Domesticity

One of the truly disturbing aspects of religion is its tendency to become domesticated. What I mean is that it becomes so much a part of the everyday scenery that you forget it’s there. I recently read a story about priests in the Church of England who don’t want parishes in poor neighborhoods. The reason given? They don’t want their children educated among the poor. That took me back a step. As someone with more than a passing familiarity with the Episcopalians, I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t want poor parishes. Of establishment Christianity, Anglicans are on the economical high end of the scale. I knew a few future priests like that at Nashotah House. Stylish worship and excess cash go together. But not to want your children educated with the poor? Is there fear of contagion?

I grew up poor. When I visit my hometown I’m reminded that although it featured in an X-Files episode, it will never be an affluent place. The people there, as a whole, struggle financially. I didn’t know any rich people growing up (I had to become an Episcopalian for that to happen) and I don’t think anyone rich lived in our town. Education, however, was a different thing. We went to school together and we learned. Some of us, despite not attending the finer establishments, managed to move through the educational system and on to college, seminary, and graduate school. Ironically, some of us even came to teach Episcopalians in seminary. A poor boy instructing the rich. But quite apart from that, it’s impossible to read the Gospels and not notice the concern for the poor in the founder of Christianity.

Image source: Julius Ejdestam: De fattigas Sverige, Wikimedia Commons

Early Christians weren’t Episcopalians. They were actually Jewish. Although a few of them had means, this new religion appealed primarily to the poor. As one of the earlier believers in the movement is said to have said, the rich receive their reward here. More and more Christians are coming to believe that this world is the locus of receiving rewards. Heaven isn’t so much on the radar anymore. We’ve been to outer space and it’s not there. Rather than put ourselves at risk among the poor, it’s better to blend in with the establishment. We can still rail aloud that the church is important and shouldn’t be ignored. But paying customers only, please. The poor? They’re a dime a dozen. And when we come to think of people that way, religion has become domesticated.

Are There Not Workhouses?

dickensworkhouseAs colder days settle in I add layers and sit in our under-heated apartment and think about the lot of the poor. I don’t think billionaires really understand the plight of those who, no matter how hard they work, just can’t get ahead in a society that values class above individual welfare. I’ve noticed the increasing number of homeless on New York City streets. Many are clearly those who’ve lost jobs and can’t afford to pay the rent of even a modest apartment in the city, let alone Trump Towers. Having lost jobs myself after a lifetime of hard work, my sympathies are with the street dwellers. Ruth Richardson’s Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor reminded me that this is not just an American phenomenon. The book begins as kind of a detective story to locate the workhouse that Dickens features, if fictionalized, in Oliver Twist. Richardson makes a strong case that this workhouse has been found and that relics of Dickens’ under-acknowledged London residence just a few doors down from it influenced much of his first-hand knowledge of the life of the poor.

In the case of London, poor laws were put in effect to punish those who couldn’t fend for themselves. Inmates at poor houses were kept on a legally mandated starvation diet (literally) with inadequate medical care. Instead of censuring this injustice, the Church of England stood behind it. The perverted thinking was that if anyone knew how bad it was in such places they would try doubly hard not to be poor. The funny thing about living in poverty (I have some experience of this) is that it isn’t a choice. I didn’t particularly get along with my step-father. I can say, however, that he was one of the hardest working men I ever knew. Long hours spent at work, sometimes the whole night through, to support a family of six on just above minimum wage. This was his daily existence. I must’ve looked soft in his eyes.

Richardson’s book, although fascinating, is also distressing. The idea that a society thinks the most humane way to deal with those who are struggling is to punish them further, for me, defines evil. One of the characteristics of our species, according to biologists, is that humans often show extraordinary care for other creatures, often of other species. For our own, however, we feel that if you’ve “earned” something by exploiting others it is your “right” to keep it and let them suffer. This economic system is rotten to the core. We may have come a long way since Dickens’ time. We don’t have such exploitative workhouses in Manhattan. Instead, we have so many people sleeping in the streets that a walk to work has become very Dickensian indeed. Somehow I don’t see the situation improving in the next four years.

Excavating Religion

Jamestown, Virginia has the distinction of being the first British American colony to have survived. I’ve only been to Jamestown once, and that was about two or three years before the site was scheduled to celebrate its four-hundredth anniversary. William Shakespeare was still alive back in the home country. The King James Bible was not yet available. It was a gray day when we drove to the site and there were no other people around. Without a guide there was not much really to see—just a sense of being in touch with history by standing where the first English would eventually remake the land in their own image. Even the pilgrims tried to reach Virginia, but missed and landed in Massachusetts instead. Jamestown, however, lays a claim no other site can make.

