Monday, May 31, 2010

Straightening Out the Ranks

The Roman church is working overtime to keep gay men out of its seminaries, an enterprise fraught with irony -- not to mention dubious theology.

A recent Times article linked above tries to describe the situation, and we think does reasonably well. But let us admit that the Times is notoriously tone-deaf to religious nuance, and we will happily stand corrected by anybody with better information. Basically, Paul Vitello describes two "initiatives" within the church's seminaries: (a) to screen out pathological cases with a high potential to become sexually abusive, and (b) to screen out gay men. Two different tasks, Vitello says, and he also says that the church knows this:
Scientific studies have found no link between sexual orientation and abuse, and the church is careful to describe its two initiatives as more or less separate. One top adviser to American seminaries characterized them as “two circles that might overlap here and there.”
Hmm. The problem as Vitello describes it, is that both these overlapping initiatives seem to have begun since the abuse crisis erupted in 2002.

The question his article raises, although not explicitly so, is whether the people giving the orders here really understand that "gay" does not equal "pathological." It has long been clear that some influential voices -- we're looking at you, Ghost of Neuhaus -- have done their best to claim that the church's sexual abuse problem is, in fact, a homosexuality problem, end of story.

Frankly, we think that Vitello may overstate the relationship between the two initiatives. Both the faithful and the faithless have been talking about clergy with wandering hands, sotto voce, for centuries. 2002 is just when when journalists started to talk about it. And in the early 90s, a priest with years of experience in the Vatican itself described what were then quite serious efforts to keep gay men out of seminary, and to remove them if they were detected.

The article also takes a certain glee in describing the screening processes in use, as well as in suggesting that they boil down to barely-educated guesswork. Vitello describes typical vetting procedures:
... most candidates are likely to be asked not only about past sexual activities but also about masturbation fantasies, consumption of alcohol, relationships with parents and the causes of romantic breakups. All must take H.I.V. tests and complete written exams like the 567-question Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which screens for, among other things, depression, paranoia and gender confusion. In another test, candidates must submit sketches of anatomically correct human figures.
Again, we wonder how new any of these procedures are. Our friend in the 90s described very similar questions. And we ourselves took the MMPI in 1990 or '91 as part of our synod's psychological screening. We were also asked to draw a man and a woman, although they were discreetly clothed. (Incidentally, seminarians have a notoriously difficult time with the MMPI, which repeatedly asks questions like "Do you ever feel that you are being guided by some power outside yourself?" Answer "no" and you have denied your call; answer "yes" and you look like a nutcase.)

But Vitello also touches, obliquely, on a couple of other things, where we think that he is closer to the mark. One of his main points is that the screenings are not consistent, and that even the procedural guidelines informing them are vague.

Some Catholics have expressed fear that such vagueness leads to bias and arbitrariness. Others call it a distraction from the more important objective of finding good, emotionally healthy priests.

This would seem pretty obvious. Clear criteria are essential to any sort of meaningful selection process. You have to know what you are looking for (and what you are looking to avoid) and why.

Part of the problem, we suspect, is the very use of words like "homosexual" and, especially, "gay" to describe anybody, and especially a cadre of men who are committed in principle to lives of sexual abstinence. Some people use those words to describe an ontological condition, like being blue-eyed; others a preference, like Gouda over Swiss. Some people use the words interchangeably, others separate them, so that one describes a quasi-medical condition and the other a political position. Because a newspaper article cannot give its sources the leisure to spell out their semantics in detail, a certain murkiness inevitably creeps in.

Consider this quotation:

“A criterion like this may not ensure that you are getting the best candidates,” said Mark D. Jordan, the R. R. Niebuhr professor at Harvard Divinity School, who has studied homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood. “Though it might get you people who lie or who are so confused they do not really know who they are.”

“And not the least irony here,” he added, “is that these new regulations are being enforced in many cases by seminary directors who are themselves gay.”

Jordan says something that many observers have surely thought. Nobody knows what proportion of the Roman priesthood in the US is inclined to homosexuality. But what nearly everybody does know is that there are plenty of priests who, if they were to break their vows of celibacy, would do so with other men. The problem, of course, is that we don't know whether he is talking about seminary directors who do in fact keep their vows, or who struggle and fail, or who ignore the vows completely.

The semantic problem is exacerbated with a quotation like this one:
“Whether he is celibate or not, the person who views himself as a ‘homosexual person,’ rather than as a person called to be a spiritual father — that person should not be a priest,” said Father Toups, of the bishops’ conference.
To many readers, the guy sounds like a raging homophobe, and maybe he is -- how would we know? But to us, it sounds as though he is concerned about identity, as in "identity politics." Replace "homosexual" in that sentence with "heterosexual," "differently-abled" or "Irish," and it could be just as true.

What really catches our attention, though, are the last few paragraphs:

Father Sweeney said the new rules were not the order of battle for a witch hunt. “We do not say that homosexuals are bad people,” he said. “And sure, homosexuals have been good priests.”

“But it has to do with our view of marriage,” he said. “A priest can only give his life to the church in the sense that a man gives his life to a female spouse. A homosexual man cannot have the same relationship. It’s not about condemning anybody. It’s about our world view.”

Really? We aren't as up to speed as we should be on the Papist understanding of holy orders, but this sounds a bit suspicious. The idea that priesthood requires heterosexual longing in order to be genuine is new in our experience. We aren't sure what it says about, for example, the Uniate clergy, who supposedly celebrate the same sacraments as their Latin-rite brothers.

Anyway, the article is interesting enough, but we invite you to read it with the customary grain of salt.

