregational vote, and chosen to remain. Of the 188 which are definitely leaving, some will affiliate with the New ALC, others with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, and some with both. Others will affiliate with some of the existing micro-denominations, and -- in the true spirit of tax revolt -- a few may choose to declare themselves "independent," and keep their dang benevolence dollars at home.

So let's begin by saying that 200 or so congregations, divided among several possible new homes, doesn't promise an especially large or powerful dissident movement. The Wisconsin Synod, which scarcely figures in serious discussions about Lutheranism in the US and is virtually unknown abroad, has about 1200 congregations and a bit under 400k members. So if the New ALC combines all the current dissenters and then sextuples their numbers, it will be roughly as large as another minor Lutheran body.

A more apt comparison, of course, is to the AELC. It was another dissenting movement from within a major Lutheran body, the origins of which derive directly from a specific churchwide gathering, the 1973 LC-MS assembly (and the subsequent 1974 house-cleaning at Concordia, St. Louis). The AELC was formed in 1976, and amounted to 250 congregations and 4% of the LC-MS membership. Two things are worth noting: (1) that it took a while to assemble the final number of congregations, and the ELCA shook expect to lose churches to these dissenting groups for at least the next three years, especially as the alternatives materialize more fully; and (2) that the AELC never amounted to much. It was simply too small to envision a meaningful independent existence, and served primarily as a means for former Missourians to find a home in, and influence the creation of, the emerging ELCA.

Given the numbers so far, it is fair to ask whether the New ALC will (1) ultimately become the largest of the Lutheran micro-denominations, somewhere south of Wisconsin, or whether (2) its existence will never be more than transitory, as immediately after its formation it begins to seek permanent partnership with (and influence over) other groups. Time will tell; we cannot.

But second, let's see what the New ALC says for itself, now that it has released a vision statement. And in fairness, let's say up front that a vision statement is a long way from a constitution. We're not even quite sure how this document was created -- that is, whether it reflects the vision of a genuinely representative deliberative body, or a few strong-willed individuals. But here's a quick look:

1. Intimate relation to CORE. Over and over, the document describes an NALC that "look[s] to CORE for resources." We're not quite sure what this means in practice, but making an interest group your primary partner strikes us as a strange opening move. Imagine what the ELCA would look like if it replaced its own ministry units with Lutherans Concerned or the ALPB. (Or both, which could be really fun to watch from a safe distance.)

2. "Congregationally-focused." This is the truly old-ALC provision, and it is quite reasonable. Many, many Lutherans see the congregation as the only part of the church that really matters, and they point to their minimalist reading of AC 7-9 as proof. Their reading is wrong, but it is common.

Congregational focus means, in part, that assemblies and so forth will include the entire clergy roster and at least one representative from every congregation. Leadership in the New ALC seems to be assuming no more than modest growth, because otherwise those assemblies could be unmanageable, not to mention expensive. And if in time it is forced to back down from its commitment to representation from every single congregation, the howls of outrage will sound like this: "We left the ELCA because it was big and bureaucratic and wasn't listening to our congregation -- and now you're taking away our voice, too!"

3. Piggybacking on other ministries. So how, you might ask, will a smallish new body engage in mission beyond the doors of its existing congregations? After all, that sort of thing usually requires some infrastructure to coordinate -- just the "bureaucracy" that they are complaining about. And in fact, the New ALC has an idea.

They're going to borrow somebody else's bureaucrats. Rather than start their own publishing, relief and global mission units, they will simply plan to farm those out to "existing Lutheran parachurch organizations," such as -- and these are a few of those they mention -- WordAlone, World Mission Prayer League, [formerly-Lutheran] Youth Encounter, East European Missions Network, Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response, ALPB, CrossWays They also plan to use "faithful resources from other Lutheran church bodies," which presumably means anything that Augsburg publishes without the word "gay" in it.

Not a bad idea, honestly. Outsourcing is cheap and easy. Frankly, we'll all be doing it in a few years.

But this gets a little harder once we start talking about theological education, especially for pastors. The statement contains three paragraphs on this subject, and together they say absolutely nothing. Running a seminary costs beaucoup bucks, at least if you want accreditation, and there is no way for a micro-denomination to start its own. Students can, of course, be trained at schools run by other denominations, or by none. It hardly matters, though, since at least for a few years the New ALC's clergy roster will consist entirely of pastors whose education was provided, and heavily subsidized, by the denomination they are leaving.

