Saturday, September 29, 2012

Try the Sorting Hat? Choosing the New Archbishop

Hermione for Archbishop!  Oh wait she's a girl.
This week the Crown Nominations Committee met to consider whom to present to the Prime Minister and Monarch for appointment as the next Archbishop of Canterbury.  Here, before beginning to break any of this down, Crusty Old Dean feels the need to do two things:

1)  explain how the Committee actually works.  Each diocese  in the Church of England has a "vacancy in see committee," which includes any other bishops in the diocese (suffragan), the dean of the Cathedral, the representatives to General Synod (kind of like having the General Convention deputation be on it), a couple of archdeacons (which are more like heads of deaneries, in some US dioceses archdeacons coordinate the community of deacons), and representatives from the diocesan House of Clergy and Laity (kind of like having reps from diocesan Convention).  When it's time to choose a new bishop, it is this group that more or less draws up a job description, which it sends to the Crown Nominations Committee (hereafter CNC).

The CNC itself consists (with slight variations depending on whether a bishop or Archbishop is being nominated) of a chair (who must be lay person), six members of the local vacancy in see committee, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York,  three lay and three clerical members of the General Synod, as well as someone from the Prime Minister's office, as well as advisory nonvoting members (in this case the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion and the appointments secretaries of the PM and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who provide advice and assistance).  For the first time ever, the CNC in this case includes someone from outside the Church of England, though not very far outside:  Archbishop Barry Morgan of the Church in Wales (elected by the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, which includes representation from the Anglican Consultative Council and Primates) .  Thus, in Episcopal Church terms, the diocesan convention, house of deputies, and house of bishops, and all orders of ministry, are represented on the CNC.  The CNC has followed this pattern for a successor to Archbishop Williams, with one wrinkle -- Archbishop Sentamu of York resigned from the Commission (and the House of Bishops chose a successor), in essence indicating he was running for the office because the CNC cannot consider one of its members for an appointment.  In order to be nominated, a candidate must receive 2/3rds of the votes (or 11 out of 16).  Once a first choice has been made, a second choice will be made, also by a 2/3rds vote.  The CNC supplies two names to the Prime Minister.  In the olden days, the Prime Minister could choose either of the names to forward to the monarch or send them back to the CNC and request different ones -- and something like this happened under Margaret Thatcher.  However the process was reformed slightly under PM Gordon Brown and now the Prime Minister sends the first name to the monarch, the only way the second person can get appointed is if for some reason the nomination of the first name on the list cannot proceed (say, the person suddenly is revealed to be a woman).  The monarch confirms the appointment, and then, in Crusty Old Dean's favorite part, the Canons of Canterbury Cathedral (who remember, have the right to elect their bishop) are instructed whom to elect, which they dutifully file in and so do.  Yet even this action must in turn be confirmed by other diocesan bishops.

OK, that's one thing COD needed to get say at the outset.  There's one other thing COD needs to do:

2)  provide a translation from English to American of an important word: appointment.  Now, in American English, this usually has the connotation of someone selecting a person for something.  COD would rarely imagine it is used in a collective or elective sense.  You would say, "The President appointed a new Secretary of State," or "The principal of the school appointed a new crossing guard," or "the seminary dean appointed a new chair of the committee."

In English English, the connotation is very different:  appointment, especially in the ecclesial sphere, means the process by which someone enters into a position.  This can be by a person appointing someone, as in its American sense, or it can be by election by a committee, or by a number of different processes.  It can also be a multi-stage process, with different levels having different yet still substantial roles in the appointment.