On the Internet, Nobody Knows You Don't Have a Dog

A few days ago, the First Things website published a brief essay by elite ELCA theologian Robert Benne, on his favorite subject: "Why the church from which I draw my paycheck is no good."

As Egg readers know, our opinion of Benne is not high. We think -- and it bears repeating -- that he is a typical late-career academic, angry and resentful that his true brilliance has never been acknowledged and rewarded with prizes and maybe a college presidency. He expresses this resentment like any willful teenager, by lashing out at Mommy. "You're the worst church ever! I never asked to be baptized!" And so forth.

But that's not the point to our present post, which has less to do with Benne's post than with the responses it drew. They are the usual run of online crankiness, notable principally who is playing. The original post was little more than an advertising broadsheet, laying out the newly-revised mission statements of WordAlone and CORE. (Curiously, though, he does make one claim which we are eager to test: that CORE's New ALC "represent[s] the 'evangelical catholic' or high church wing of the [ELCA]." We suspect that a great many people may have missed that memo.) What attracted the most attention were Benne's closing remarks:

For many [WordAlone and CORE] are the last, great efforts to live out the promise of Lutheranism as a church on this continent. If they fail, the only remaining option may be a bracing swim across the Tiber.

The comments began promptly. One respondent proposed buying Dr. Benne a wetsuit. But the comments that fascinate us, wholly against our will, are those by Paul McCain, the director of Concordia Publishing House and a bizarrely omnipresent figure when Lutheranism is discussed on the web. McCain is greatly put out by the idea that the "only" option for pissy Lutherans may be Rome. "Hey," he says in effect, "what about the Missouri Synod? We've been pissy since the Prussian freakin' Union, okay? We are the natural home for Lutherans who can't play well with others."

In fairness, he doesn't quite put it that way. But he does suggest that by skipping over the LC-MS as a possible refuge, Benne is "audacious," "arrogant," and despite his own protestations, already "looking to swim the Tiber." He calls for Benne to offer "humility" and, later, an apology. When Benne responds, murmuring something about the ordination of women, McCain is ready to go: "so much for evangelical catholicism," he snaps. "The disappointment [sic] of [Benne's] remarks are superceded only by their inanity." For "these people," apparently meaning the entire ELCA, including its dissidents, "the mark of the church is enthusiasm from the 60s."

Yikes. Did somebody wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?

Actually, that's our real point here. Benne's original post isn't time-stamped, but it is dated 27 May. McCain's response, the first by several hours, is time stamped 27 May at 8:25 in the morning. We at the Egg have long wondered whether McCain spends hours upon hours doing Google keyword searches for his favorite words, and then writing in to sell his own products and slam those of his competitors. We now wonder whether he gets up very early and begins his day doing this stuff. Has the man no family to care for? No dog depending on him for food and affection? No real work waiting at his desk?

But perhaps we're being unfair. If so, Pr. McCain will no doubt inform us presently, deriding our arrogance, not to say inanity, and demanding an apology.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"When I Hear the Word 'Perichoresis,' I Reach for My Revolver."

Father Anonymous loves to preach; it is one of the few pleasures in life which he finds both legal and unalloyed. Each year, however, the church's calendar provides him three opportunities to reconsider this position: Transfiguration, Ascension, and Trinity.

They are observances of fundamental importance, but they are also -- let's face it -- homiletical challenges. To modern ears, one sounds purposeless, one sounds cheaply theatrical, and one is by its nature a combination of two words largely hostile to the modern churchgoer: "medieval" and "doctrine."*

Those readers who are preaching come Sunday, as the Church celebrates the Trinity, have a number of strategic choices before them. One is to exegete the texts with no purposeful reference to the feast. A bit cowardly, though, isn't it? Another is to delve deeply into the (ahem) substance of the ancient controversies -- offer a learned rebuttal to the Eutychians and Monothelites. Or failing that, to tell a sweet, largely invented story about some anonymous French monk composing the creed which was later named for Athanasius. In fraternal frankness, we humbly suggest that the moment of opportunity for this approach has passed. There is just one old lady in your congregation who really cares, and you shouldn't indulge her.

Another approach, particularly popular among those who have finished seminary in the last half-century, may be to talk about "perichoresis." It is, after all, a good old-fashioned patristic word. On top of that, it means "dancing," which always makes the feminists and liberals-in-general happy. And it does provide the opportunity to lay out a model of the Trinity which can, at the very least, give the average churchgoer something to carry home to lunch.

But a word of caution. In an essay some years ago, quoted at the excellent Faith & Theology blog, Reformed theologian (and noted classroom Lutheran-basher) Bruce McCormack warned about the tendency to expand perichoresis beyond its historic use, so that it no longer describes the action of the persons of the Trinity alone, but also of human beings, or the whole creation:

Perichoresis … is rightly employed in trinitarian discourse for describing that which is dissimilar in the analogy between intra-trinitarian relations … on the one hand and human-to-human relations on the other. Nowadays, we are suffering from ‘creeping perichoresis,’ that is, the overly expansive use of terms – which have their home in purely spiritual relations – to describe relations between human beings who do not participate in a common ‘substance’ and who, therefore, remain distinct individuals even in the most intimate of their relations.”

—Bruce L. McCormack, “What’s at Stake in Current Debates over Justification? The Crisis of Protestantism in the West,” in
Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), p. 111.