4. Who gets screwed here? The things above are reasonable enough. They don't describe a church we would like to join, but they do describe a church we can recognize. There are a couple of areas, though, where the New ALC vision statement makes one raise a skeptical eyebrow:

(a) Women in ministry. It says that "the NALC and Lutheran CORE will recognize both women and men in the office of ordained clergy, while acknowledging the diversity of opinion that exists within the Christian community on this subject."

Well, yes, there certainly is diversity of opinion; most Christians worldwide have a hard time even imagining ordained women. But why mention this in your own founding documents? Unless, that is, you want to leave open the possibility of close relationships with some of the many church bodies that don't want women in the pulpit. And if that is what you want, then how serious are you about the ordained women in your midst? Could it be you are simply accepting them, for a while, out of necessity -- and that over time they will find themselves sidelined?

Remember that the New ALC's Anglican brother, the ACNA, seems prepared to welcome women as pastors but not bishops, and you can see the dim outline of a shark beneath the surface of the water. Along with the new-style sex conservatives who want gays to stay in their dang place, there are also mixed some of the old-fashioned sex conservatives who want the women to keep their heads covered and their mouths shut. They've been unhappy for a long time, and this is their chance; meanwhile, the new-stylers may not like it, but they need the old-timers to build even a modest coalition.

(b) The ecumenical movement. The New ALC wants to be part of the LWF, which is nice. it doesn't want to be part of the World and National Councils of Churches, presumably because these organizations are full of gay-loving, women-ordaining liberals. They also envision unspecified "new forms of ecumenical dialogue," which could actually be quite interesting.

The problem, of course, is that there is a certain kind of Lutheranism which simply can't abide ecumenical agreements. Talk is fine, even works are fine, but for an actual agreement on matters of faith, the bar is set so high -- absolute agreement, not just about the documents but about their interpretation -- that it becomes effectively unjumpable. Anybody who remembers the anti-Episcopalian battles of the 1990s has seen this sort of Lutheranism in action. And unless we are misreading the situation, that kind of Lutheranism is heavily represented in the New ALC.

Moreover, serious ecumenical dialogue with organized partners usually requires a certain level of, um, bureaucracy. Not just to make travel arrangements, but to assure that subsequent agreements, if reached, can be received by the actual membership of the churches.

Our bet is that, for both these reasons, the New ALC will never be able to reach a meaningful agreement on theological matters that is received by its own membership and the membership of a correspondent church body. So in effect, those who join it now withdraw from the ecumenical movement altogether.

(c) The ELCA. It is mentioned 17 times in the document. WELS and the LC-MS are mentioned zero times each. At least on the surface, the New ALC perceives itself as existing in relation to the ELCA

And indeed, the most disturbing thing about this document is the extremely fuzzy boundaries that it seems to envision. CORE, like LCMC, isn't quite sure whether or not it wants to be a denomination or a parachurch organization, and some of that fuzziness creeps over into the New ALC. The result is paragraphs like this:

For confessing Lutherans [note: is there really any other kind?] who will remain within the ELCA and ELCIC, Lutheran CORE will offer an alternate ecclesial family, where they can connect with each other and with confessing Lutherans in the NALC and other church bodies. Some will choose to coordinate witness initiatives within the ELCA or ELCIC through this community. [i.e., stick around and stir up further dissent] Many will choose to organize collaborative ministry initiatives with their partners in Lutheran CORE. Mindful of the objective of ongoing unity, the NALC will conduct many of its ministry initiatives with and through its partners in the Lutheran CORE community. [In other words, CORE owns you now, and don't ever forget it].

This makes CORE the parachurch and NALC a new church body -- a denomination -- albeit one that is the creature of the parachurch. Sort of as if InterVarsity began its own franchise operation.

But then there's this:

Congregations of the NALC may also be members of other Lutheran church bodies. Individuals who remain members of an ELCA or ELCIC congregation may also join a NALC congregation. ....

Some ... congregations and individuals may choose dual membership in the ELCA and the NALC. Others may be members of Lutheran CORE on an individual, congregational or partnership basis.

Here, membership in the New ALC isn't necessarily an alternative to membership in the ELCA. It can also be an add-on. This is a little confusing.