That word "appointment" does not mean what I think you think it means.
You can see this in the news coverage and documents produced in in 2003 and 2004 surrounding Gene Robinson's election as Bishop of New Hampshire.  The Windsor Report, the document produced in 2004 and which addressed the question, referred to the "appointment" of Bishop Robinson, whereas Americans almost entirely referred to the "election" of Gene Robinson.  Often those who noted the word "appointment" in the Windsor Report and other documentation would howl that such persons did not understand the polity of the Episcopal Church: it was inconceivable! that they could understand the Episcopal Church's process.  While that may be the case in other matters, probably not in this case -- in its English sense, and especially an ecclesial sense, the word in the Windsor Report was perfectly appropriate; in that understanding, one can be appointed by a process of election.

On the whole question of choosing bishops, a brief background on the medieval church is important here.  While we may often myopically think that the Pope has appointed bishops in the church since just after the Last Supper, the reality is the manner by which persons became bishops is a complex and often convoluted process in the Middle Ages.

COD often begins a course in medieval history with the so-called "Investiture Controversy", a struggle over who had the right and authority to invest bishops with the signs of their office in the early medieval period.  As part of this discussion, first-year seminarians are often horrified if not contemptuous that lords and kings appointed most bishops in their domains, and see the investiture controversy as some kind of proto-church state separation debate.  COD always asks the question:  what's wrong with the Lord appointing a bishop in the year 1027?  Students usually look at COD like he had just farted in class when he asks this question -- Good God, what could possibly be good about a nobleman appointing a bishop?  Look at it from the Lord's point of view: often the Lord knew who the best qualified person would be, not some bishop somewhere else or some pope.  Given the fact clergy were often the only literate people and the church the only body that kept any kind of records, high ranking clergy often had to serve important roles in managing local affairs, and so it was important they would be someone the local lord knew.  Further, how could you ask a society which had no understanding of representative decision making, no institutional capacity, to elect a bishop?  It was as good a system as any at the time.

The processes got more complicated in the later medieval period.  Without going into terrific detail, by the late medieval period, most offices in the church, from bishop to chaplain of the weaver's guild, had a right of appointment.  Somebody or someone or some group was responsible for choosing someone to fill that office.  It could be the entity that created the office:  the weaver's guild would choose its own chaplain.  It could be the local Lord; while foreign to us moderns, to them it would have been ridiculous that the Lord who paid for, built, and kept up the chapel in the village adjoining his castle should not have the right to appoint the priest.  Some cathedral chapters had the right to elect their bishop.  Where it gets complicated is that these rights of appointment could be bought or sold -- let's say Lord Swithin finds himself down on his luck, he could sell the right of appointment to the church that his grandfather built for some quick cash -- maybe even the church could raise the money, buy the right of appointment themselves, and thus be able to choose their own priest.  Likewise, as nation states formed, monarchs would often negotiate treaties governing rights of appointment of bishops.  The king and queen of Spain, for instance, gained control over the Church there, including appointing bishops and church officials, that was in many ways akin to Henry VIII's in England, and didn't split with Rome to get it.

This is complicated during the English Reformation when the monarch is first proclaimed Supreme Head, later Supreme Governor, of the Church of England.

Which brings us to the current situation: this week the Crown Nominations Committee met to consider nominees for the next Archbishop of Canterbury.  COD will not go into the shortlisting debates or try to handicap the field, because he doesn't need to.  Just like he picked 109 "yes" votes for approval of same sex blessings in the House of Bishops (111 was the actual) and just like he called Gay Jennings for President of the House of Deputies seconds after Bonnie Anderson announced her retirement, COD doesn't need to handicap the field because it will either be Justin Welby or Christopher Cocksworth, unless it's someone else (all predictions guaranteed or your money back!).  And COD will not get too worked up over no name coming out of this meeting -- by all means let them take their time.  Instead, COD wants to comment on something else.  He finds it rather odd that many Americans seem to view the processes other provinces of the Communion use to choose their bishops with disdain or contempt -- that somehow we are the only democratic entity in the entirety of the Communion, and that anti-democratic and hierarchical systems choose bishops elsewhere.  This is nonsense, and nonsense for several reasons.