The blog post is well worth reading, for a brief string of thoughtful comments both pro and con. We take no particular position on this, except to sympathize with our fellow preachers as they are given ten or twelve minutes to say something worth hearing about the deepest mysteries of God.
*(Yes, we hear your howls, however pedantic, and respond with pedantry of our own. The doctrine is patristic, but the feast is medieval. Prior to the 14th century, there were local celebrations of the Trinity, but no universal observance -- indeed, one was specifically rejected by Alexander II on the quite reasonable grounds that the Church's worship always celebrates the Trinity.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Don Draper Runs Falwell's Seminary

Surely, beloved, you know Don Draper: the suave New York adman, circa 1960. He wears Brooks suits with skinny ties; he drinks, smokes and sleeps around with relative impunity, and when one of his floozies gasps, "This is what makes me feel alive," answers, bemused, "Funny. I don't feel anything."

The key to Draper's character, of course, is that he's not Don Draper. He stole the dog-tags from a dead soldier, turned a permanent back on his home and family, and created himself de novo. His life looks pretty good, for a moment; but viewers are reminded at almost every turn that he is fundamentally not real, that he is a liar of such profundity that, in a sense, he has no longer exists as a human being. Or, to put it in the quaint language of Carl Jung, he has lost his soul.

Draper's a TV character -- on cable, no less -- so naturally he has more depth and credibility than the president of Liberty University's seminary.

Still, we are fascinated by reports that Ergun M. Caner, whose middle name may be Mehmet or Michael, depending upon which document he is signing, has built a career around the story that he was a teen-aged Jihadist, who converted to Christianity. Well, no. What fascinates us are the emerging reports that it's a big old tissue of lies.

Caner's story -- the one he tells, not the one that appears to be true -- is the sort of radical "I once was blind but now I see" conversion tale beloved by the soi-disant "Evangelical" tradition. But if it is false, as it certainly appears to be, the story could do more than discredit Liberty University, a work of supererogation in any case. It could, just possibly, cause people to consider the likelihood that radical epiphanies are remembered and retold more frequently than they are in fact experienced. This, in turn, might lead to a reconsideration of the central myth of popular "evangelicalism," which is that authentic Christianity requires of everybody a Damascus Road experience, and it is never enough "merely" to have been baptized and raised in the faith.

Here is GetReligion's analysis of the news coverage (read the comments for some useful details). Here is a timeline of Caner's [actual] life, based on available public information.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"First" Lesbian Bishop?

A couple of inches down the blog, we complained about misleading press coverage. Here's more.

Most Egg readers have surely been aware of Mary Glasspool, whom the (D&FMS of the) PECUSA has ordained as bishop of its Los Angeles diocese. She's a lesbian, which is interesting to the media for any number of reasons, most legitimately because the Anglican Communion is still ticked off about Gene Robinson, and has repeatedly asked the Episcopal Church to refrain from selecting more gay bishops.

We don't really care about that part of the story, though. What concerns us is the coverage, much of which has looked like this AP headline:

See that second comma? It makes it appear (as have many other headlines) that Mary Glasspool is the first professed lesbian ever set apart for service as a bishop. In fact, so far as we know, that honor belongs to Eva Brunne, who was chosen last year to be the Bishop of Stockholm. (Ironic note: several Anglican bishops (as well as fellow Lutherans) refused to attend her ordination).

All they need to do is remove the second comma and the headline becomes accurate. She is indeed the first lesbian bishop ordained by the Episcopal Church, but that's all.

And what is a "bishop," anyway? The article does make another point which, while accurate, may also confuse some readers. It says:

The Rev. Canon Diane M. Jardine Bruce, of San Clemente, Calif., was also ordained Saturday.

The two women were elected last December to serve as assistant bishops in the diocese's six-county territory

This is worth noting. Glasspool and Bruce are now "bishops suffragan" within the diocese, which in the use of the Episcopal church means that, although they do indeed hold the rank of bishop -- a significant thing, especially in ecumenical gatherings -- they do not exercise any territorial jurisdiction, and are subsidiary to the "bishop diocesan" of LA, Jon Bruno. They will serve alongside Bishop Suffragan Chester Talton and Bishop Assistant Robert Anderson. Lotta bishops on that staff.

Incidentally, LA has no "bishop co-adjutor," a title whose holder is typically expected to succeed as the ordinary of the diocese.

Here's where the confusion may come from. In the Roman church, a "bishop suffragan," while subsidiary to a metropolitan bishop in rank, nonetheless exercises jurisdiction within his own territory. That is quite a different thing than the work Glasspool et al. will do. They will be more like what the ELCA would call "assistants to the bishop," perhaps deployed regionally within the territory.

We don't expect the AP to spell all this out in a short article, of course. We just wish they'd watch their punctuation.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

There's a Pretty Girl in This Video

She's wearing a clerical collar, and married to a blogger. If you're interested in what they're up to, click here for more.

Frank Frazetta, RIP

Pictured at right: a Synod Assembly. We think it's from "Mid-Western Warriors," (New York: Ballantine, 1966).

For those whose childhoods were not misspent raiding stacks of used paperbacks at flea markets (or, of course, Our Beloved Godfather's library), the name of Frank Frazetta may not have much resonance. But for many of us in the Neeks & Gerds department, he was a figure of vast importance.

Frazetta gave life to Conan, John Carter, High Priestess La of Opar, Vampirella and a thousand other physiologically improbable figures. His was the brush that launched a thousand adolescent fantasies, sexual and otherwise.

In a sense, he as the visual equivalent of Robert E. Howard. Like Howard, he is often copied, and well; unlike Howard, he is rarely surpassed at his own craft.

His comic-book work isn't as well known as his paintings, but should be. He did his best work in the neglected field of romance comics, which we can't actually bring ourselves to read. But why waste time reading, when there are all those pictures?

Metropolis Regained

Fritz Lang's, not Superman's.