What it sounds like, frankly, is a complicated effort to have your cake and eat it too. CORE leaders know that there are a lot of unhappy people in the ELCA just now, but they also know that very few of those people are unhappy enough to create a new church body. It's a lot of work, it's expensive, and -- far more important -- it means cutting important ties of friendship and ministry.

So the strategy is to provide a little cubbyhole into which the deeply disaffected can squeeze themselves, at least for a while, but which can also present itself not as a new body but as a network of the like-minded. "Well, sure, we're a 'denomination,' if you want to use that old-fashioned word. But only if that's what you want us to be. For you."

Maybe we at the Egg are trapped in a 19th-century ecclesiastical mindset, but we really don't think you can play for the Yankees and the Red Sox at the same time. We have visited several churches over the years that were dually-aligned with the UCC and American Baptist Convention, and we simply cannot guess how they handle the delicate questions. But maybe they do, and you can.

In any case, what appears to be a highly deliberate strategy of organizing the congregations that won't leave the ELCA to stir up trouble while draining away the financial and human resources is, as we have said before, cynical and dishonorable. And that, in our opinion, gets the New ALC off to a very bad start.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

About the NALC

At first, we thought the initials stood for "New American Lutheran Church," which would have been funny.  Because, basically, that's what they've always wanted, and what they're getting:  a new ALC.

They could do worse.  Frankly, it will be a little tough on those of us still hoping to get the old LCA back.  (We don't expect that anybody actually pines for the ALEC, but if they do, they can have it.)

The vision statement is linked above.  We'll make fun of it tomorrow, or whenever time permits.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Conservatives Hate America.

Captain America, that is.

In a desperate effort to revive partisan zeal among the critically stupid, a few political activists have once again resorted to their favorite half-wit dodge: the so-called "culture wars." We're sure you remember how well this worked for Dan Quayle when he bravely took on a sitcom protagonist.

The current target, however, is especially ironic: Captain America. Created in the run-up to Word War II as a super-patriotic superhero fully employed by and answerable to the US Army, Captain America fought spies stateside, the Wehrmacht in Europe, Commies during the Cold War (although -- nerd alert! -- those stories aren't what we call "canonical." Seriously, we talk that way). Since then, he has also taken on his share of extraterrestrials, terrorists and at least one evil psychiatrist. (To be honest, though, it is still mostly about Nazis.) He is, as comic-book readers are assured every month, "the living embodiment of the American spirit."

So what went wrong?

Apparently, in one recent issue of his comic-book, Cap showed up at a protest rally. And although the object of the protest didn't feature in the storyline, Cap says it's an "anti-tax thing," and his black partner the Falcon mutters something about "angry white people." The protesters are holding up signs with anti-Tea Party slogans. Well, imagine the hoo-ha, not to mention the folderol.

See, Fox News picked it up, and got some juicy quotes from the usual suspects. nationwide Tea Party Coalition board member calls the dig "juvenile," claims Marvel is making supervillains out of patriotic Americans, and that this will all hurt Marvel's brand. (Hey, did you know there's a Nationwide Tea Party Coalition? Or that they have a board? You do now, because Fox just found a way to give them some free publicity). And so the comics industry is part of a "systematic" effort to undermine the supposed movement -- because who knows unlikely conspiracies better than a bunch of guys whose professional lives were determined by watching the X-Files?

Now, according to the the official line from Marvel Comics boss Joe Quesada, this was all a big accident. A letterer (that is, not the fellow who wrote or drew the strip, but another artist responsible specifically for drawing or pasting letters into blank spaces) thew in some anti-Tea Party slogans on the signs. An apology is offered, and the signs will be altered in future reprints. (Aside to other nerds: but of course Quesda is the genius who arranged for Peter and MJ to not only end their marriage but kill their own children, so we aren't sure whether we can believe anything he says).

Well, maybe. But let's also be honest. Comic books, especially superhero comic books, have often had a political perspective. In the 1930s and 40s, they offered Jewish kids (like Captain America's own creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, not to mention the creators of Superman, Batman and especially the Spirit) a chance to do some home-front anti-Fascist propaganda, while also indulging in fantasies of power and assimilation. As Jules Feiffer says, it's no accident those heroes all had prep-school names like Bruce Wayne and Steve Rogers.

