Well, at least we’ve found one thing Democratic and Republican leaders can agree on: anti-Semitism is no big deal. I’m sure Steve Bannon and Keith Ellison can commiserate with each other over a power lunch.

a brief response to Andrew Wilson

I’m not altogether sure why Andrew Wilson includes me in this post — he says, “I’ve deliberately avoided talking about … the question of whether those who affirm such relationships should be called false teachers,” but that was the only question I addressed in my earlier post. Andrew’s post denounces antinomianism, but I’m not an antinomian and I doubt that Steve Holmes is either. (I mean, didn’t the Apostle Paul settle that?) But I’ll let Steve respond to that if he’s so inclined.

Andrew’s post avoids the vexed question I raised, which concerns how to deal with serious disagreement within Christ’s church about sexual ethics. He therefore leaves all the really tough questions not only unresolved but unaddressed. Here are some of them:

  • How do we distinguish between error in interpreting Scripture, which we are all guilty of, and “false teaching”?
  • How do we distinguish between error in interpreting Scripture and sin? (Presumably not all errors are the product of sin, though some are.)
  • How do we distinguish between the accountability of those who promote erroneous interpretations and the accountability of those who believe those interpretations? (The argument that those who affirm same-sex unions are “leading people onto the highway to hell” implies that God will damn people for being badly catechized. That’s an implication that requires some scrutiny.)
  • While, as Andrew points out, there are many passages in Scripture that emphasize the importance of correcting erroneous teaching and calling out sinful behavior, under what circumstances may we say that someone who teaches error, or who commits certain sins habitually, is not a Christian at all and that we must say so? If we do believe that we can and should make this judgment, how then do we interpret the parable of the wheat and the weeds?
  • Presumably those who denounce interpreters who affirm same-sex unions as false teachers who are leading people on the highway to hell would readily acknowledge that they themselves are sinners — but redeemed sinners; people not on the broad path that leads to destruction but on the narrow way that leads to salvation. How do they distinguish between their sins and those they are denouncing? Why does Jesus’s contrast between the speck in your brother’s eye and the long in your own not apply to them?

I don’t think we’ll make much progress in sorting out particular theological and moral questions unless we first decide how, practically, we are to deal with one another when we have significant disagreements. That’s something Christians have rarely been good at, and that’s why the questions above are, in my view, so important.

Travelin  

This is the tombstone next to my dad’s at Hopewell Cemetery in Hanceville, Alabama. 

The Prayer Duel

“Well, there is precedent,” Pravuil said. “I mean, if you look at it in a certain way.”

I asked him what he meant. He said, “Elijah and the priests of Baal.”

Atid kept writing, but Raqib lifted his pen from his scroll for a moment and looked up. “That’s not precedent,” he said.

They think it is, is my point,” Pravuil said. “Or Ahmad does anyway. Dowie is scared.”

“Not scared enough,” Atid muttered, still scribbling.

“He’s remarkably brazen,” Pravuil said, agreeably. “Though he might be insane.”

“You don’t know?” I asked.

They all looked at me. “Of course we don’t know,” Pravuil said. “How would we know?”

“Well, you’re the Recording Angels,” I said.

“That’s right,” Raqib said. “We’re the Recording Angels. We record what people say and do. We’re not mind-readers. I don’t think even Gabriel can read minds.”

“Anyway,” Pravuil said, chewing the end of his quill — the others resumed recording — “the whole concept of a prayer duel is pretty interesting. If it weren’t for the case of Elijah you’d have to say that the thing is impossible.”

“Why impossible?”

He pointed his quill at me. “Because in a ‘prayer duel’ you’re not really praying, are you? ‘Hashem, prove that you’re on my side’ isn’t exactly a prayer. It’s testing Hashem, and we’re warned against that.”

“Not that different than most prayers,” Atib said, bending towards his parchment. “And there’s a real point to this duel, since presumably the results would show whether Islam or Christianity is favored by Hashem, who, also presumably, cares about such things.”

“Ahmad calls himself Messiah,” Raqib said. “And has challenged a number of people to prayer duels. It’s a thing for him. When people question whether he really is Messiah, or whether he’s even a true Muslim, he challenges them to prayer duels or ‘spiritual duels.’ A lot of the debate is about whether Jesus is dead or alive. I can’t say that I understand the details very well.”

“Dowie should accept the challenge,” I said. “After all, as Pravuil said, Elijah had a prayer duel with the priests of Baal, and Dowie calls himself Elijah the Restorer.” They looked at me again. “I read it in the Chicago Tribune.

“Don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper,” Pravuil said. “Though in this case the paper is right. Dowie calls himself a great many things, all of which are meant to coerce people into giving him money.”

“Nasty piece of work,” Raqib said.

