Born Once More

Every once in a while a reader, either here or on other social media, asks me what my religious beliefs are.  The expected answer to such a question is the standard label of a denomination of some sort.  My response, however, is that knowing the group I belong to (and I do) should not effect the way my thoughts are viewed.  With the exception of some groups suspected of mind control, standard religions are generally trusted as being motivated by pure intentions.  Having both attended and taught in seminary settings, and knowing a great number of clergy, however, it becomes clear that denomination is less important than one might think.  In short, I answer this question in the public forum of neither classroom nor blog as I truly believe there’s nothing to be gained by readers/students knowing where I personally seek meaning, denominationally.

It’s no secret that it was once the Episcopal Church.  (I could not have taught at Nashotah House otherwise.)  It was made pretty clear after being at said seminary for many years that the Episcopalians had no official place for me.  Even when I worked a few blocks from the church’s headquarters in New York City I could find no one willing to listen or consider my credentials.  Its Church Publishing branch wouldn’t consider me in their book wing.  Were it not for some former students who still minister to me, it was clear they did not miss me.  So it was with some surprise that I found myself in Nativity Cathedral in Bethlehem on Saturday for their Celtic Mass.  The Cathedral itself is lovely with a négligée of wrought iron tracery for a reredos, appropriate for a city built by steel.  Eight angels with outspread wings stood atop it.  Like most sanctuaries, it was a place of refuge from the busy, noisy street outside.

The reading from Amos 7 stood out to me.  Lectionaries, by definition, take pericopes (selections) out of context.  Amos’ vision of the plumb line is actually part of a series of visions, but here stands alone with the episode of Amaziah trying to send Amos back to Judah.  The prophet responds by saying he’s not a prophet, but just a guy who’s received a message from God.  In ancient times there were prophets paid for their services.  They supported the government positions and governments made sure they were cared for.  The situation hasn’t much changed, at least among conservative religious groups under a Republican administration.  There were other parallels here, but saying too much on them might end up giving too much away.

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.

Colleagues

The death of a colleague is a shocking grief. Although my teaching career was cut short at Nashotah House, the faculty there was always small, and often close-knit in a way that an insular school promotes. I had been teaching there for about eight years when Daniel Westberg was hired to teach ethics and moral theology. Dan was kind, gentle, and non-political. At first he was part-time, but eventually he became a regular member of the faculty at some personal expense. We came to know him and appreciate his wisdom and patience. Dan was a priest and had earned his doctorate at Oxford University. Just over a decade my elder (the faculty from which I left was generally at his age; I was the youngster), Dan kept in good physical shape, as befits a truly spiritual person.

Nashotah House takes its name from the lake by which it was built. Colleagues sometimes joked about the fact that the seminary was wooded, lake-front property and implied that recreation time belied research time. It was, however, a place of intense study for the faculty. It did also offer the opportunity to experience nature. Dan drowned in a boating accident on Upper Nashotah Lake this past week. The image of that lake is etched forever in my mind. The night before I learned of my colleague’s death I was reflecting how I stood on the shore of that very lake late one night to photograph comet Hale-Bopp burning in the western sky. I had been reading about comets and that night by the lake stands out in my mind as a numinous moment. The lake, it seemed, had always been there.

After I left Nashotah House I let my colleagues fall into the safe mental compartments of memories. A few of my students kept in touch, but in general I heard from my colleagues only very rarely. Some may assume I spend more time on Facebook than I do. There are painful memories associated with the seminary. Now one more painful memory is added to the rest. I ate with Dan and his wife. Talked with him. Attended chapel with him. We had that distance that always separates clergy from laity, but I considered him a man that could be trusted. A priest with integrity. We went through quite a lot together in that small community on the lake. The death of a colleague comes with a guilt for not having kept in touch. A sadness for an opportunity missed. A life of kindness extinguished is a shocking grief.

Signed, Sealed, Forgotten

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I’m a little ashamed to admit it. With such a long list of moody horror movies out there, I gave in to watching The Seventh Sign again. 1988 was a momentous year. I had graduated from Boston University School of Theology the year before and had been functionally unemployed, as befits a future adjunct professor. I had joined the Episcopal Church, cutting off my chances of ordination in my previous United Methodist sect. I’d been accepted into doctoral programs at Oxford, St Andrews, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh but couldn’t afford any of them. I proposed to my future wife and by the end of the year had married her. In the midst of it all a friend convinced me to go see The Seventh Sign, then in theaters. A typical end of the world movie, The Seventh Sign was a “see once” movie to me, but I guess I’m weaker than I thought.

The movie got me to thinking about the end of the world. Not literally, but rather how we came to have such a strange idea. As creatures conscious of our own deaths, I suppose it’s natural that we think everything comes to an end. The mythical scenario of “the end of days,” however, is cobbled together from various pieces of the Bible, like some distorted, religious picture puzzle. The Book of Revelation doesn’t give a coherent story of the future. In seminary I learned that it was because Revelation is actually about what was happening in the Roman Empire in the first century, not about what would happen in the days when I happened to find myself conscious and eating Kraft macaroni and cheese, mixed with water instead of milk and working for Ritz Camera. I was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment. That was my own kind of personal apocalypse, I guess.