By the early 1970s, when the Egg's pop-culture department first began reporting, the agenda has changed a bit. You might have expected Russians to figure more frequently as bad guys than they actually did, for example. But a generation of writers formed by the Civil Rights movement were often quick to make their villains white supremacists (anybody remember the Sons of the Serpent, a Klan-knockoff that was actually led by a black man?), or Strangelove-level representatives of the military-industrial complex (Thunderbolt Ross). On the other side of the aisle, though, there were the Red Chinese, who featured frequently as villains, not mention crude racial stereotypes.

Zooming forward a bit, we get Frank Miller, whose revolutionary 1980s take on Batman is often accused of having a rightist law-and-order spin, which supposedly bled over into the last movie. Whether that's true or not, his Sparta-vs-Persian epic 300 certainly struck the modern Iranians as a bit of Persia-bashing. All of which brings us to Ed Brubaker, the current Captain America writer and, as Fox News demonstrates, a liberal. It wouldn't surprise us a bit if Brubaker's politics occasionally came through in his writing, although we have never noticed this ourselves.

But why shouldn't it? Does anybody think that the other characteristics of the guys who put comics together don't come through? Because if you doubt that they are overwhelmingly male, straight, and a little repressed, you haven't noticed the costumes on the ladies. Writers and artists, even the ones who write and draw juvenile fantasies of power, have no particular reason, apart from a commercial one, to filter out their own humanity, which includes among other things their feelings about modern society.

And, nota bene, a political perspective is not the same as a political agenda. In forty-plus years of reading comics, we can't recall ever being told how to vote. (Apart from electing Howard the Duck and rejecting Lex Luthor in their respective bids for the presidency). On the other hand, churches all over America have spent years distributing "voter guides," intended to tell the faithful exactly who supports their own vision of "Christian values." So on balance, we have to say that American comics are demonstrably less political than American churches.

Despite Quesda's [quite possibly bogus] apology, neither the hoo-ha nor the folderol has ended. (Complete coverage from i09, for the seriously geeky). A couple of liberals have dissected the recent Civil War storyline and determined that Cap was actually on the side of anarchy against social order. A very strange blogger named Warner Todd Huston has made the breathtakingly original argument that comics aren't high art. He's entirely correct, at least regarding superhero comics, although as a conservative he ought to show more respect for business. We doubt the Middlemarch movie will earn 5% of Iron Man's opening weekend.)

Sarah Palin's Butt

... is apparently the feature most attractive to her core constituency.

Clicking through these interwebs (which, as another Alaskan pol memorably informed us, is really a series of tubes), we stumbled upon a site called Conservatives4Palin. Presumably, there are dozens of sites like this: strident, a bit silly, and aimed at the True Believers. It would be unremarkable except for one curious design feature:

The butt shot.

The site layout is attractive, and appears to be professionally designed -- especially the title graphic. The symbols are there: Alaska's rugged mountains, the pipeline which represents its supposed prosperity and business-friendliness (setting aside the environmental concerns), even the stars of Ursus Major.

And, naturally, the former governor's caboose.

Now, we're tempted to mutter half-seriously about the way Palin and her supporters have used her looks -- her body -- as a campaign tool. There is a bit of tawdriness to that, but it's easy to overstate for effect. Obama was caught topless in the surf, after all. And let's be honest. This isn't an especially provocative photo -- she's wearing what looks like a tweed skirt, the sort of attire that actually repels the male gaze in most cases, with an exception made only for those of us who have spent far too much time in academic settings. (We also think Volvos are cool, not to mention beige corduroy jackets with a little bulge where you put the pipe and tobacco.)

On balance, though, we don't think this is tawdry or exploitative. We just think it's weird.

Shouldn't they be showing us her face, smiling in defiance of the liberal media? Or with a jaw set grimly to show her intolerance of terrorists, urbanites and PETA? Or, if they actually want to avoid showing Palin's face, wouldn't the usual dodge be to insert a bald eagle, photographed while scavenging at an Alaskan landfill?

Maybe the idea is that she's looking proudly at Alaska itself, the state she governed for 2.5 years, before resigning. But doesn't that mean she's looking backward? Shouldn't she be turned to face forward, swaggering boldly out of the north to come and save us poor anemic Lower 48ers from our taxing and spending?