The brilliant early science-fiction film, which combines Marxism and sexy robots, has always left us a bit cold. Oh, it's brilliant, all right -- the visual imagery has been copied, but rarely excelled. But it also seemed inscrutable, its storyline difficult to follow, its characters not quite convincing, its ploy somehow ... fragile.

As if something were missing.

Turns out something was. The 153-minute film was cut down to 90 for its American release. That's more than 40% of the story, just hacked out. Over the years, bits and pieces have turned up, and a "restored" version was released in 2005. Then 25 more minutes turned up in Argentina. The film is probably as close to complete as it will ever be.

It's showing at Film Forum, if you live in or near NYC. If not, read the gushing i09 review.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Signa Temporem, Etc.

Father Anonymous has been a bit verklempt about missing the annual assembly of his home synod. He has attended these, with nary a miss, since 1992, and has gradually grown to enjoy the stately rhythm of it all.

You know: excitedly greeting old friends; rolling one's eyes while Father Wilford Brimley challenges the agenda; wishing they they had chosen some ... other ... hymn; leaping to one's feet in outrage at something intemperate from Father Haddock; watching the Rev. Mr. Slope stumble around red-faced at breakfast, and trying to assume charitably that it was Pentecost again. Ah, the joys of life in community.

Alas, we can't attend this year. But we are reliably informed that those in the know have developed a drinking game: each time they hear the words "perfect storm," they toss back a shot.

If this keeps up, there will be a great deal of staggering these next few days, even without Mr. Slope. Because, when you throw together a worldwide economic crisis, massive personal and institutional debt, a church deeply divided over genital issues and fifty years of mainline decline, you have a perfect -- well, a perfectly wretched situation.

Still, there is one piece of good news, cloaked in some very bad news indeed. Our reliable informant says (although we have yet to confirm this) that the bishop's report spoke bluntly about the rapid decline of our synod. A judicatory which recently counted nearly 225 or so parishes is down to 208, many of them unable to pay a pastor, and may well be closer to 150 within a decade.

This is grim. But, for those of us who have paid attention, it is not especially new. (Indeed, the numbers seem optimistic). The new part is that after decades of denial, this is probably the first time that the case has ever been made, in the most public forum available, by the person most likely to be heard making it.

Honesty is refreshing. Sometimes, bad news motivates people. But even if it does not, the truth itself, on its own merits, is important, and precious. Perhaps the truth, once spoken, will help to change the direction of the church; perhaps it will simply help people to understand their own lives a little better. Either way, we are grateful for it.

Dept. of Just Not Getting It: Papal Press Edition

Maria Longhitano, a member of the Old Catholic Church, will be ordained shortly in Italy. This is, no doubt, quite a milestone in her own life. We congratulate her.

That said, we confess to some frustration with the press coverage. One headline reads: Italy to Ordain First Female Priest. That's not just wrong, it's stupid. "Italy," being a secular nation, doesn't ordain anybody. Yes, it's synecdoche; but it's also deliberately confusing to readers who will jump to the wrong conclusion.

The BBC, linked above, tries to be clearer, but still says foolish things like:

The event may energise the debate among Roman Catholics about the role of women, a BBC correspondent says....

Although Mrs Longhitano will not be a Roman Catholic priest, her ordination in the borrowed Anglican church will be acutely uncomfortable for the Vatican, he says.

Well, no. It won't.

We aren't privy to the Pope's daily comfort level, but we're willing to bet that he suffers considerably more discomfort from, say, indigestion than he will from Longhitano's ordination. And do you know why? Yes, in fact, you do. And so does the BBC, since it came right out and said she "won't be a Roman Catholic priest."

The Pope may in fact have a mild interest in the ordination of women when it occurs in those churches with which he has some hope of effecting a reunion. And we imagine that the old Catholics (the BBC report leaves us a bit unclear about which Old Catholics, and as we understand it they are really a family of autonomous churches; we welcome reader clarifications) are among those churches. But so, as recent news reports have made clear, are the Lutherans and Anglicans. And they ordain women all the time. Have been for decades, in fact. Since 1940 in Romania, if you wondered.

Even Longhitano's denomination has been ordaining women since 1996, per the Beeb. She's obviously not the first. She does appear to be the first woman ordained within a few blocks of the Vatican -- on the doorstep, as it were. But so what? The Pope is a citizen of the world; he gets around. He may not like the sight of women in albs and stoles, but it isn't exactly a novelty.

And let's be honest. Other recent BBC headlines, linked from that same report when we checked it last, include winners like:
So, all told, we don't think the guy has sweat to spare for what are, in his eyes, the irregular ordinations of separated churches whose orders are already, at best, irregular in themselves.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

New Game: "Name That Convert"

Deacon Keith Fournier, at Inside Catholic, is quite taken with the hint that a few unhappy Anglican bishops may jump ship. He suggests that "just when some in the media are attempting to write obituaries on the Catholic Church, she seems poised to make an historic resurgence, becoming a safe harbor for many Christians who long for historic Christian orthodoxy" and orthopraxy." Safe, that is, except for ordained women and choirboys.

Cheap shots duly taken, we now pass on to the most interesting part of Deacon Keith's editorial, linked above. Pardon our parochialism, but his rehash of news reports about the CofE was water off our back, at least when compared to this foretaste of the feast to come:

We are on the trail of another historic turn of events in this move toward full communion with the Catholic Church. The story we are pursuing - with much prayer and research - indicates that it is not only Anglicans knocking on Rome's door. I am in the middle of a series of interviews with an Archbishop which will lead to at least one article on a group of Lutheran Christians who are following a similar road as* the Anglicans who blazed this trail.

Okay. So -- who's who?