The Seventh Sign is unusual in that a Jewish boy, Avi, and a lapsed Christian woman, Abby (who rents a room to the new incarnation of Jesus who lives, apparently, quite a lot like I did at the time) have to figure this out together. Tying in several other mythological motifs, the number of seals broken is, if I count correctly, only five. The world is saved by self-sacrifice, as is generally expected, and everyone ends up feeling let down. It is a downer of a movie, and not very scary for a horror film. What struck me was how many scenes I remembered so precisely. So I guess it did manage to impress me on some level, back in 1988. I selected Edinburgh University and now once again, find myself outside the institution I covet. I’m still waiting to see what happens with those two last seals.

Episcopal Pity

Call me naive. Really, I won’t mind. I’ll readily admit that I was raised in a conservative household that held a fundamentalist view of Christianity. But even though I grew and matured and eventually joined the Episcopal Church, I have always held consistency as one of the basic building blocks of any religious outlook. What’s fair for you ought to be fair for me. When I read that the Episcopal Church has been suspended, like the bad boy of the Anglican Communion, my mind went back to the consistency issue. The Anglican Communion, like many Christian bodies, is marked by strong membership from “conservative” constituencies. This was clearly felt while I was on the faculty of Nashotah House. As a conservative institution, we received many visits from diocesan leaders from more “traditional” cultures. They always expressed concern with America’s sinful, “liberal” culture. We should be more biblical, they opined. They didn’t, however, mind us paying the bill.

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The Episcopal Church is being kept after school because of its approval of homosexual marriage. This is a social justice issue that has the backing of many major Christian denominations. Cultures in the developing world, however, see it as sinful and claim marriage is one man, one woman. Well, most of the time. I’m no anthropologist, but I do pay attention to what people say. While at Nashotah House we had a student from Kenya. He was already a priest, but he was there to get some basic training. Naturally enough, his biblical understanding was quite literal. Once I asked him about his life back home. He had a wife, it turns out, and kids. They couldn’t be with him in Wisconsin, so I asked how they lived when he wasn’t there to support them. He told me his brother took her as wife while he was away. His brother was already married, but in his culture it was traditionally for brothers to act as husbands in the absence of the latter. He gave me to believe that “husband” was used in every conceivable sense of the word. He was, of course, against same-sex marriage.

Levirate marriage (a brother “taking over” a wife) is arguably biblical. The problem is that the Bible states the first brother must be dead for levirate marriage to take effect. My point is not to condemn the “traditional” marriage arrangements of the visiting priest’s culture, but to try to get some consistency here. There are a wide variety of “marriage” practices recognized in traditional cultures. They have two things in common: women are subservient to men and their needs, and males mate with females. Beyond that, variety, as the traditional saying goes, is the spice of life. There used to be another traditional saying about the inappropriateness of peering into other people’s bedrooms. So the naughty Episcopal Church has been sent to a corner with a dunce mitre on its head. Meanwhile the other boys, typical of those in middle school, sit around and talk about the girls they’d like to have. It’s tradition we uphold, after all.

Secular Seminary

The Nones have it. A recent article by Alana Massey from the Washington Post puts it well. We are cultural Christians living in a secular world. My mind often goes back to the fate of those trained by a system that proves itself to be false. We are seduced by religion at a young age, and we readily accept what our culture and our clergy tell us is true. Some, like yours truly, can’t rest without knowing the truth. We press on to seminary, then to graduate school, only to find that the answer is more questions. No church will hire you. No college will either. You’ve invested your youth in finding the truth and you’ve come up empty. There’s a comfort in the old liturgies, but they ring hollow nonetheless. I know many clergy feel this way but can’t admit it. What you sign on the line declares that you “believe” and if you’re honest you could lose a livelihood into which you’ve invested everything.

So I’m thinking, why not found a secular seminary? There are atheist churches beginning to appear. Those who would lead congregations of the unfaithful must have some training, mustn’t they? A secular seminary curriculum wouldn’t need to differ much from that of the standard churches. The secular should understand the Bible. You need not believe, but you’re naive if you don’t understand it. They should also know the history, the non-theology, and the way to lead a service. Pastoral care could be taught, even as it is for those who attend seminary. You need not be a believer to care for other people. In a secular society that requires some spiritual nurture, this is the obvious solution.

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There must be plenty of wealthy people out there willing to buy their way into peace of mind. If there’s no Heaven to own, perhaps purchasing tranquility here on earth would suffice. The numbers of those attending church is falling. The number of those desperately unhappy is rising. We have trouble believing the myths any more and science leaves us feeling cold. Maybe it is time to take seriously the concept of secular seminaries. There are seminaries for all denominations except the most conservative. Perhaps it is time for the most liberal to pony up as well. The Episcopalians have always said they wanted an educated clergy. When clergy are educated the crisis only deepens. It seems to me that this may be the cusp of a worthy idea. If so, perhaps there is hope for a sacred secular society yet.

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.

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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.