Pretty as a Prayerbook

Stolidity.  Canons all across this deck are known for it.  Visions of unchanging texts, however, tend to be false perceptions.  Even the canon of the Bible differs, depending on who you talk to.  So it is to be applauded, I suspect, that the Episcopal Church is planning to revise the Book of Common Prayer.  The last revision was 1979, and before that, 1928.  This schedule should be telling you something—the BCP, or simply “Prayerbook” as it’s commonly called, was never a changeless canon.  We mere mortals rely on experts to change the words by which the Almighty is approached, and although Episcopalians are thin on the ground in this country, world-wide they’re a formidable sect.  They’re united mainly by their commitment to the BCP.  And with good reason.

The days of the British Empire are long gone, but when it ruled the waves (and even before) this island state contributed a number of religious elements to the world.  The Prayerbook was born out of struggles with Rome for secular power disguised as sacred.  We try to live with a fiction of separation, but churches and states have always had mutual influence—just consider the way secular Trump has changed Christianity and you’ll see.  The BCP was to define English Christianity and in doing so became a Scripture in its own right (or rite).  Phrases from the Book of Common Prayer pepper the English language so as to rival the Good Book itself.  When church attendance was an expectation, you couldn’t help but internalize it.

A certain seminary, nameless here forevermore, will not be pleased with such change.  When I taught there many still clung to the 1928, claiming the church had erred (a strange position for someone in a voluntary organization and who vows to support its decisions) by adding “inclusive language” in the ’79.  This, they averred, was a man’s religion.  And they meant biological males.  Stolid.  Or perhaps stale.  Like the fiction of unchanging canons, the myth of the rational male hierarchy exists only to be exploded.  The two longest reigning British monarchs have been queens, after all.  World wars tend to be the legacy of male rulers.  So, although a tiny seminary in the woods of Wisconsin will likely rage, the BCP could use a bit of a makeover.  The world has changed substantially since the 1970s.  Mainline churches have been steadily shrinking and redefinition with a declining financial base makes good sense.  “This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be.”  Even if it be changing canons.

Love the Sinner

Nashotah House, in the many years I taught there, was very saintocentric. Our daily lives revolved around Saints’ Days, many of whom I’d never heard. Not having grown up Episcopalian, I wasn’t accustomed to all the obscure people recognized as worthy of having their own day. I was, however, surprised to learn that the church did not venerate the two most well-known secular saints: Patrick and Valentine. Perhaps having its origins as an all-male institution, St. Valentine’s Day was considered a dangerous concept to commemorate? But no, he wasn’t even on the calendar of saints in the Book of Common Prayer. While the rest of the world was celebrating love, we were generally getting ready for Lent.

The truest holidays mark the observations of subtle shifts in nature. With our indoor, virtual lives, we’ve lost track of the fascinating rhythms of the natural world. The birds begin to pair off and mate, so the etiology goes, around this time of year. So to baptize that pagan erotic longing, St. Valentine was brought into the picture. So the story claims. Religions have always found love somewhat of a stumbling block. On the one hand, it is the highest ethical good—the greatest moral regard you can have for another person is love. (We try not to tell them that, because it might betray too much, however.) On the other hand, love can lead to physical intimacy and there things get a little dicey. Religions of all descriptions attempt to regulate sexuality. It may be a fearful thing, so perhaps we should put a saint’s face on it. Could act like cold water on the natural fires of biological creatures in February.

St-Valentine-Kneeling-In-Supplication

So instead, Valentine’s Day has become a secular holiday. Kids send one another cheap cards indicating their enforced regard for one another. Guys carry flowers awkwardly through the streets of Manhattan. The clerk at the chocolate shop, even several days in advance, sends you out the door by saying “Happy Valentine’s Day.” It’s the secret we all know. Ironically, the church has backed away from Valentine. Perhaps, if our religious institutions took seriously what it means to be human, and promoted love as the highest good rather than political conformity, we would truly have cause to celebrate. But don’t mind me—more likely as not, I’m just gazing out the window, watching for birds and the hope of spring.

