Monday, January 09, 2012

Cranky Old Age

Ah, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and to be young was very heaven.

When Father Anonymous was a mere slip of a thing -- Vicar Anonymous, they called him then -- there were some cranky old men hanging around the synod. The ones he knew best were super-high-church types, ordained in the 1960s or earliest 70s. They had been eccentrics then, although often quite vocal and even influential ones. Over time, several had become extremists; but, having lost any real influence, they kept their extremism largely to themselves.

It is hard to generalize, because these guys did not think with one mind any more than do we, ahem, modern people. But in general they had all at one time or another taken a vocal public stand against something on this list:
  • Ordained women
  • Altar girls
  • Feminist theology, liberation theology, and so forth
  • The Lutheran Book of Worship, especially (a) the loss of the Introit, (b) the addition of the canticle "This is the Feast," and (c) the Swedish eucharistic formula beginning "Blessed are you."
(With these antipathies, for the record, we agree about the Introit, and straddle the fence regarding the canticle. Otherwise, we're in utter disagreement.)

The first three objections, obviously, came from what today is easily dismissed as sexism tout court, although that isn't quite fair. Several of these guys were very sharp, and several had done remarkable -- and arduous -- ministry among the desperately poor and brutally oppressed. And it is worth noting that they weren't, and those who remain aren't, part of the Anita-Bryant-era anti-gay revolution. On the contrary, while they may not care much for the current regularization of same-sex romance in the Church, this was probably the single community with the longest record of shrugging their shoulders at gay colleagues, extending the charitable if specious assumption of celibacy, and moving on.

Naturally, by the time we came across them, these old codgers had already lost the argument on every item to which they objected, at least so far as the course of the church's common life was concerned. In some cases (altar girls, notably) parish pastors had even been instructed by a bishop to toe the line in their own parish. Those who know our polity will be able understand what a rare thing this is.

But they lost, consistently. In the face of the Commission on a New Lutheran Church, and the regime which followed it, none of their concerns had any real chance of survival. Frankly, better minds and better ideas were marginalized with an efficiency that was one side or the other of ruthless. (Bill Rusch, anybody?)

So what did they do after they lost? A few of them switched churches, generally heaving-ho in the direction of Rome. A few others flamed out, caught in one or another sort of public scandal. But most just settled down to spend those last few years in their own parish, hanging out with like minds and complaining (often acidly) about the evil times they had lived to see.

We have been thinking about these guys lately, mostly because of the Facebook group for ELCA pastors. It's a sort of nationwide cocktail party, in which we talk about the sort of things pastors talk about: problem parishioners, management software, the old three-way volunteer-vs-paid sexton-vs.-cleaning service debate. Occasionally, the talk turns to truly important things (mission; evangelism; staying out of court); often, it dwells on the sort of thing that could only interest a cleric, if even that (vestments, the pension plan, funny stories about incense). Whenever it gets too caught up in trivia, some well-meaning soul can always be counted upon to bleat, in effect, "What about the children?!"

And this group is turning us into one of those cranky old men. Fast.

Don't get us wrong. We like our colleagues, and always have. Lutheran pastors are a smart, decent bunch, with comparatively few stinkers among 'em. We like our colleagues, but have to confess that we don't really care for some of their ideas. Okay, a lot of their ideas. which means, in turn, that we don't really care for the direction that the church has taken over the years. Reading these posts, we come away with a sense that the "other" Lutheranism -- the mildly pietistic, aggressively modernistic, liturgy-bashing, bad-"contemporary"-service-organizing, Marty Haugen addicted, grape-juice-in-little cups-distributing Lutheranism we have heard about but rarely encountered -- is really much bigger than we had ever imagined. And that thought terrifies us.

What terrifies us even more is the likelihood that our own inevitable encounter with it may be coming fast. We can't stay holed up in Europe forever, and there is only so much of our home synod to go around. We are slowly coming to terms with the fact that our future may very well involve fewer thuribles and more little cups.

What does this mean? Frankly, it means a little blood in our mouth, as we accept the things we cannot change. And it means occasionally sitting at a table with colleagues, drinking bad coffee out of plastic cups, and complaining. Some will join us in our complaints, others will fight with us, and a decent few will sit by quietly, disagreeing but amused. We will, in short, have become one of the Cranky Old Men.

To repeat: we didn't agree with these sadsack old coots.. We didn't even like most of them; they were often pompous, and prone to smoking cigars. Apart from a general predisposition in favor of incense and chasubles, we had very little in common. But one of the things Fr. A. enjoys most about parish ministry is the chance to sit around church basements listening to old men talk (also old women, of whom there are many more), and while he prefers WWII veterans, these guys would do in a pinch.

So we hope that someday, when we have become embittered and cigar-prone, some young punk of a seminarian will be willing to sit around the undercroft with us, listening to our tales of the good old days, when there were no robot pastors and people still had their doubts about polyamorous wedding services.


Pastor Joelle said...

Oh man I have been thinking the same thing lately. And I wonder how much of it is that I just am getting too old to accept change, too enamored of things that don't matter, spending too much time on trivial things like convincing the three churches I serve to buy a corporal or if the church I know is not taking a wrong turn down an alley it will soon enough find goes nowhere. But like you say, there's nothing we can do about it. And there is that assurance that it's not really OUR church, is it?

Father Anonymous said...

I'm soooo glad it isn't just me.

Anonymous said...

You have way too much free time on your hands.
Talk about affected and precious and simpering and prim!

stynxno said...

Hey, they wouldn't even let me IN to the facebook group (though other seminarians got in). But that is probably for the best.

Father Anonymous said...

@ stynxno: You should have been let in, since its supposed to be open-by-invitation. But you'll get the sa,e thing in more enjoyable form just by eating lunch in the refectory -- any refectory.

@Anonymous: What? A heartfelt reflection on change and mortality is affected and prim, but my College of Cardinals headcount (below) and reflections on Montague Sumers (above) get nothing? I know you're just a creepy internet troll hiding behind his anonymity, but -- seriously, dude, act like you're trying.

Anonymous said...

The cardinals are beyond parody. But if you think about ceremony for more than 5 minutes a day, you've got to take up stamp collecting or train spotting.
And you wonder why there are a higher percentage of gays in the clergy!

Father Anonymous said...

Well, no argument about the cardinals.

But if your job involves ceremony, and you don't spend at least five minutes each day thinking about ceremony, then you aren't doing your job.

mamaS said...

You have an open invitation to meet such Lutherans - although were I serve, they do not do "contemporary," and are agressively pietistic and mildly modernistic.

When I went east to be trained up as a churchwoman, I learned and came to love such things as the chausuble, common cup, a variety of Latin phrases, the hours, etc.
And for the record, I've never even SEEN a thurible. I don't think the Catholics or Episcopalians use them around here.

Father Anonymous said...

Here's an irony: However much I dislike watered-down pietism, the straight-up version is a constant delight. Modernism is just the reverse, so your neighborhood sounds lovely!

mark said...

I hope that there may be such an undercroft available to you that does not sport an antiques store-owner rather than a seminarian who offers the cynical ear to laments about the passing of "the church."

mamaS said...

As long as you will drink the mildly stale coffee and eat the lutefisk, you would welcome you with open arms.

Father Anonymous said...

I'm a Lutheran pastor, so naturally stale coffee is like mother's milk to me.

But -- confession time! -- I've never eaten lutefisk. Maybe once, twenty years ago, at a party thrown by my buddy from North Dakota, after we'd visited a Norwegian specialty shop in Bay Ridge. But even that I'm not sure of.