There are precious few Lutheran archbishops in the world -- Uppsala, Turku and Riga -- so we assume that Deacon Keith's source is someone within his own camp. But we wonder whether the eminence in question is a metropolitan or titular bishop. The difference would be between a territorial bishop, likely to have been in conversation with dissident Lutherans in his own territory, and a church diplomat of some sort, who might be talking to Lutherans anywhere in the world. (Of course, once we factor in the recent willingness of some Southern Hemisphere bishops [Anglican division] to expand their territory into North America, we suppose that anything is possible. But surely this canonical tomfoolery defeats the whole dream of "orthopraxy").

The more engaging question, obviously, is which "group of Lutheran Christians" may be tensing its thigh muscles for a Tiber-vault. We can't see a "back-to-Rome" movement emerging in staunchly Germany, with its strict Catholic/Protestant cultural divide, nor in the emerging churches of the developing world, which are for the moment still bound by a financial cord to sister churches elsewhere. The likeliest candidates, by far, are disaffected Swedes and Americans, with Finns and perhaps Latvians trailing well behind.

The conundrum, of course, is that "reform" movements within Lutheranism have historically been as nearly the opposite of Rome as one can imagine: intensely skeptical of, if not hostile to, clergy, sacraments, church order and not incidentally the Whore of Babylon and her leader the Antichrist, meaning you-know-who. So, for example, the conventional dissidents, driven by Haugean and Laestadian impulses, are far more likely to set up their own brand new church bodies than to seek union with the Pope, or for that matter anybody else.

But we are looking for a group whose demographics skew high-church and socially conservative. Surely there is such a group in the Church of Sweden, but we aren't worldly enough to name it. In the US, there have been several over the years, most of which have coalesced around the ALPB and, especially, its curious little daughter clique, the Society of the Holy Trinity.

Many of our closest friends are STS members, although we are blessed if we can figure out why. To us, the organization seems like a bunch of preening self-important poseurs, culled from the intellectual middle ranks of the ELCA. But, in fairness, life in clerical orders can be hard, not to say combative, and we all need the comfort and support of like-minded peers. The STS does offer this, to some of its members.

So. Is the STS secretly negotiating with some Vatican diplomat to make a break for Rome? It seems unlikely. For one thing, the STS has plenty of ordained women in its ranks, who might not be quite as eager as the men to move. For another, there is a palpable, if residual, skepticism about Papism among them -- the legacy in some cases of a very old-fashioned midwestern Lutheran upbringing, and in others of growing up Papist. But principally, it sees to us that these guys couldn't keep a secret if their collective lives depended on it.

If not them, then who? Or rather, with whom are we to believe that Deacon Keith and his latter-day Deep Throat are in quiet conversation? We have no idea. But readers are invited to speculate, as wildly as they like, in the comments box below.

*Note: If a few Anglican converts can make any lasting contribution to the Roman church, we hope it will include an improvement in English prose. We yearn with earnest expectation for the day when Deacon Keith will be forced by peer pressure to rewrite that sentence, perhaps to read "a trail like the one already blazed by some Anglicans."

Monday, May 10, 2010

Last to Hear About It

Flipping though these interwebs, we only just noticed that the Rev. Jaynan Clark Egland, who since 2001 has been president of the WordAlone Network, has in recent years begun calling herself "Jaynan L. Clark." We also noticed that she and the other pastor Egland have different addresses listed with the ELCA.

We hate being the last to know.

These things happen, right? A personal catastrophe, but has no effect on her ministry. Right? It's really none of our business. Or it wouldn't be, if Egland weren't a high-profile advocate for what her group likes to call "traditional" and even "orthodox" views of matrimony. And, look, we all sometimes defend things in principle which we cannot always practice ourselves. See under: Father Anonymous and "turning the other cheek."

But still. Perhaps the WAN folks ought to think this through.

A pastor named Brant Clements blogged about Egland recently -- to the tune of "people who live in glass houses" -- and his post occasioned some strongly-worded comments. (Read it all here). Last year, Sarah Hinlicky at Lutheran Forum did say that clergy divorce was "the log in [conservatives'] own eye," and she wasn't wrong. We may disagree with her conclusions about the theological significance of that fact, and about the steps to be taken, but not about the fact. (Well, one of the "logs." Gluttony, depression, obesity and alcoholism also qualify.)

For the record, some of the most impressive ministry we know of has been done by divorced pastors, both remarried and not remarried. But their presence among the clergy has always been something of a scandal, and there are many, many stories about the ways bishops have struggled to exercise pastoral care in these cases. Typically, a change of call has been on order. And typically, the divorced pastor hasn't been asked to serve as a consultant on the theology of marriage.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

It's Just a Book on Management

But we have to mention it anyway. Among the many books by patron George Rekers is one called -- we kid thee not -- There's Room at the Top.

When Is a Hate Crime Not a Hate Crime?

We don't know all the details, but that rarely prevents us from an expression of moral outrage. Nor will it in the case of José Sucuzhanay and the men who murdered him.

Oh, excuse us: who manslaughtered him.

Here's what happened:

On Dec. 7, 2008, Sucuzhanay, 31, and his brother, Romel, 36, who was visiting from Ecuador, had been drinking at a church party and later at Mexican restaurant. The two were holding on to each other as they walked home along Bushwick Ave. at 3:30 on that fateful Sunday morning.

Suddenly, they were brutally attacked by Scott, 26, and his co-defendant Keith Phoenix, 30. Another jury is still deliberating the fate of Phoenix.

According to witnesses at the scene, after yelling, "Check out those f----ts over there," the defendants pulled up in an SUV at a stoplight and jumped out, the vicious assault began.

While Romel Sucuzhanay was able to escape the attack with minor injuries, José Sucuzhanay suffered a beating on the head with an aluminum bat and a glass bottle.

