Monday, June 8, 2015

As Long as I Resist You, I Live: General Convention Preview, Part 1

Someone just signed off an email to me with, "See you in two weeks at General Convention." That can only mean on thing: Crusty's back, friends.

Yes, it's been a long, cold, lonely spring for you all out there in Crustyland.  COD was on deadline with church publishing to finish on a book on church history, from the New Testament to present, with particular emphasis on the history and development of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion -- and to do so in 24,000 words.  Total.  To any reader of this blog, you must know what kind of torture this was for me. Crusty sometimes spends 4,000 or 5,000 words on a blog post, and often takes 1,500 or 2,000 words just to get warmed up and work through a few Replacements allusions.  By the time COD has checked his stash in the trash by St Mark's Place...well, that's a whole chapter on the Middle Ages given those word limits.   But the manuscript has been delivered, so look sometime late summer or early fall -- seminarians, just in time for GOE cramming season! -- for The Episcopal Story: Birth and Rebirth, in the series Church's Teachings for a Changing World.  Crusty only hopes a preponderance of the book does not suck.  If the "doesn't suck more than it does", more-likely-than-not, preponderance of evidence standard is enough for the NFL to suspend the half-human, half-divine, godlike creature worshipped by all New Englanders, then it's a good enough standard to judge the success of the book.  While Arius may have been wrong about Jesus being some sort of quasi-divine figure below God but above the highest angel, he was just off on his timing, because that describes Touchdown Tommy exactly.

That's been a reason Crusty hasn't blogged much this spring, because he was on deadline.  But, to be perfectly honest, Crustyland, Crusty has found it hard to get his blogging juices back -- and he suspects it was not just due to the layoff.  COD has found it hard to get motivated to write about the upcoming General Convention, which one would think is right in his wheelhouse.  COD did, after all, get the entire reform train out of the station, blogging back in 2011 on structural reform when only people related to him by blood were reading this blog.  And anyone who's read my bordering-on-hysterical-did-they-drown-your-puppy responses to the TREC final report must think something has gone tragically wrong if Crusty can't get fired up for structural reform.

Perhaps it's not a good time to be listening to a lot of Brian Wilson, but COD has been, as he's been prepping for the release of Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic.  Crusty saw it this week, at an
Paul Dano absolutely nailed it as young Brian Wilson.  Spooky.
11 am matinee, along with a handful of mid-40s pasty-looking music nerds like himself (and one pair of women in their mid-1970s).  While a three-month layoff is nothing like Brian Wilson spending a few years in bed, Crusty began thinking, listening to Pet Sounds, that maybe we're in the same boat in some ways, as Brian once sang, "Can't find nothin' I can put my heart and soul into/I guess I just wasn't made for these times."

Crusty has pondered what this is about, and here's what he's come up with.  TREC, and much of our structure and restructuring discussions, have gotten something very, very, right.  Lots of folks, including TREC, diagnosed succinctly and clearly many of the challenges facing The Episcopal Church.  But while TREC got the diagnosis right, Crusty doesn't agree with their prescription or solution.  Some of their resolutions are borderline incomprehensible gibberish.  Sometimes they seem to show how little they have moved on from the structural problems they lament:  we can't legislate ourselves out of the decline Christianity in the West has entered.  As Lenin famously said "Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism," arguing that capitalism had forestalled its eventual collapse through imperialist and colonialist expansion.  Despite its efforts to diagnose structural problems, perhaps TREC is, ironically, the highest stage of structure.  What better way to address question of structure than to form a blue ribbon task force to make legislative proposals?  Rather than ushering in anything new, is TREC -- and so much of our whole discourse right now -- just part of the death paroxysms of denominationalism in a post-Christian, secularized West?

We're going through a profound upheaval in religion in North America: as profound an upheaval as the reformation in the 1500s, as profound an upheaval as when Christian was trying to make inroads among Gentiles in the 1st and 2nd centuries and had to figure out whether men needed to be circumcised before becoming Christians.  Crusty's written about it on this blog numerous times, and plenty of people have been writing about it for decades; we are in a context in a post-Christian, secular West in which the Christian message simply is incomprehensible and unintelligible to much of the society around us.  The most recent Pew Research report shows that "unaffiliated" is now larger than Roman Catholicism.  We, in turn, still stand amidst the trappings and wreckage of Christendom and denominationalism while trying to figure out how we make the Christian message have any resonance or meaning.  We cannot respond to this challenge by bickering every three years about what to do about the location of the Church Center. New ways of being church are not brought about by slow, measured deliberative legislative processes.  Processes of change are often result of crisis, sometimes happen quickly, and often we do not tweak but throw out different ways of being.  The Episcopal Church was formed in 1780s when in the 1770s it was still the legally established state church; the occasion for the change was war and revolution; and structures were created that were radically different (electing bishops; giving lay people equal say in governance at all levels).  The Reformation in England didn't reform religious orders, they abolished them, and dismantled in a few short years dismantled an entire system of religious observance and popular piety that had been in place for a couple hundred years.  And on and on.