Or does P4C actually think that Palin's core constituency wants a candidate who is perpetually focused on her own past? That is, after all, one kind of conservatism. A bit of a disservice to Edmund Burke, but there you have it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why We Love Wikipedia

Sure, it is quirky and not always reliable.  The articles are often full of misinformation, or worse yet trivia that obscures the importance of a particular subject.  

But sometimes, that trivia is priceless.  For example, the Brittanica article on Elijah would never have told us this:

From 1974 to 1976 Philip K. Dick believed himself to be possessed by the spirit of Elijah.

Anybody need that for Sunday?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cardinal Kasper Calls for a Shared Catechism

Shared, that is, among Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans, as well as Methodists and members of the Reformed churches.

Wow.  Seriously, people:  Wow.

This is the most interesting ecumenical proposal we have heard in years.  While challenging, it is achievable; and while it would be a remarkable intellectual effort, it would also be entirely practical. 

Of course, catechisms play different roles in different churches, and those roles aren't entirely compatible.  Among Lutherans, for example, our two catechisms are actually a doctrinal norm, providing an authoritative reading of Scripture.  Among Roman Catholics, the catechism is a handy textbook of doctrines that are normed by external documents, both Biblical and otherwise. Anglicans use theirs "as a point of departure for the teacher," although its presence in the BCP presumably gives it a normative function of some sort.

Still, when you boil it all down, they are teaching tools first, and confessions of faith second.  Those are the two natures of a catechism, almost by definition.  And what better what to demonstrate the true unity of the Church, which is so often difficult to discern, than by creating a shared teaching tool which lays out the things we hold in common?

It may be argued that the Lima Document already serves this function, and we suppose it does.  But it is also full of sections which seek to mediate differences, rather than affirming agreements -- we are thinking, for example, of the necessary even-handedness with regard to antipaedobaptist church bodies.

No, we think that an actual catechism -- a Q&A about the faith, describing what is shared by the great bulk of Western Christianity -- would be not only an immense ecumenical achievement, but also an immensely useful tool for parish education.  

The Best They Can Hope For

We spent some time today puzzling over a minor liturgical problem, viz., whether to observe the Feast of the Transfiguration this coming Sunday, according to the custom of our American church, or join our European hosts by refraining until August 6.  In the natural course of things, we googled the word "Transfiguration," and were hit with a blast of not-entirely-welcome nostalgia.

Pictured, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, is a photograph of a small and pretty church, located near the place where we were raised -- walking distance from our house, in fact, provided one possessed thighs suitably muscular to endure the purgatory that is Meads Mountain Road.  Originally a seasonal chapel for hotel guests, it continued long after the hotels died, first as an Episcopal chapel and then as ... well, we'll get to that.   We have passed it thousands of times, by car or (bragging here) on foot.  You would see it on your left as you headed toward the trailhead, the anarchist's print shop or, perhaps, the Buddhist monastery. (Ah, our golden youth.)

This church -- the Church of the Holy Transfiguration, or more commonly the Church on the Mount -- was tended for many years by an elderly cleric named William Henry Francis, although we cannot recall ever hearing him spoken of except by title, as "Father Francis."  As we did not then know his proper name, we did not know that he was, properly speaking, also the Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Old Catholic Church in America, a predecessor body to the Autonomous Orthodox Metropolia of Western Europe and the Americas.  Headquarters in New Jersey.

(By the way, our own house was far up another nearby road, and even though it was a clearly a modern construction, and not in the least ecclesiastical in appearance, an amusingly large number of tourists, misled by the sign with our family name, stopped in the driveway to inquire about Mass schedules.)

Now, this Fr. Francis was notorious for telling slightly-different versions of his own story, and we doubt that there is much truth to be known about him.  It seems that he had been a Benedictine monk in Waukegan before his ordination as priest and bishop.  It is extremely unlikely that he had married the Duke of Windsor, and no more so that he had performed services for "the Vanderbilts and others of their strata," as he claimed in a 1970 article in The Churchman.  But he did, as a matter of fact, receive into his church a retired Episcopal bishop of Arkansas who had been drummed out of the corps for publicly supporting Communism.  His background does seem to have been Anglican, and the Old Catholics had for some time been well-tolerated by the high-church Anglicans.  The rites of his parish seem to have had Prayer Book roots, and even today claim to be an easternized "Sarum" use.