A recent BBC article describes four graves lately found at the site. Located in the church, those buried were men of status. One of them was Reverend Robert Hunt, a clergyman of the Church of England and the first Anglican minister in North America. Interestingly, the BBC story points out, the Church of England was only half a century old at the time. Having spent many years among the Episcopalians at Nashotah House, I learned a great deal of the church’s history. The fact that the Episcopalians made it to America so shortly after their establishment is something I never heard emphasized. Concerned that the Catholic Church, under Spain, was collecting so much territory, the C of E wanted to stake a claim in the New World early on. Partially because of their persistence, we speak English even today. Church and empire were hand-in-glove in those days, and both the church in Spain and in England were state sponsored. Having God on your side can be pretty handy when you want to claim something that really doesn’t belong to you.

The reverend was buried west, facing the people he served, and, according to the article, this helped initially identify him as clergy. The church, in the service of the government, supported the conquest of new lands. The implicit belief that God was on the side of the strong has never really gone away. Mega-churches measure their spiritual assets in terms of fiscal influence. There are those today who believe that the Almighty wants the righteous to be rich, of course, at the cost of the wicked. Jamestown may have, at least partially, set the tone for a new nation that wanted to take more land than it needed. Land that others had occupied, and indeed, still lived upon. Only with the backing of a deity could such claims be made. The biggest god, after all, wins the day. Jamestown tells us more than we might suppose about what we’ve become as a nation. The early years are often the most formative of all.

Jamestown_Virginia_ruin

Honest to Good

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The oldest standing building in Oxford is the Saxon era church tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. Dating from around 1040, it still stands, providing shade to the various buskers who are hoping to earn a bit of cash from their musical talents below. Although there are some modern buildings that harsh the historical sense of the city, you get the impression that the British revere their tradition. A recent article in The Guardian notes that the United Kingdom, seat of the Anglican Church worldwide, is among the least religious countries in the world. Depending on one’s perspective, that is either very good or very bad news. Several analyses exist as to why it is so. The country has gone from an empire on which the sun never set to a strong, yet diminished country. The two World Wars took an enormous toll on the island nation. The population tends to be well educated. They adore their royals, although the monarchy is largely for show. There is a disconnect between the fiction and the fact of life in such a place.

Britain may be leading the direction toward which secular societies will inevitably follow. Still, the survey cited in the article indicates that two-thirds of the world population sees itself as very religious. Surprising and flummoxing atheist advocacy groups everywhere, the young tend to be more religious than the old. Religious belief shows no sign of dying out. It was predicted decades ago that it would be dead by now. We were supposed to have a moon base in 1999, of course, and I’m still waiting to see if we manage the Sea Lab in the next five years. History has a way of disappointing us. Perhaps the silent skies through it all make it difficult to think there’s any direction coming from above. Left to our own devices, what do we see?

The UK hardly qualifies as a hedonistic state. There are social problems, to be sure, but it maintains a fairly safe, cultured atmosphere throughout. Tradition can be fiction and can still be meaningful. We don’t see angry atheists trying to bulldoze an ancient, if phallic, church tower. We don’t see angry crowds taking sledge hammers to the British Museum. The people on public transit are unfailingly polite, and I’ve not been treated like an object as I commonly am on my daily commute to Manhattan. Religion, it seems, is not the motive for civilized behavior. Nor does religion appear to detract from it. Has the holy grail been discovered after all?

Sects for You

Oxford University Press has a religion blog. (Well, who doesn’t these days?) Apart from being jealous about their numbers, I find some of the posts fascinating. A recent entry by Linda Woodhead on the approval of women bishops in the Church of England was particularly well done. Woodhead is known for her in-depth knowledge of religiosity in Britain, and she begins her post with a distinction between two types of churches that I find most helpful. She mentions the “church type” that embraces society and tends to have less trouble keeping up with social changes, and the “sect type” that insists on keeping a long distance from the evils of society. She points out how the Church of England went from the former to the latter and how its numbers have subsequently declined. Her article made me realize that for much of my life I’ve found myself among the “sect type” believers. Fundamentalists, among whom I grew up, are naturally suspicious of the world. Grove City College, where I cut my critical teeth, was dead-set against change. And Nashotah House—need I utter more than its very name?

Sects are indeed concerned about being right. Not only being right, but being the only ones who are right. I recall a New Testament class in seminary at Boston University where an unnamed professor said, “If anyone can join, what’s the draw? Barriers are important.” Christianity, he claimed, grew strong by excluding others. This professor would have a difficult time being retained by many seminaries today. The “church type” church realizes that without embracing society it will embrace empty collection plates. Unless, of course, you court conservative political causes, for which there seem to be bottomless pockets of money available. Sects thrive on the feeling of superiority. Knowing that we got it right and everyone else got it wrong is cause for great rejoicing. Others are encouraged to join, just as long as they jettison their point of view. We are the Borg.

It is no wonder that religions struggle in a world with the Internet. Too much information, 24/7. Religions you’ve never heard of are suddenly right there at your fingertips, and the believers are sincere and convinced. Some are sects and some are churches. Some are open to any belief system while others have just what the (church) doctors prescribed. To me this raises a fundamental question of religion: what is its purpose? Is it to seek the truth, or is it to exclude others and make members feel special? Truth is an expensive commodity. Indeed, nobody has a universally accepted version of it yet. While some religious believers will not rest while the search continues, others made up their minds centuries ago. And those believers use sects to get what they want.