So this is why Crusty has been reluctant to get into the General Convention preview game:  because he is increasingly unsure there's very little that can happen in 2015, or 2018, or 2021, at any General Convention, that will impact what Christianity will look like in 2115.  This isn't to say there isn't important work to do: The Episcopal Church is doing great ministry on a number of levels, including our churchwide level, which we need to continue to figure out how best to do.  COD has just gone from thinking we can try to put things in place to prepare us for what a post-denominational, post-Christendom church is going to look to thinking the best we can do is not do anything to make things worse, and to focus on trying to effect change and transformation in the places we can.  To put another way (and this is an example COD has used on this blog before).  Crusty once had a friend who was in the running for bishop, and asked him for advice.  COD replied, "Well, you have to ask yourself if you want to close 20% of the congregations in that diocese."  One of the reasons Crusty was passionate about structural reform was trying to get ahead on the ability to shape the tidal wave of change heading our way.  Decisions we make in the next 10-15 years may determine if we close 10% or 50% of our congregations.  COD now finds himself thinking, "Let's just let the 50% close, and focus on the signs of life, mission, and vitality in the other 50%." This is, in part, why he is part of the group Episcopal Resurrection (it's also why, in part, he has signed on to the Memorial but not to any of the resolutions).

Let's take a specific example of what COD is talking about looking ahead to GC78, and, in doing so, address a big issue coming towards Convention: the Task Force on the Study of Marriage.  It released a 122-page report, and did some very thorough work in the triennium; COD commends the report, which can be found here.  The Task Force presents two resolutions.  One is to propose a substantive revision to the canon on marriage, the intent of which is to do things like streamline the process, and organize it around, in their words, "the commitments actually made by the particular couple who come to be married, rather than on the causes or purposes of marriage in general."  The second is to continue to work of the Task Force in the next triennium.

After reading this, Crusty found himself wondering, "That's it?"  The essays in the Report, and substantive historical and liturgical scholarship, show that despite the histrionic and ahistoricalconcerns of some, understandings and definitions of marriage have changed numerous times over the centuries.  One could even argue that each era redefines marriage in its own way, befitting its context.  The marriage that we have is, in many ways, the result of efforts to sacralize the institution in the Middle Ages: centering the service in the church, only permitting the priest to officiate and pronounce any blessing, the church defining who may marry whom, declaring it to be a sacrament, and supplying a theology to a rite which previously didn't have one (marriage is indissoluble because it is theologically a symbol of the union between Christ and the church).  While components of the service have changed, many of the core aspects date to the medieval reshaping of marriage.

Crusty found himself wondering, "We no longer require Jews to wear special clothing, or think that people's time in Purgatory will be lessened by receiving the viaticum, or that women need to be ritually cleansed giving birth before entering the church -- so why are we still propping up a particular theology of marriage from a particular period instead of discerning what it means to bless relationships in our own context while being faithful to the Christian story and faith we have inherited?"

What COD would have done?

--End the practice of clergy being agents of the state and having any legal function.  This is a relic we should have done away with long ago.  Render unto Caesar what is Caesar and unto God what is God's, and we will never be able to have holistic theology of marriage if we continue to have this abominable practice from when the church had a role in defining marriage for the state. Is it really because we are shills to the wedding industrial complex and want our $500 honorarium?  Can someone explain to me why we should continue to do this?  [COD freely acknowledges this is pastorally complicated.  The one time Crusty suggested this to a couple, that they have a blessing of their civil marriage in the church -- after explaining in full orchestration and five part harmony and with no trace of snarkiness -- the bride said in a halting and crestfallen voice, "OK, if you really don't want to do our marriage, I guess we could do that."]  But if the church as a whole acted on this, it would help with pastoral implementation, and not look like some individual priest not wanting to "do" a marriage.  And it would be putting to rest a vestigial practice that has no place in a church which needs to let go of its establishment.  How can we boldly claim our place in post-Christendom while clinging to the talismans of our former privilege?