Here is what we do know for sure:  he was popular with the long-haired young people who claimed Woodstock as the spiritual (and sometimes administrative) capital of their supposed nation.  Although made a fuss over not trusting anybody over thirty, they seem to have waived that rule for this one octogenarian.  They recognized, quite correctly, that he too was part of a despised subculture.

It is really all very sweet, in a cranky way.  "The Hippie Priest," and all that.  But beneath the surface, there is another story, both less romantic and less savory.  We have no details to share, but this little church isn't an entirely happy place, as we understand it.  (But then, in fairness, no place is entirely happy.)  Years ago, we heard gossip about an especially ugly power struggle.  Perhaps other readers will know more.

Beyond the parish, there is the bigger question of the church to which it is affiliated. This may be unfairly broad, but the Old Catholic movement, originally a principled liberal reaction against Vatican I, to which were later added a variety of renegades from Anglicanism and other church families, strikes us in its subsequent forms as a dodge for self-important poseurs.  

It sits nicely on a shelf beside the many Lutheran micro-denominations.  These are variously reported as anywhere from 28 in number to "over 100;" we have no idea how many there are, and we doubt anybody else does either.  But we do know that their clergy and, to a lesser extent their congregations, are often people who couldn't handle even the fairly modest requirements of the mother denomination:  don't sleep with your church members, for example.  Put up with meetings where nothing gets done, and learn to work and worship with people who share your creed but not your reading of it.  And all the other stuff that the rest of us do more or less easily, because we know that living in community, while difficult, is worthwhile.

So this little church that we remember from childhood, although a delightful place in many ways, is not something we would desire for ourselves, precisely because it is a retreat from true catholicism.  Even cranks need a home, and we are glad they have one.  But it is by nature a very small home, disconnected except in its own imagination from the rest of the neighborhood.  Schismatic clergy rarely sit at the table for ecumenical dialogues, because they bring to little to it.  An individual priest may do genuine ministry -- as well as anybody else or even better -- but it is arguable that his church (or "church") does not.

Yet such a small home, an ecclesiola extra ecclesiam,  is the best that our own schismatic Lutheran and Episcopalian friends can hope for, over the next few decades.  They break away, now, from well-established churches, with whom they can no longer live in community.  And what will become of them?  The answer, very likely, is nothing.  They will disappear into the same oblivion that has claimed most of their kind -- continuing to exist, to preach the Word and celebrate the sacraments, but to do so only locally, in isolation from the rest of Christianity.  

Friday, February 05, 2010

Oh, and About That Sports Bar

First, they make an excellent salad.  This is no small thing in a part of the world deeply committed to the rule of pork in its various forms, washed down with bland cheese and potent pickled cabbage.  "Salad" usually means a few slices of cucumber, off to the side.  It's good cucumber, to be sure, but it does middle-aged digestion no real favors.  So we have a short list of places that will sell us a big old American-style meal-sized salad.  And, defying all the stereotypes, the sports bar near church is near the top.

So we braved the unwelcome aroma of tobacco, and the only a bit more welcome glare of jumbo televisions, to sit in the sports bar, eating salad and reading the Tauchnitz Editions anthology of modern poetry from 1931.  (A favorite because it completely excludes the reprehensible Father Hopkins).

But jumbo televisions can be awfully distracting.  Not to mention educational.  Here's what we learned from one today:  that in the world of women's track and field, American competitors can be distinguished from their European sisters at a glance (even apart from the giveaway skin color).  The Americans are steroidally muscled, and wear businesslike spandex two-piece costumes, with what we're told are called boy-cut shorts.

The European women are slender, so slender that one wonders how they hope to run against the Yankee Amazons.  But what struck us most is that they have taken to competing in extremely small bikinis.  So small that the word "thong" passed our lips on more than one occasion.  During the long-jump, if memory serves.

We realize that to many readers this will seem offensively sexist, and we imagine that the indispensable Ms. Hogan will howl for our heads, but we feel bound by our Boy Scout oath to tell the truth:  track and field has just become a much more interesting sport for us.

After All, What's Funnier Than Premature Death?

Sorry for that obnoxious header.  But, truth be told, Father Anonymous has never given much thought to Rupert Brooke.   Oh, we read him for class, years ago, and then again inside a series of buses in Peru and Ecuador.  Both times, we saw what we had been instructed to see:  the legend of a beautiful and gifted young poet, born to travel in the most elite circles, cut down too soon by war.  A latter-day Sidney, yadda-yadda.