Photo credit: Peretz Partensky, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Peretz Partensky, Wikimedia Commons

Equal Measure

Far off in the woods of Wisconsin sits a seminary. In these woods, I’m told, wolves eat little girls. That seminary has for decades distinguished itself by its stance against women priests. I knew of, and respectfully disagreed with this policy when I was hired to teach there in 1992. I didn’t make waves, but rollers have a way of finding you nevertheless. It doesn’t take much to capsize an unstable boat. Within my first year a student challenged me, “Did your life change forever on July 29, 1974?” I was unfamiliar with the code and asked what happened on that date, vaguely thinking perhaps it had something to do with the run-up to the Bicentennial. On that date, it turns out, Barbara Harris was ordained among the first female priests (the Philadelphia Eleven) in the Episcopal Church in the United States. I suppose my life should’ve changed—for the better—but I was a Methodist at the time. Perhaps my life changed then, for I was 12, but that change had little to do with what the student intended. Or maybe everything. I wouldn’t have had a problem with a woman priest in any case. In 1989, Harris was elected bishop, the first woman to hold that title in the Anglican communion. Just three years later I found myself in the lion’s den.

When I asked male students what their problem was with women priests the answer invariably pointed to three factors: Jesus had no women disciples (wrong, according to a certain sacred book they claim to have revered), the Roman Catholic church did not ordain women, and the Church of England did not ordain women. The problem with backing and filling is that filling always overtakes backing. By 1994 the Church of England was ordaining women. Yesterday, at long last, the General Synod approved of female bishops. Welcome to the twentieth century. Now only Rome stands in the way. I am confident, despite the certitude in the eyes of my Nashotah interlocutor, that Rome will eventually come around. I may not live to see it, but justice will be served.

Photo credit: ChrisO, Wiki Commons

Photo credit: ChrisO, Wiki Commons

There is good evidence that most religions, prior to the monotheistic triad, had women priests. Something about the singularity of deity seems to have contraindicated a protective mother in the psyche of male clergy. Ironically, the same day that the C of E decided to do what was right, Oxford University Press’s blog ran a post on Mormon women bloggers. Among the newest monotheistic faiths, like the traditions before it, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has not recognized the sacerdotal role of women, leading some to be excommunicated for speaking out. We are told that God is a jealous god. This is, after all, the wilderness. After yesterday’s long-awaited decision the woods seem a little less dense, and the threat of the wolves may have been exaggerated all along. If religions would only see people as people all our lives might just change forever.

HRH vs C of E

An article from the Sunday Daily Mail, the UK newspaper, opens with the headline “Queen fights for gay rights.” I was pleased, as most even-minded individuals would be, that discrimination is being addressed by Her Royal Highness. Then the implications began to kick in. Having domiciled many years among the Episcopalians, I couldn’t help but smile knowing that the monarch is the head of the Church of England. Figurehead maybe, but on the books, the buck stops in Buckingham, not Lambeth. For decades I’ve seen the Anglican communion fracturing over what is a non-starter, theologically speaking. The only reason to protest homosexuality is the loss of potential life. For anyone who believes that sex is for procreation only, I would advise trying to counsel all the spermatozoa who just didn’t make it to the egg in time. Procreation is filled with an extravagant exuberance of over-production. Walk under any oak tree or stand among the wondrous helicopters of a maple tree in early summer and ponder what’s falling at your feet.

It seems to me that what’s lacking in the religious world is love. Loving, committed couples are ostracized for being just what God made them, while self-righteous critics wag their parsimonious fingers. And this is done in the name of God. I have friends of all gender orientations, and never have they given me cause for moral concern. In fact, I have trouble categorizing them together as a group; they are individuals to me, not pigeonholes. Some churches have trouble because prejudice has become dogma. Even the Roman Catholic Church allows for sex between couples when conception is virtually impossible, as when a woman is pregnant yet doesn’t yet know it. Just try not to enjoy it too much. The life potential ends the same way. Millions must lose for every winner. Consider the ethical implications of a deity who didn’t design a one-shot, sure-fire sperm for each act. Surely it would’ve been possible to engineer for an omnipotent divinity.

Instead many mainstream churches are assiduously drawing lines in the sand, claiming that one gender, one orientation, one race, only is welcome on the side of the 144,000. The rest can, quite literally, go to Hell. Is this what religion has become? Imagine what good might be done if all that energy were poured into addressing poverty, starvation, or inadequate water supplies. Imagine those who represent the winners in the reproductive race receiving care and attention rather than those who will, by a massive margin, stand no chance of survival whatsoever. We could make this a better world instead of prolonging the suffering of those who’ve done no wrong. Those holding the balls are trying to make up the rules of the game. The Queen of the Realm seems to be saying it’s time to start playing fair. Long live the Queen!

The first queen of the Church (of England)

The first queen of the Church (of England)