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)

Gonad Make Disciples

The funny thing about authority is that when it counts those who have it are often afraid to use it. So yesterday the “mother church” (if that honorific still applies) of the Church of England voted not to allow women bishops. According to Reuters, the voting breaks down into three parties: the bishops, the clergy and the laity. The bishops and clergy both approved the motion while the laity fell short of approval by only four votes. My regular readers will know that I normally shy away from coarse language, but I wonder, along with the Joker, “what happened, did your balls drop off?” In a church built around hierarchy, where there is tremendous authority—according to official teaching, the very power to let one in or keep one out of Heaven itself—vested in the clergy, can they not say, “this is the right thing to do” and just do it? In a Protestant milieu where Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans have all overcome centuries of chauvinistic stain, why does the Church of England not do what the collected bishops and clergy have decreed correct? Are the laity now running the show?

I have had a long history with the Church of England. As laity I know that when the clergy want to throw their considerable weight around they are not afraid to do so. My entire career was thrown into turmoil because just such tonnage was shifted. And I had met the Archbishop of Canterbury (before he ascended to the throne) as he received an honorary degree from Nashotah House. When a layman could still shake his holy hand. It is time for the church to drop its magical infatuation with testicles and get on with the business of making the world a better place. Otherwise Heaven may include too many football games and deer hunts to really make all of us comfortable. The gender divide should be dropped and the church should be getting on to matters that really could use some compassion, both human and divine.

It seems that the staid laity of the C of E didn’t follow the fortunes of the radical right very closely in the recent elections this side of the big water. The day of exclusivism is over. It should have been long ago. Many have been the times when I was informed that doctrine is not a matter of democracy. Perhaps in an issue so basic, so fundamental as the equality of humankind, this should be one of those instances. The titular head of the Church of England is a woman. Has been for decades. Before Elizabeth the Second, for six decades of the nineteenth century Queen Victoria held that role. I think I speak for the majority of sensible laity when I say, in the spirit of the departed monarch, “We are not amused.”

She’s got the whole world in her hand.

Nouveau Riche

Among the vibrant areas of interest for scholars of religion is the emergence of new religions. Unlike the religions of antiquity, New Religious Movements provide a direct view, occasionally in “real time,” of what constitutes religious belief. The possibility of sitting Jesus, or even Paul, down for an interview remains vastly remote. The same is true of Ellen White or Joseph Smith, but here we have many historical records upon which to draw and a clearer context against which such religions might be read. Supposing the religious urge is something people of antiquity felt, we can get a sense of what might have satisfied that itch, at least in an oblique way, by looking at the modern period. As a student of religion I was mired in the ancient period. Learning obscure, dead languages, I supposed, would lead me back to the earliest forms of religious belief, therefore the most authentic. Like many of my colleagues, I came to discover that the origins quickly disappear into the distorted view our poorly ground telescope into the past reveals. As one writer recently suggested, if humanity evolved in Africa, so did religion.

This past week I read Jon Butler’s New World Faiths: Religion in Colonial America. Growing up I always felt that our own history was too young to be interesting. As I learned more about the horrid treatment of Native Americans, my sense of newness was accompanied by a sense of collective guilt. I like to think I wouldn’t displace a population in hopes of getting wealth, but as Butler demonstrates, the colonial experiment from the beginning was a profoundly religious one. We all know the pilgrims were dissenters from the established Church of England. Butler takes time to pause and consider the unwritten religions of those subjugated to European rule and sometimes extermination. How many of the first to brave the Atlantic crossing did so with missionary zeal, convinced of the superiority of a Christian culture. Not incidentally, they noticed great wealth could be had in this new land. Slaves would be needed to extract it and the Bible seems a slave-friendly document.

Butler’s little book is a good guide to the larger issues. The religion of African slaves grew into something to be feared. Colonial religion split along hairline fractures of doctrine, leading to the fascinating multiplicity of religions we now have in this country. Then, in his discussion of the early Presbyterians of Philadelphia, I ran across a sentence with immense explanatory value: “At the same time, congregations found that they could exercise their own power over clergyman through controlling their ministers’ salaries.” Conviction quickly falls by the wayside with a God whose arm is too short to save. The paycheck is something you can take to the bank. Religions develop into something different once gold enters the equation. I have watched the birth of empires with megachurches and televangelists in my own lifetime. I know that we are witnessing the birth of yet another human scheme to acquire eternity in the form of liquid assets.

Abbey Rood

On the long flight home from London, experiences during my brief free time play back in my head in a continuous loop. One monument to civilization I wanted my daughter to experience was Westminster Abbey. I would liked to have taken her to St. Paul’s as well, but churches are just too expensive to visit. I’ve written before about our drive to visit places of significance, the urge toward pilgrimage that is as old as humanity itself. (Perhaps even earlier.) Because of the reach of the British Empire, events that have taken place in Westminster have affected people all over the world. The cream of the British crop is buried there. To see them, however, you need to pay an unhealthy sum of money. “Money changers in the temple,” as my wife aptly observed. And once inside photography is prohibited. How easy simply to become a slab of marble hazily remembered in the mind of an overstimulated tourist. There is no way to absorb it all.