What we didn't see was his poem about the fish, pondering the secrets of death an immortality Fish say they have their stream or pond --

But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;       
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.
We darkly know, by Faith we cry,
The future is not Wholly Dry.

It goes on like this, and includes a distinctively piscine vision of Paradise:

Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found ....

Nor did we see the strange one about Old Vicarage in Grantchester.  He wrote it at a cafe in Berlin, so maybe it was just our mood, sitting in the Romanian sports bar this afternoon, eating a salad and watching women's track, but this struck us as one of the funniest poems we have read in years.  Oh, for my old Britannic home, it starts off , and you brace for the standard-issue patriotic stuff -- roses in the garden, punting on the Cam, this sceptr'd isle, some corner of a forgotten field that is forever England.  But then it goes brilliantly astray.  Because England is the best country, and Cambridge the best shire, but -- why Grantchester?  Here's why:

And of that district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.
For Cambridge people rarely smile,       
Being urban, squat, and packed with guile;
And Royston men in the far South
Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington,       
And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,
And there’s none in Harston under thirty,
And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,       
And Coton’s full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you’d not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles,
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;       
Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,
Rather than send them to St. Ives;
Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,
To hear what happened at Babraham.

And more and more like this.  The best part, for Egg readers, may be the clerical apparitions:

And in that garden, black and white,
Creep whispers through the grass all night;
And spectral dance, before the dawn,      
A hundred Vicars down the lawn;
Curates, long dust, will come and go
On lissom, clerical, printless toe;
And oft between the boughs is seen
The sly shade of a Rural Dean…       
Till, at a shiver in the skies,
Vanishing with Satanic cries,
The prim ecclesiastic rout
Leaves but a startled sleeper-out ....

Here is our new goal for the afterlife.  Paradisal grubs are well and good for them what likes 'em, but we long to be ghosts on a vicarage lawn, dancing on lissom toes, and occasionally nodding to the dean.

So, Rupert Brooke, congratulations:  You're back on our list of readable poets from the Bad Century.  No Uncle Ez, to be sure, but you're better than that hack Wilfred Owen.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Well, They Do Paint Nice Pictures

There is a certain kind of Lutheran -- middle-aged, clerical, probably male and often, although by no means always, educated in St. Louis -- who has a sort of fetish for Orthodoxy and its trappings.  He wears a beard, maybe even a little ponytail, as a reminder that he is part of a distinctive counter-culture.  His office is appointed with a couple of icons (often hand-painted, perhaps even by himself).  On vacation last year, he fulfilled the lifelong dream of a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos.  He reads a good deal, is eager to talk about the Cappadocians and seems surprisingly familiar with the works of St. Maximus the Confessor.  At synod assemblies, or even in casual conversation, when faced with an unpalatable theological proposition he will take refuge behind a pious murmur to the effect that "I don't know how the East would feel about that," or even, "well, not without a true general council."  He's a nice guy, and probably a good pastor.

We can't take that guy seriously.

There are many reasons, the most pressing of which is that we are by our own nature and upbringing so thoroughly Latin.  Our vision of the Church, including its worship, its theology, and its life in the world, is irrevocably shaped by the traditions of Western Christianity.  (Give us "soberness and sense," every time and against all competitors).  And specifically, our understanding of Lutheranism, of what provoked its Confessions and how they should be read -- what they mean -- is rooted in the Latin experience.  Take that away, and we would need a different set of confessions.  We would be somebody else entirely.

This is, of course, Eastern Guy's whole point.  To him, our insistence on muttering the filioque is a sign of unreflective narrow-mindedness, a captivity to one small part of the Christian experience.  He was taught to think of Lutheranism as "an ecumenical proposal of dogma," and later intoxicated by the no-longer-new Finnish scholarship, which tries to connect Luther's understanding of faith to the Eastern idea of theosis.  (All good stuff, by the way, in its own place).  Either because of an unshakeable cultural no-popery, or because he was disappointed by the the seeming closure of papal ecumenism under JPII, he is unable to settle for the usual high-church Protestant romanizing.  And so he has spent decades fantasizing about a different kind of Lutheranism, one which bypasses Latinity (much less Germanness!) and connects directly to what he likes to think of as the Old Church, an "authentic" Christianity unmessed-with by the Middle Ages or Enlightenment.