The attackers, witnesses said, left him for dead on a Bushwick sidewalk. "F---ing Spanish!" they yelled to the fresh-faced Ecuadoran as he lay bleeding on a Brooklyn street.

He lingered for five days at Elmhurst Hospital and died the day before his grieving mother arrived from Ecuador. He leaves behind two young daughters.

By all accounts, José Sucuzhanay was a good man. But the thugs who savagely beat him did not care. They did not know him - they only knew they hated José Sucuzhanay because he was Latino and they thought he was gay.

The Daily News article, quoted and linked above, expresses some ire that in their verdicts (of two men so far, with a third waiting), the jury decided that this wasn't a hate crime. After all,

"Beating a man to death with a baseball bat and a broken bottle while screaming anti-immigrant and homophobic epithets is clearly a hate crime," said Ana María Archila, co-executive director of Make the Road New York
True enough. But what angers us even more is that the convictions were for manslaughter, which carries lower penalties than murder. This, frankly, mystifies us.

"Murder in the second degree," as we understand it, usually refers to something like this:

1) an intentional killing that is not premeditated or planned, nor committed in a reasonable "heat of passion", or

2) a killing caused by dangerous conduct and the offender's obvious lack of concern for human life. Second-degree murder may best be viewed as the middle ground between first-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.

It seems pretty obvious that this is what happened. They didn't plan to kill the guy; they planned to beat him savagely -- dangerous conduct. He just happened to die as a result of what they were doing -- lack of concern for human life.

"Manslaughter," however, means unintentional killing which takes place in circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed .... For example, Dan comes home to find his wife in bed with Victor. In the heat of the moment, Dan picks up a golf club from next to the bed and strikes Victor in the head, killing him instantly.

So what are the "circumstances" that caused Scott and Phoenix to become emotionally disturbed"? Surely not the fact that they were in the middle of brutal assault -- that was the crime itself, which they had instigated solely of their own accord. So what then?

Apparently, we are to believe that it was the fact that they had seen a pair of Hispanic men holding onto each other. This, alone, appears to be a "circumstance" which can legitimately be said said to have so "disturbed" them that it effectively mitigated their crime. And that's insane.

For decades, African Americans have complained bitterly, and justly, about the crime of "driving while black," for which many are stopped by the police. It would seem that the law has just recognized a new offense under a related statute: embracing while male. Or Hispanic.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Dept. of No Surprise: Dobson Colleague Has A Wide Stance.


In case you've somehow missed it, a fellow named George Rekers took a ten-day trip to Europe with a male escort. Rekers is a co-founder, with James Dobson, of the Family Research Council, and the author of books like Growing Up Straight. His traveling companion was a 20-year-old prostitute whom he had located on a website called, which, as HuffPo drily remarks, is "just what it sounds like."

Rekers, of course, insists that this is all just a misunderstanding. He likes spending time with sinners so that he can convert them; he didn't know that a "rentboy" might be a prostitute; he just needed somebody to carry his luggage. Anyway, nobody is fooled, and the HuffPo page (linked above) has crosslinks to many stories, if you really care. (Best line: Jimmy Kimmel, arguing that "carrying my luggage" should be the euphemism du jour. Surely a relief to Larry Craig).

We mention this sordid tale for only two reasons. First, to further document the dubious ethics of the people who like to give ethical advice in public. (Our favorite example remains Bill "Book of Virtues" Bennett and his $8-million gambling losses).

Second, we mention it because GetReligion hasn't. As you surely know, GR is a site run by professional journalists with experience on the church beat and up-front religious commitments of their own. They specialize in finger-pointing criticism of their colleagues' work, which (given the level of shoddy thinking in general and religious ignorance in particular on display in most newspapers) is like shooting fish in a barrel. A particular specialty is the identification of "ghosts," meaning religious angles in a story which they feel have not been properly explored by the press coverage.

Hello. Rekers is a Baptist clergyman. At a time when the Roman Catholic church is under constant fire for the misdeeds of its clergy in many places and over many years, it seems to us that the time may be right for an examination of how other church bodies deal with parallel issues -- and what that means for believers. For example, the Papist bishops are criticized for taking ineffective action. Logically, this raises the question of what sort of action, if any, the "free" churches are able to take. Is there any means to defrock a Baptist cleric? To assure that he never again exercises the cure of souls?

Probably not; Rekers can be "disfellowshipped" from any conventions to which he may belong, but he cannot be prevented from calling himself a minister and functioning in that capacity, whether in a parish, school or other setting. It is up to congregations and other institutions to carry out their own investigations of his ethical and psycholological fitness.

For many people, this may seem like a preferable system of church organization. It takes the responsibility away from an opaque and often unresponsive hierarchy, and places it squarely on the local community. But is that really the best way? In the case of a high-profile public figure like Rekers, an investigation will be pretty simple -- all you need is Google. But what about the hundreds and even thousands of Baptist (or non-denominational, or et cetera) clerics whose names won't trigger a bunch of search-engine hits? How is a small congregation or school to protect itself? Criminal background checks will only pick up reported crimes; references, by their nature, are carefully selected to include one's friends and admirers.

On the whole, it seems to us that the Rekers case is a reminder of something important about the much-publicized scandals within the Roman church. A highly structured institutional system, when broken, can permit some atrocious crimes. But when working properly, it can also be a safeguard which protects the faithful and encourages greater confidence in their pastors. In the absence of such a system, there are few reliable safeguards.

So whose school system would you rather send your kid through?

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Fiddling While Rome Burns: Oil Spill Department

Or maybe they're making hay during a thunderstorm. Choose your cliche.