“Of course, Ahmad is something of a megalomaniac,” Pravuil said, “but he’s not a con man. At least not in the lining-his-pockets way Dowie is. And while he’s dismissive of Christian claims he’s not on the kind of crusade Dowie pursues against Muslims.” He grinned. “See what I did there?” Then he composed his face to look serious. “Look, I don’t want to take sides in the larger debate,” he said, nodding towards Atib. “I’m not sure Hashem is on anybody’s side.”

“Sort of like Treebeard,” I interjected. Everyone ignored me. Though they must know who Treebeard is.

“But maybe,” Pravuil resumed, “this is one of those cases where it would be better for all concerned if someone put a thumb on he scales. Not literally scales in this case, this isn’t the Iliad, but … Go talk to the Sisters, would you?”

“Me?” I said. “But I —”

“Just talk to the Sisters. It’s not like you have anything else to do.”

So I went down to see the Sisters. They had to have been a little surprised, but they didn’t look up. Unlike the Recording Angels, who at least paused from time to time, the Sisters never look up, as far as I can tell.

“There’s this prayer duel,” I said, but almost before I could get the words out Morta said “Nowt to do with me,” in a Yorkshire accent. I don’t think she’s from Yorkshire, she probably heard it on TV or the radio. Anyway the phrase was appropriate, I guess, since I expect they get a lot of visitors who want some kind of exception or intervention. “Pravuil sent me,” I said. They didn’t respond to that, which I took as a willingness to hear me out. So I told them the story about the prayer duel, how Ahmad challenged Dowie but Dowie refused.

“Who are these people?” Decima asked. So, as best I could remember from what I’d read in the Tribune and what the Recorders told me, I explained about Ahmad’s peripatetic career as a preacher and lecturer and debater and (for lack of a better phrase) spiritual dueller. And then I told them about Dowie’s claims to being a faith healer and the reincarnation of Elijah, and about his founding of the city of Zion and all his money troubles. Also his obsession with Muslims and how wicked they are.

Nona said, “Ahmad is a good bit older than Dowie. You’d expect him to die first in the natural order of things” — the three of them chanted that last phrase in unison, creepily I thought. “But let’s take a look at these threads,” she said, and spun out a length of slivery string, and then another length. Decima placed her ruler — it wasn’t an ordinary ruler, it was a kind of slide rule, with lots of obscure markings and a clear plastic slider — alongside them and moved things about in a calculating sort of way. “Well …” And then I saw a quick glint of a small knife.

“Whoops, my hand slipped a bit there,” Morta said. “Nowt to do with me,” Nona said. They all giggled at that, and then resumed their work.

leagues

 

the more things change…

The night of May 7, after a chase that began in Watts and ended some 50 blocks farther north, two Los Angeles policemen, Caucasians, succeeded in halting a car driven by Leonard Deadwyler, a Negro. With him were his pregnant wife and a friend. The younger cop (who’d once had a complaint brought against him for rousing some Negro kids around in a more than usually abusive way) went over and stuck his head and gun in the car window to talk to Deadwyler. A moment later there was a shot; the young Negro fell sideways in the seat, and died. The last thing he said, according to the other cop, was, “She’s going to have a baby.”

The coroner’s inquest went on for the better part of two weeks, the cop claiming the car had lurched suddenly, causing his service revolver to go off by accident; Deadwyler’s widow claiming that it was cold-blooded murder and that the car had never moved. The verdict, to no one’s surprise, cleared the cop of all criminal responsibility. It had been an accident. The D.A. announced immediately that he thought so, too, and that as far as he was concerned the case was closed.

This story was published, not in 2016, but fifty years ago, in June of 2016. Its author was a young writer whose second novel had appeared a few months earlier. His name? Thomas Pynchon.

the history of flight

— CABINET // Through the Vaste Spaces of the Aire: An Interview with Clive Hart

George Widener

The art of George Widener

easy answers to hard problems

Now, this is comical, though in a sad sort of way. The post is based on the Moral Foundations Theory Framework, which posits that there are several categories that people employ when engaged in moral evaluations (Care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, purity/degradation). The authors of the post, Kate Johnson and Joe Hoover, note that “liberals tend to primarily endorse upholding the virtues of fairness and care, while conservatives endorse all five of the foundations, including loyalty, authority and purity.” This leads to social and political conflicts, which Johnson and Hoover want to find a way to ease.

And they do find a way! It’s so simple: “Perhaps by focusing on values we all share, such as care and fairness, and avoiding the purity rhetoric that divides us, we may be able to communicate our needs with the other side to work toward a common goal.” See? Our wounds will be healed if conservatives just stop thinking like conservatives and instead think like liberals. Just eliminate those pesky moral foundations than distinguish You from Us and everyone will be happier.