--This would free us to do what we should be doing: developing a blessing for committed, lifelong, monogamous relationships, that is grounded in Scripture and the Christian tradition, but is not another effort to beat the dead horse of the medieval church's redefinition of marriage.   COD does not believe marriage is a sacrament (there are only two: Baptism and the Eucharist), does not believe it is solely defined as symbol of the union of Christ and the church, and thinks we simply sacralized and provided a theology to marriage in a particular historical context.  We don't think unbaptized babies go to limbo and (largely) don't hold baptisms in private anymore.  We thoroughly rewrote our baptismal liturgy, both taking into account ancient liturgical and historical practice, but also reflecting renewed emphasis on the priesthood of all believers in our own context.  What would it mean to rethink and revitalize our understanding of marriage in the same way we have done with baptism?  What would it mean actually to develop our theology for blessing partnerships?

Instead of doing either, we propose keeping the basic structure of the marriage canon, including the legal aspects, and then will tie ourselves in knots on discussing and debating a rite for marriage for same sex persons in the next three years, and repeat all of this going in 2018.

She's got a point.
Reflecting on the Task Force on Marriage got Crusty thinking it was a metaphor for how he is viewing the upcoming General Convention as a whole: are we thinking about how to communicate the Christian message in a post-Christian world?  Or are we just going to spend more time about whether diocesan asking should be 21% or 19% or 17% or 15%, and, if we don't put any enforcement measures in it, whether it makes any difference?
Or, as somebody else once put it, Are we pouring new wine into old wineskins?   COD doesn't want to look like he's picking on the Task Force; they've done good work.  But it just struck Crusty like so many things coming before this Convention, that we have diagnosed our problem but are still slow-walking through the structures that we have created trying to find ways forward.

You may find yourself thinking Crusty has gone from being angry into being some kind of ecclesiastical Debbie Downer.  But that's not entirely the case: keep in mind COD has said time and again on this blog as well that Christianity is not going to die: the Romans couldn't wipe out Christianity, Stalin couldn't, Mao couldn't.  When Christian missionaries were let back into Japan in the latter half of the 1800s, they found underground communities hundreds of years old, which had kept Christianity alive after missionaries had first been expelled in 1610.  The church won't die and
First time I saw this I said, "Hey, that's the guy from Strange Brew!"
Christianity won't cease to exist because it is not of us, it is of God.  But what Christianity has done is change dramatically in its outwards expressions and organization.  The best way to defeat death, as Crusty learned from Ingmar Bergman, is to resist it.  There's a reason the theme of this blog from day one has been "Let the dead bury their down dead."

Coming up:  Crusty reviews his predictions from his General Convention preview from June of 2014.  If he can somehow fool Death with the Sicilian defense.


  1. FWIW, in North Carolina the only civil officials who can perform a marriage are magistrates, a specific type of office under NC law. Judges cannot perform marriages here, nor can clerks of court, etc. In the most populous counties of NC it's reasonably easy to arrange a civil marriage - but in the less populous counties, it can be a pain in the neck.

    If TEC unilaterally withdraws from performing marriages and no other churches do, we merely look silly and obstructionist in the eyes of the public, few of whom care about the theological principles involved. If all churches withdraw, there had better be significant dialog beforehand with the NC General Assembly (i.e. the state legislature) because I doubt the magistrate system as currently constituted could cope with the volume of marriage requests.

  2. Fibercut, I would expect there would be differing realities in different states with regard to who may legally conduct a wedding, just as there are with waiting periods/blood tests/other legal issues. Just like there are different laws about how clergy may solemnize (in one state I did a wedding you have to register in advance if you're out of state) On the other hand, what's universal is that everyone has to make the time/effort to get a marriage license. At worst this would require those people to make one more trip back to the legal entity to have the marriage (or not, if you live in a state with no waiting period; Crusty got married in Idaho and the person who gave us our marriage license said she could also do the wedding on the spot, which was very tempting).

  3. I so agree with you about marriage. It shouldn't be a sacrament for all the reasons you mention. The medieval church was largely about power and control. I think we easily confuse legality with ministry. The ministry of blessing a committed relationship is important; just as it is important to support that relationship within the community. But the law should decide who can marry whom, just as the law decides the mechanics of unmarrying (divorce) if/when the time comes.


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