Point being that, while an oil spill of unprecedented scope moves toward Louisiana -- a state which has already suffered adequately from the combination of bad weather and Republican incompetence -- some of the "drill, baby, drillers" have renewed their call for more (not less, more) offshore oil drilling.

Call it striking while the iron is extremely cold.

Remember that the big plan for offshore drilling might reduce our foreign-oil requirements by something like 3% in ten years. At least we think those are the numbers. So drilling isn't even a stopgap, and support for drilling isn't motivated by any sort of common sense. It's motivated by oil companies and the gazillion dollars they will pay you for voting their way.

In fairness, this is an act of bipartisan cupidity. The culprits are Reps. John Boehner (R-OH) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Boehner is a famous imbecile, and we assume that he is supported by his own tribe, who will therefore do nothing to remove him.

Landrieu, on the other hand, is due for re-election in 2014. Loathe as we are to endanger Democratic control of the Senate, we do hope that when the shrimp-fishermen of coastal Louisiana step into the voting booth, they remember the sea of oily crude that obliterated their livelihood.

Touché, at Last

"When teaching about sex replaces teaching about salvation as a defining mark of the church, something has clearly gone severely awry."

This is the most instantly quotable sentence from a recent essay in the online Journal of Lutheran Ethics. The odds are that most Egg readers have already seen it, since the link has been passed around with great excitement. While we aren't in love with the essay, we do like it, and hope that readers will also.

Jon Pahl (whom we do not know, despite his association with two institutions dear to us) is on the faculty of the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia and has had a fellowship at the formerly Presbyterian university in Princeton. His essay reveals a number of tendencies which make us squirm with discomfort, particularly in this context: an affection for Rene Girard; a connection to the AELC; and a rhetorically unfortunate readiness to bash in passing the conventional bogeymen of American liberalism, such talk radio hosts, on the assumption that his readers already share his likes and dislikes. (Good for blogging, bad for academic discourse).

Even with these reservations, his essay is well worth reading, both for theological reasons and -- let's be frank -- tactical ones.

Theologically, he goes after CORE, the New ALC and the Word Alone Network from two angles. First, he demonstrates (with somewhat slender documentary evidence for our taste) that they are prone to many of the classical heresies -- namely, docetism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. This section of his argument is based on the "Common Confession," a document which lays out a distinctly inadequate ecclesiology, even by the modest standards of Lutheranism.

Pahl's use of the terms is a bit loose. For example, his accusation of docetism rests upon the idea that the CC holds up congregationalism and the "invisible church" beloved of some Lutherans, which magically exists outside of any actual human institution. Therefore, it is not the reality of the body of the man Jesus Christ which they question (as did the docetics of old) but the reality of the visible Church as the Body of Christ. Still, despite a small liberty with the term, he is onto something important. Those who diminish the importance of the institutional Church clearly do fail to "discern the Body," in just the sense that Paul meant it.

Second, Pahl attacks the CORE/NALC/WAN for participation in what might be thought of as a modern heresy, or cluster of heresies, the "American civil religion." The term is not always used consistently, but its coiner, sociologist Robert Bellah, meant it to identify a system of beliefs, symbols and rituals which exist outside of and parallel to those of conventional religious communities, and which connect the civil realm to the spiritual one in the popular imagination. It's not really all that modern, to be sure; there was a Roman civil religion long ago, with which Christianity found itself in memorable conflict.

This argument is strung out piecemeal through the essay, the organization of which Pahl describes in a comment below, but which we found confusing. Perhaps the most direct evidence that CORE et al. participate in the ACR comes late in his discussion of the Common Confession. After describing some of the obvious Scriptural and historical problems with the language of marriage as "one man to one woman," Pahl says:

Even more, the specific language of the way Lutheran CORE defines "marriage" has a quite clear historical origin, and it is not The Holy Bible or the Lutheran Confessions. Lutheran CORE's language that defines marriage as "between one man and one woman" is derived directly from the recent spate of DOMA Laws, or "Defense of Marriage Acts" that have emerged in federal and state legislation as efforts to keep gays and lesbians from the civil and economic rights that accrue to couples who marry. These laws are distinctively American, and they are unjust because they legitimize unnecessary violence — as I have argued in print elsewhere.38 By adopting the language of these unjust laws as part of their "Common Confession," Lutheran CORE reveals its loyalty not to the "great tradition" of biblical revelation and Christian creedal tradition, but instead to the imperial constructs of the American civil religion.

This is a neat trick, incidentally, since the accusation of "civil religion" has more typically been used by cultural conservatives against cultural liberals. Whether or not Pahl makes his case about civil religion, he does remind us quite nicely that everybody's idea of "what the church teaches" is conditioned by their own experience of what they were taught themselves, by word and example -- which is rarely quite what the Church actually means to teach.

Whatever its analytical strengths and weaknesses, which are both considerable, Pahl's essay is also instructive as an example of a tactic which we hope to see used a bit more frequently in the near future: the counterattack.

Over the years, the ELCA and its supporters have had comparatively little to say to or about those who criticize the church. The idea was probably to take the high road, rather than answering every little pissant snipe from the Herman Ottens of the world. But as the criticisms have gotten louder and dumber (despite coming, as some of them have lately, from extremely bright people -- we're thinking of you, Michael Root), it has seemed to us at the Egg that firmer and more bracing affirmations of the ELCA's convictions have been called for.