Such an obvious solution, it’s a wonder no one thought of it before.

thanks to Vincent Lloyd

… for two important reflections on the possibilities and perils of the black Christian intellectual: here and here. What both of these pieces suggest is that the Mannheim definition of the intellectual that I used in my essay for Harper’s has difficulty capturing the particular social situation of the black thinker. This makes me wonder whether the best way to address this problem is by expanding the definition of the intellectual in some way, or by thinking of the black intellectual as a unique case requiring its own distinctive definitional boundaries. In any case I’m  grateful for the generous interlocution; Lloyd has given me a lot of important stuff to think about.

save these for later 

via Waxy 

The Guardian plumbs the depths (I hope)

I gotta say, Rod is right: The Guardian has published a guide to conservative websites that … I mean, seriously, I have no words for this.

Let’s put the matter gently: Jason Wilson has a five-minutes-of-googling level of knowledge on the topic that one of the most influential newspapers in the world has paid him to write about. No: that’s too kind. It’s a two-minutes-of-googling level of knowledge, which means, of course, a two-minutes-of-googling level of comical misunderstanding and hence misinformation. Having Jason Wilson write about conservative websites is like having me write about string theory or rocket-engine repair. His ignorance is vaster than empires, wider than God’s mercy, comprehensive as Wikipedia. I know that times are hard for journalists and would-be journalists, but jeez, Jason: Aren’t there some topics that basic human dignity requires one to refuse?

And hey, editors of the Guardian: Have you no shame? No, really, are you impervious to embarrassment? For heaven’s sake, just save yourself the trouble. Confess that you don’t know who conservatives are or what they think or why they think it and (to conclude) you don’t plan to find out, and then move cheerfully on to things that really matter to your readers, like hygge. Nothing is better than Wilson’s “guide.” No, I mean it: you’d do better to publish nothing on conservatism that publish such an absurdly misinformed overstuffed sack of dumbass.

“I just don’t believe that this should even be a question!”

“Neither do I, and neither do many who live to see such times. But that is not for us to judge. All we have to decide is how to answer the questions that are put to us.”

On False Teachers: Bleat the Third

Steve Holmes recently wrote of his experience defending the traditionalist view on homosexuality at the Society for Biblical Literature conference:

I was slow to understand what went on in our session at ETS; the Rottweilers were out in some force, and challenging Megan and Bill [who were arguing for affirming same-sex relationships] on their understanding… But there was repeatedly an extra step stated or implied in the questions, from ‘this is wrong’ to ‘you are not a Christian’. I admit I did not understand where this was coming from.

Then someone came up to me at the end, and asked why I had been defending my friends. I began to say some stuff about love and loyalty but he cut across me, ‘They are leading people onto the highway to hell!’

I’ll set aside my difficulties with serious use of the phrase “highway to hell” in our post-AC/DC era, and just note that I have heard this before from my fellow theological conservatives: that people who teach that same-sex unions can be affirmed are not just wrong but are “false teachers” — people teaching something clearly other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore to be denounced and cast out rather than treated as brothers and sisters with whom we disagree.

I think this is the wrong way to look at the situation and want to explain why. (Let me also add that I affirm with my whole heart the rest of Holmes’s post, and his further reflections in the comments thereupon. The affirmations I share with him are useful context for my views on this particular matter.)

Let’s begin by positing a few assumptions, because the argument I want to explore only arises when the following assumptions are granted: (1) that the Church must, in order to carry out its mission, confront theological and moral error; (2) that Holy Scripture is our authoritative guide to theological and moral truth and falsehood; (3) that sexual behavior is taken very seriously throughout the NT and that erroneous teaching about it must therefore be seen as profoundly consequential; (4) that the traditionalist side is correct on the merits, and the affirming side incorrect; (5) that there really are “false teachers” whose message is something other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And perhaps one other assumption should be noted as well: that it is our place to decide who the false teachers are and to denounce them, something I have raised questions about here.

Now: onward.

As far as I can tell the two passages that are foundational for the concept of the “false teacher” are 2 Peter 2 and 1 Timothy 4. I assume that Peter’s pseudodidaskaloi are pretty much the same as Paul’s didaskaliais daimoniōn, though perhaps the latter are even worse. That is, we could have three categories of error (teachers who are sometimes wrong, false teachers, demonic teachers) — but I suspect there are just two, and the latter two categories should be seen as one.

It is interesting, I note in passing, that 2 Peter coins pseudodidaskaloi by explicit analogy to pseudoprophētai, the latter being a far more common term in the NT. But clearly false teaching and false prophecy are distinct things, though if what I say in my previous paragraph is right they have a common origin: didaskaliais daimoniōn would also be anolagous to prophētai daimoniōn.

In any case, all this is foundational to a NT anatomy of error, it seems to me.