1)  Many provinces do have representative bodies elect bishops that include lay persons and representatives from the diocese in question.  It's not that the Episcopal Church is the only entity that has representation of all orders of ministry, nor that it is the only province that elects bishops.

2)  The Crown Nominations Committee is fairly representative:  it contains members from the diocese which has a vacancy, episcopal members, and members chosen from the General Synod of the Church of England --  in a sense, it is a representative microcosm, combining the local and national in a kind of selection and confirmation process all in one.  It's not our system, no, but it's also not one person somewhere choosing a bishop.  Who are we to somehow deem our definition of representative is the only one that's valid?

3)  It's also nonsense because what makes our system so great that we should sneer at that of others?  The national canons, after all, provide no directions for how dioceses should choose a bishop, since the 1789 Constitution which established the Episcopal Church this has been solely up to the dioceses.  Dioceses could draw lots.  Throw darts at a dartboard.  We could use the Sorting Hat.  Our process developed over time, was not handed down from on high, and, frankly, probably does not do a better job than drawing lots in determining who should be a bishop.  Our process can takes years.  It relies on people self-consciously to "run" for bishop while at the same time acting like they're not because we want some ambition but not too much.  It involves a lot of people in at fairly compressed time frame (when the candidates actually meet their electors) to have to make a choice on individuals they may barely know. Is there any wonder some dioceses have been in dysfunctional or codependent messes with their bishop?  Do we ever ask why our system does such a terrible job electing women and people of color?  There are people who become bishops in other provinces, through their systems of appointment, who quite likely would never make it through our system of election -- do you think an American version of N.T. Wright would ever run or get elected anywhere?

So blessings on the CNC as it continues its important work; it's not the system COD would have devised, but it's got it's plusses and minuses like any system.   COD will later opine on the absurdity of choosing somebody for a global communion who must be a subject of the monarch of one of the 44 members churches, but that's another post for another time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Jesus and the Mary Chain: On Jesus' "Wife"

Both how COD is living and his nose is large.
This used to just be the name of a band, and one which Crusty Old Dean listened to back in the day when he thought he was on the edge (it once used to be about the music, even for COD) -- but given the cloudburst of media stories in the past few days, the whole relationship between Jesus and Mary seems to have been thrust back into the spotlight.  Karen King, a solid and renowned scholar of early Christianity, announced her translation of an ancient Coptic text in which Jesus utters the words "my wife"; these words, in conjunction with the fact the fragment also mentions Mary, has put the pop religion sphere into a tizzy, with headlines all over the place on "Was Jesus Married?"

Before he was a Crusty Old Dean, when he was Hungry Poorly Dressed Graduate Student (the night he met the future CODW, Crusty Old Dean's Wife, he was wearing a plaid shirt, striped shorts, and white socks with sandals, a testament to CODW to see inner beauty), he toiled away getting a PhD in the History and Theology of the Early Church.  COD viewed anything written past 451 pretty much not to be worth reading, everything had been done by then and Christianity has more or less repeated a dozen or so theological issues endlessly since then, with only the context changing.  In particular, COD focused on the interaction between "heresy" and "orthodoxy" in early Christianity, and knows the difference between a homoian and a homoiousian and a homoousian, between Arians and Neo-Arians,  between Sabellianism and Modalism and Samosatism, and precisely what is meant by Commisariat (look it up:  COD's dark secret is he likes light opera).  Many if not most Christian expressions like to believe they best represent the Christianity taught by Jesus and exemplified in the formative and authoritative early centuries, from Roman Catholics (Jesus appointed Peter as his successor!) to Baptists (Jesus argued for believers baptism!) and so on and so on.  The reality, as anyone who sits down and actually reads the Bible or studies the first 300 years of Christianity, is that the movement was complex, diffuse, and extraordinarily diverse, and marked by localism and regionalism.  The reality is also how precious little we can actually know:  what we know is defined by whatever sources we have, and many of these sources are fragmentary.  One of COD's professors once refused to refer to the "Dead Sea Scrolls" and instead regularly referred to them as "Dead Sea Scraps" since a good portion of them are bits and fragments.