And by the same toke, so have more blunt assessments of the foolish arguments put forward by people who should know better. We at the Egg have taken a special delight in this latter field of endeavor, and so does Pahl. We especially enjoy, for example, his comments on Robert Benne, an ELCA theologian teaching at an ELCA college who has nonetheless taken to ranting about unnamed but sinister "elites" in the world of ELCA theological ethics. Pahl will have none of it:

... Benne imagines that the ELCA is in decline because it has accommodated itself to American "liberal Protestantism." "Skewed commitments," by which Benne means the liberalism of Lutherans in the ELCA, "led to dramatic membership losses." Apart from the fact that this is lousy history, it also reveals again American millennialist and dualistic scapegoating — someone must be to blame for declension — as a founding assumption underneath the movement.

Historically speaking, in fact, immigration patterns and birth rates have far more to do with Lutheran membership ebbs and flows in America than anything else. It's not as if Lutherans used to be great evangelists and theologians and have now become lousy at both. ...

n recent decades, and especially since the dramatic changes in immigrant law established by Congress in 1965, immigrants to America have come primarily from Latin America, Africa, and from South and East Asia, and decidedly not from Scandinavia and Germany. Couple that with the fact that in the late twentieth century Lutherans began to practice birth control and to have smaller families (to their moral credit, globally and ecologically speaking), and the causes for Lutheran "decline" clearly take root not in some imagined Lutheran doctrinal purity or its absence, but in documented demographic shifts.

Furthermore, it is not just liberal churches that are suffering numerically. Even culturally "conservative" churches associated with European enclaves (such as the LCMS and the Roman Catholic Church — if you subtract Latino/a membership increases due to the new immigration) are now losing numbers across North America.

He had us at "lousy history." And again:

More subtly, the blame-game of moralism among Lutheran CORE members projects a view of history that identifies ELCA leaders with having abandoned "the great tradition," and of having left behind the norms and practices of some supposedly more morally pure earlier age in favor of a relativistic liberal tolerance. Robert Benne again claims that Lutherans were once "protected from the allure of American culture by their thriving ethnic enclaves, but that day is over. We're all Americans now."28 As with Benne's false claim about the cause of numerical losses among Lutherans, this rosy-colored view of past Lutheran ethnic harmony and purity is also historical nonsense. ...

In fact, any fair reading of the histories of the predecessor bodies to the ELCA will recognize that Lutherans in those churches (and especially the laity) were, by and large, stumbling over one another to be as American as possible, as quickly as possible, consciously or unconsciously, while also managing to bicker constantly over issues like millennialism, predestination, membership in lodges, and more.

Oh, yeah, says the reader, waking up from his WordAlone-induced stupor. I did read that in a book somewhere, dinnit I? Once again, real facts trump romantic fantasies. Pahl then follows it up with a case study in how the facts about the ELCA vary from the "Evil Empire" created by its zealous critics:

For instance, the ELCA social statements (a favorite target of Lutheran CORE members) embrace a paradoxically critical and affirming approach to American society that is far more nuanced and authentic in its Lutheranism than most of the productions by the supposedly pure ethnic churches that preceded the ELCA. The social statements tackle issues those churches largely did not or would not take up — race, economics, war and peace, the environment, and abortion — in ways that simply do not fit Lutheran CORE's stereotype of "liberalism" in the ELCA. The abortion statement is a perfect case in point. It sees abortion as tragic, something to be avoided, but also not to be legislated out of existence, especially in cases of rape or danger to the health of the mother.32 Such a paradoxical, nuanced judgment is characteristic of Lutheran public theology at its best. The caricatures of Lutheran CORE — Benne claims that "no one can really challenge the ELCA's ... persistent pro-choice stance on abortion" — are, simply, false.

This essay is disorderly and sometimes annoying, but well worth reading. We hope that it is the beginning of something that is long overdue: a serious response by supporters of the ELCA to the bad history, bad theology and outright lies being peddled by its power-hungry dissidents. Like Robert Benne.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Hey, Bishop! The Tiber is Thataway!

So, one suspects, they are saying in Albany, NY these days. It appears that the former bishop of the Episcopal diocese there needs a map and compass.

Daniel Herzog retired in 2007, and promptly left the Episcopal Church for the Roman one. (We imagine that he waited until the last moment, to be assured that the PECUSA would continue to pay him the largest possible pension, but perhaps we are mistaken).

We aren't sure what Bishop Herzog and his wife expected, but apparently they didn't get it, because they have both re-joined the Episcopal church. the sitting bishop, William Love, is said to have "welcomed Herzog's return and said Herzog and his wife have always been active in an unofficial capacity after their departure."

Really? What kind of conversion was that, any way? Because our understanding was that they ought to have become active in Roman Catholic circles, and helped the local Papist diocese. (But then, the two churches are so close! See the post below for details.)

At least one Albany-diocese Episcopalian is not especially pleased to see his old shepherd back in the fold:

Robert Dodd, president of Albany Via Media, an Anglican laity group that opposed Herzog's steering of the diocese into a more conservative position ... said Herzog was right to leave the church because the bishop opposed some of its central beliefs.

Of course, we aren't sure just which church Dodd means. This bishop has left a couple.

Anglicans "Embarrass the Pope"

Seems that three Church of England bishops have held a "secret" (meaning: not secret, it's in the newspaper) meeting at the Vatican, to talk about defecting. This seems to be less about gay priests than female bishops, an abomination from which they are determined to protect their flock.

A follow-up story, incidentally, identifies that flock as some 268 parishes with an average membership of 50. Neither here nor there, but worth noting.

Obviously, this won't be good for the already tense relations between the Cs of E&R. But what tickles us is the suggestion of an anonymous "senior Anglican cleric" that "this will seriously embarrass the Pope."

Really? You think this will embarrass the Pope? Maybe you haven't been reading the papers lately, because he's got a lot more embarrassing stuff on his plate these days.