And there's the second reason we can't take Eastern Guy seriously.  His vision of Orthodoxy, largely the same one with which Orthodoxy tries to grace its dimmest adherents, is patently false.  It is as false as the idea that Roman Catholicism is "essentially" unchanged from the days of Peter, or that Lutherans "follow" Luther.  (Worst-case scenario:  Baptists who say that their version of Christianity is older than Jesus, because it descends directly from John the [First] Baptist.) Sophisticated believers of all stripes know this is just silly, but Eastern Guy has allowed his own sophistication to falter, just in this one case.

And it's easy for him to get away with this because, honestly, he lives in a place where the Orthodox churches are few and small and play virtually no role in public life.  By making friends with a few priests, taking a monastery retreat now and then, he is able to welcome the stranger and sojourner in the land, and enjoy the frisson of exploring a foreign church culture, without ever confronting its depths.

For this fellow, we heartily recommend a few months as part of the once-dominant, now-dwindling Latin minority in what has become an overwhelmingly Orthodox nation.  Because the situation is quite different.  The Eastern churches, when they are in the majority, relish the opportunity to work hand-in-glove with the civil authorities, and to link religion with nationalism, in a way that most of us thought went out with Franco or with Muller's Deutsche Christen. If you don't believe us, check out Putin's Russia.  ("Essentially, the Orthodox Church is one of the only Soviet institutions that has never been reformed," said one priest, who declined to be identified", runs one cheery line in a Telegraph article).

And then there's ecumenism.  Now, we are the first to admit that the ongoing discussion of Christian unity has made for some empty gestures and hollow symbolism.  But we consider the discussion important enough to continue, even at risk of a little hugger-mugger.  

It was our honor to organize the kick-off service for a local observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  To our surprise, this is a pretty big event in our area -- at least among the Latins.  And "Latin" here is used loosely, to include Reformation Protestants (Lutheran, Reformed, and Unitarians in the distinctive Transylvanian sense), post-Reformation "Neo-Protestants" (Baptists, Charismatics), as well as the obvious Roman and Greek Catholics.  We were especially delighted, in fact, to meet the local Unitarian pastor and the Jesuit provincial, much less to see them pray side-by-side.

But the big dogs, the church to which the vast majority of our neighbors belong, was not represented at this or any other service.  Although it was once open to some modest interconfessional activity, that door was apparently slammed shut a few years back.  And we do mean slammed.  Priests and laypeople working for the church are strictly forbidden to participate in any official capacity in non-Orthodox events.  More than that, the church decided to celebrate the Week of Prayer in its own distinctive way, by issuing a statement.  It's linked above, in Romanian, but we'll translate -- very roughly -- a few of the highlights:

WEEK OF ECUMENICAL PRAYER -- or seven days of the Antichrist's Babylon?

... an exercise which wants to be charismatic, but which has one goal:  to unite the Orthodox Church with its catholic, protestant and pagan "brothers."  During this whole period, they make solemn processions through the street, which promote the deception of unity; they have alternative services with litanies and prayers in the Orthodox churches, then in catholic and protestant places, winding up with sermons either by heretics to the orthodox, or by Orthodox priests to the heretics.

Jolly  stuff, huh?  And then there's this:


.... One fears that [literally, "from sin"] the protestant and roman-catholic cults do not give heed that the Church of Christ already exists, and that it exists beyond them.  These are not "churches"!

You get the idea, right?  The word "heretic" is thrown around pretty freely, too.  That's always helpful.

We don't mean to be all that hard on the Orthodox.  Like the rest of us, from the Papacy to the smallest dirt-road snake-handling conventicle, they have the right to make and enforce their own church rules, and to mark off their church boundaries as carefully as they want. Ultimately, we all suspect one another of heresy, loosely defined, or we wouldn't be separated.   But geeze, guys -- do ya have to be so nasty about it?  And more to the point, what good is served by this sort of nastiness -- except to beat up on minorities, both ethnic and religious, as means to encourage adhesion within your own body?  To which we say:  Ick!

Anyway, we're just saying:  Eastern Guy should hang in our hood for a while.  We'll see how long that pony-tail lasts.