The church has fallen on hard times in much of Europe. Speaking to several Brits the real interest seems to be in Islam, a religion clearly on the rise in the United Kingdom. During a brief respite from work, during which I ducked into the British Museum, the queues were out the door for an exhibit on the hajj. Tickets for the exhibit were sold out. Meanwhile, across town, the Church of England charges a visitor 16 pounds even to enter the great minster with roots in the eleventh century. Christianity and capitalism have become inextricably intertwined. A building as massive as Westminster, let alone St. Paul’s, must be costly indeed to maintain. These have become, however, icons to culture rather than religion. Their value in that regard cannot be questioned.

Standing beside Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and T. S. Eliot, it is noteworthy how few clerics buried in the Abbey maintain such a draw. Kings, queens, knaves and aces of many suits may abound, but apart from the eponymous Archbishop of Canterbury, few men and women of the cloth stand to gain our attention. The nave soars high overhead and the crowds of sightseers jostle one another to get a view of the sarcophagus that now houses the dusty bones of those whose names endlessly referenced from our childhoods vie for admiration. The sign says “no photography,” and the docents throughout the building cast a suspicious eye on anyone holding a camera. How jealous Christendom has become in a land of secular advance. I stand next to Sir Isaac Newton and contemplate how the seeds of destruction are often planted within the very soil that surrounds the foundations of mighty edifices of yore.

P. T. Mammon

Phineas Taylor Barnum is frequently treated as a figure of cynicism personified. As the founder of what would eventually become the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, P. T. was a noted hoaxer and scam artist. He capitalized on the fact that people will pay to see anything they are gullible enough to believe. Unfortunately, many human beings were exploited for their unusual characteristics, but he was also known as a philanthropist with an eye for reform. Most people don’t realize that Barnum’s early career involved being a salesman for the Sears’ Pictorial Illustrations of the Bible. From Bible salesman to huckster extraordinaire. The great American success story.

In what I see as a related article on Religion Dispatches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, has taken legal action to move Occupy London protestors from its property. As religions go, it is difficult to conceive of a more established, conformist church than the C of E. (Well, maybe the Roman Catholic Church could vie.) St. Paul’s Cathedral actually charges an admission fee (not a cheap one either), perhaps cashing in on Mary Poppins; Feed the Bishops, I believe it’s called. The reason that the Cathedral is seeking to remove the undesirables (the cathedral is next door to the London Stock Exchange) is that they interference in business. Hard to charge admission to people who can’t come in. It’s not so much to save souls as it is to horde pounds. Problem is, the message of ancient Christianity more closely matches that of the Occupy movement than it does the Church of England. Barnum knew the selling power of religion. So do bishops and countless priests. How long do you suppose the clergy would remain if Christianity went back to the “tent making” model of the first century? I suspect there would be quite a few more prelates at Occupy London.

Somehow money and religion have become all tangled together. Not that I would begrudge any clergy of a fair salary—I’ve been on the receiving end of not receiving adequate pay myself, and I wish it on no one. When money, however, is the sine qua non of the religious establishment, where has compassion gone? One would like to think that clergy would be among the first to stand in solidarity with those protesting unfair business practices. But ah, the church is very establishment-oriented. Not just the C of E, either. Most churches have fallen into the comfortable zone of supporting the system and teaching their adherents that this is all in the divine plan. A kind of cosmic quid pro quo. According to the Gospel writers Jesus chased the money-changers out of the temple. Phineas Taylor knew that giving people what they wanted often trumped the honest truth. “The noblest art is that of making others happy,” he once stated. Somewhere along the line, the admission price shifted from the circus to the cathedral. There is one born every minute, indeed.

Sunday Morning Football

There is a Baptist Church in East Orange, New Jersey that celebrates Football Sunday to draw the menfolk in. Complete with a tailgate party after the service, this event may boost numbers, but the winner of this divine gridiron has not yet been determined. Not being a fan of football (or any other sport — oh, the heresy!) this particular tactic would not appeal to me, but knowing that when guys get together the topic of sports always seems to come up, well, it just makes sense.

According to the canonical Gospels, Jesus never played football. (The Gospel of Judas, however, does mention a quarterback-sneak, I believe.) The few times I’ve watched games on television (generally under duress) I see a bunch of men trying their physical best to beat some other guys up. Rampaging after a pig-skin (definitely not kosher), they attempt to score and prevent the other team from doing so. This is my amateur analysis of what I am told is a very complex game.

Rewind. Stop. Replay. The Baptist Church. Founded to protest against the vicissitudes of the Church of England, the Puritan-inclined Baptists wished to establish a church free from the constraints of the formalism inherent in the staid worship of either Roman or Anglo-Catholic England. Breaking from tradition was an honored principle here. Like our football heroes, they joined a team against the competition for that Super Bowl in the sky. Will the men stick around for the post-season slump? Maybe not, but as Notre Dame has always known, the divine man is a big fan of the Catholic team.

Notre Dame's famous Touchdown Jesus