So COD knows a thing or two about early Christianity.  His response to Dr King's announcement was, more or less, "Meh."  COD gives it a "meh" for a couple of reasons.

1.  In situ.  There's a fancy archaeological expression called "in situ" which means "in place" or "in position" and which describes where any given item has been found.  This is enormously important.  Finding an inscription that says "Jesus' mother wears army boots" would mean a lot more if found in an excavation dating to 1st century Jerusalem rather than an excavation of, say, 10th century Spain.  This is why the Dead Sea Scraps were so important:  we know where they were found, meaning we can know they are more or less from a certain community in a certain time.

We know nothing about this fragment, where it came from, where it was found.  COD is extremely suspicious when mystery patrons suddenly produce spectacular finds but we know nothing about who they are or where the object came from.  The same folderol surrounded the supposed box which contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus -- it appeared out of nowhere and was a mini-sensation in 2002, and later its owner was convicted of forging the inscription.  COD is not accusing anyone of forgery, only making two points:

--Without the in situ knowledge of this piece, we are extremely limited in what we can say about it.
--Mysterious origins do not have a good track record in archaeology, and can be linked with forgery and theft.

2.  Then there's fragmentary nature of the text itself. 
 Here is the actual translation, from the Harvard Divinity School website, with "..." indicating the gaps both between the words and where other parts of the text have been ripped away over the centuries, since this is just a small piece of a larger document:  
         Not [to] me. My mother gave to me life...The disciples said to Jesus...deny...Mary is worthy of      it.    Jesus said to them, “My wife....she will be able to be my disciple...Let wicked people swell up...As for me, I dwell with her in order to...

Given the fragmentary nature, this lends itself towards projection of meaning.  Jesus could very well say something along the lines of, "Since my wife is not Mary she will be able to be my disciple", drawing an explicit contrast to the fact Mary is worthy of something precisely because she is not related to Jesus (the guy loved to set up rhetorical contrasts and contradictions and use hyperbole to make a point).  The actual meaning could be the exact opposite, or completely different, from what we could conjecture from this scrap.

3.  Perhaps more importantly, Who cares if he does say Mary is his wife?  Friends, Christians said some crazy s**t in the early church.  We have copies and fragments of numerous Christian communities who wrote all sorts of stuff.  One text likens the creation of this broken, fallen world as not being the product of a good and loving God but a miscarriage by an inept, secondary divine being.  Another has the empty Cross talk to the disciples.  Another has an infant Jesus strike one of his playmates dead, and then curse the child's parents with blindness when they complain to Jesus' parents.  And not just Christians!  In an anti-Christian Jewish text, Judas is a hero who debunks Jesus as a quack and charlatan, and both fly into the air and engage in aerial combat, and Judas defeats Jesus by either urinating or ejaculating on him (I am not making this up).  

If, in the rest of this fragment we can't see, Jesus busts out a verse from The Humpty Dance and says, "I once got busy in a Burger King Bath room" -- so what?  It means nothing other than a fragment of a Coptic text in the fourth century by a group we know nothing about put words in Jesus' mouth centuries after he actually lived and had Jesus say something like this.  It would only tell us what a certain community at a certain time said.

4.  In the end, like most popular forays into the early church, the interest and reaction to this will be a cipher that tells us more about ourselves and our contemporary society, and what we project back into the past, than anything else.  This is a business-card sized scrap of a document, with significant gaps, and we have no knowledge of the context of its finding -- essentially rendering the context or meaning almost intelligible.  The sheer amount of energy expended on it in popular media will be more a reflection of our religious culture wars (egg headed academic attacking the faith!  a war on Christianity!) or distrust of institutional authority (see! they are hiding something!) or a Dan Brown hangover.