Tomorrow Ever After

Last night as we said goodnight to Irene, my family decided to watch The Day After Tomorrow. Beyond The Perfect Storm and Twister we didn’t have any other weather-related disaster movies on hand. I became convinced long ago that weather was somehow key in the conception of divinity. Working at a seminary that required attendance at chapel twice daily where we would lugubriously and laboriously recite every verse of every Psalm according to the unforgiving schedule of the Book of Common Prayer, I began to notice the weather. Among the more common images used in the “hymnal of the second temple,” weather was seen as an essential aspect of divinity. Religions with celestial orientations frequently view the sky with a sacred aura. I began to compile all the Psalm references to the weather and eventually brought them together into a book, still unpublished. What became clear at the end of this exercise was that ancient people had no way to interpret the weather other than as a divine phenomenon. Listening to all the hype about Irene, it still seems to be the case.

In The Day After Tomorrow, our ill-fated teenagers are trapped in the New York Public Library as a super-chilled tropospheric wind freezes New York City. They build a fire and when you’re in a library, naturally, you burn books. I kept looking at all the furniture they spared as they consigned the books to the flame. A minor character called Jeremy is shown clutching a Bible. A girl named Elsa asks if he thinks God will save him. Replying that he is an atheist, Jeremy says that this is a Gutenberg Bible, “This Bible is the first book ever printed. It represents the dawn of the Age of Reason. As far as I’m concerned, the written word is mankind’s greatest achievement. You can laugh, but if Western Civilization is finished I’m gonna save at least one little piece of it.” This little dialogue represents the full circle of the celestial god. Jeremy doesn’t believe in this god, and the Bible requires human protection. Instead of being the instrument of war and political badgering and tea parties, it is seen as a symbol of enlightenment. It represents the first steps toward reason.

As Hurricane Irene still gusts outside my window, dropping rain as if New Jersey were a desert receiving its first drink in a century, the Tea Party is busy crafting ways of getting the Bible back in the White House. Their Bible is the antithesis to the Age of Reason. It is the symbol of superstition and prejudice and authoritarianism. It is the means of political power. The god of the Tea Party is a white-bearded man living in the sky, sending his fury against the liberal cities of the East Coast in a mighty wind. He is the punishing god of the Psalms. As the helicopter lifts off over a frozen Manhattan, the teenagers saved by a flawed father who walked from Philadelphia to New York to find his son, the camera pans across Jeremy as he hugs the Bible to his chest. I was in Boston for Hurricane Gloria back in 1985. Watching the waves crash on the beach at Winthrop I felt the power of fierce nature at the beginning of my own journey to, I hope, enlightenment. When it was over, however, there was not yet a Tea Party threatening an even worse, unnatural disaster to follow.

Irene, the early days

Biblical Weddings

Maine is getting ready to vote tomorrow on the legalization of gay marriages. With conservatives hopped up on fears that such a move will destroy traditional, patriarchal privilege, the Bible is beaten rather severely as proponents seek evidence for man + woman = marriage in holy writ. The funny thing is, the Bible says very little about marriage.

In an era when marriage is often associated with houses of worship and a smiling, tolerant divine face beaming down on a couple about to do “the bad thing” with divine sanction, it is difficult to realize just how little the Bible talks about it. The Hebrew Bible is particularly mute when it comes to the particulars of wedding ceremonies: “Then Isaac brought here into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife,” according to Genesis 24.67. No sacral ceremony here, by prior arrangement, sex equals marriage. A few chapters later when his son Jacob marries, there is a feast mentioned, but no sacerdotal functionary hovering nearby (one who might have actually noticed that Jacob ended up with the wrong woman, by the by). And so the biblical narrative limps on with patriarchs bedding and marrying their women with no mention of God. Eventually religious folks got a little nervous about this and ceremonies with divine approval were introduced, but that is not even in the case with the wedding at Cana, which, in desperation, the Book of Common Prayer latches onto for a marriage lection: “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee” (the Order for The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage). Apart from the difficulty of a covenant being an uneasy peace between a superior and inferior party, this introduction relies on a literal Adam and Eve and the means for a large wedding party to get drunk, courtesy of the miracle in Cana. Apart from Paul’s putative comments regarding the marital status of early church leaders, we hear little else in the Bible.

I have nothing against weddings; I was the groom in a particularly stylish wedding in Ames, Iowa some years back. The problem I see is that the Bible is being forced to say what it does not. If the few biblical marriages are all heterosexual, it simply reflects the options open at the time. How does allowing gay marriages threaten the marital bless of the heterosexual? It seems to me that the only thing to be lost is “privileged status” and benefits allotted to those formally united in the eyes of the law. Unless things have changed recently, even in a religious marriage a state-issued license is required! Why not allow firm affirmations and privileges of loving couples without relying on non-existent biblical platitudes? I hope Maine will do the right thing tomorrow.