So — setting aside as irrelevant to this canonically-based inquiry the question of whether Peter wrote 2 Peter — let’s look at the famous dispute between Peter and Paul about the “circumcision party.” Paul says he told Peter to his face that he was wrong about this, and of course Paul’s view won out at the Council of Jerusalem (where, I have always thought comically, Peter presents it as his own view, with no reference to Paul having corrected him). Now, clearly, this is a foundational issue in relation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and if the circumcision party had won out it would have been the death of the Church in its infancy. So it is scarcely possible for Peter, assuming that he did at one time hold this view, to have been more catastrophically wrong. Does this then mean that for a time Peter was one of the pseudodidaskaloi?

That’s not quite what Paul says when describing the disagreement in Galatians 2. Instead, he says that in the circumcision party there was a failure to “walk correctly” (orthopodousin) in relation to “the truth of the Gospel.” A fascinating turn of phrase. Here interpreters will surely differ, but it seems to me that Paul is not treating Peter as a false teacher, but rather a brother, even though a brother who has made a terrible error — for if Peter is right, the conclusion of Paul’s argument says in verse 21, then “Christ died for nothing.” Paul does not anathematize Peter, but strives to correct him as one apostle to another, not questioning his place as one of the “acknowledged pillars” (v. 9) of the Church.

So perhaps the pseudodidaskaloi and didaskaliais daimoniōn are going further and questioning or denying the most elementary and foundational teaching of all: that Jesus is Lord, according to the Christology of John 1 and Colossians 1:15-20. This would be supported, I think, by the description of the false teachers in 2 Peter: they have “licentious ways,” “destructive opinions,” and “deceptive words,” none of which are spelled out except to say that “they will even deny the Master who bought them” — which may give us some hint about how deep the errors are here and therefore what qualifies as pseudodidaskaloi. Peter, by contrast, was not — not any longer, after his shameful behavior on the night Jesus was taken away! — denying the Master who bought him, but was mistaken about what the saving power of that Master meant for the Mosaic law.

So if you can be as wrong as Peter was about something foundational for the Gospel and still not be denounced as a false teacher, then I think it follows that if people do not “walk correctly” in relation to biblical teaching about sexuality, they likewise need not be treated as pseudodidaskaloi but can be seen as brothers and sisters whom those who hold the traditional view patiently strive to correct, without coming out from among them, speaking with the patience and gentleness commended in 2 Timothy 3:24-25.

The Sacraments and the Honey of Love: A Second Bleat

In one of his posts on the possibility of a Benedict Option for Christians, Rod Dreher made a really, really important point:

This is not the fault of mainstream culture. This is the fault of the church. We have done a dismal job preparing our kids, and preparing ourselves, for the postmodern, post-Christian world in which we live. We have to do better — a lot better. These are not normal times. Once the faith departs, it’s very hard to recover it.

I have two points to make about these sentences, one brief and one long and complicated.

The brief one: in response to Rod’s statement that “these are not normal times,” a number of people have said that these are too normal times, or that these are pretty good times for Christians, or that the times are never normal for Christians. Any or all of these may be true, and there could still be the need for a Benedict Option — because whatever it is we’re doing clearly isn’t working very well. Even the Christians who do the best job of making their communities attractive for both longtimers and newcomers aren’t succeeding by any reasonable standard of communal health. So “normal times” or not, it’s time to rethink our standard practices in the hope of genuinely thriving.

And now to the long one. I want to describe a case study in pastoral care, in the Episcopal Church. It involves a gay married couple in Orlando who want to have their child baptized but have met resistance from those who believe that the couple is disobedient to classic Christian teaching about sexuality and therefore cannot really affirm the whole Baptismal Covenant. For instance — so the argument goes, as I have heard from people closer to the situation than I am — those who are openly living in sexual sin cannot honestly answer “Yes” to the question, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

I think that child in Orlando should have be baptized (and indeed, eventually he was). I’d like now to spell out my reasons, in a way that would also suggest a Eucharistic theology.

My understanding of the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, which I take to be a standard (if not the only standard) Anglican understanding, is that they are not just signs but means of grace: “spiritual food and drink,” as is said in the prayer book. It is by and through the sacraments that we are enlightened and empowered to be the body of Christ in and for the world. And of course it is only through the sacrament of Baptism, in which we die along with Christ, paying the due penalty for our sin, and are then raised to new life in Him, that we are so reconciled with Him that we may participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. And as John Wesley wrote, “The chief of these means [of God’s grace to us] are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.”

Therefore to deny people the sacraments is to deny them one of the primary means by which they can receive the enlightening and empowering grace by which they can come to know God and follow Him. For the Anglican with a high sacramental theology, it is to deprive them of the “spiritual food and drink” that should be our regular diet. This strikes me as a massively dangerous thing to do. How can we expect people to think as they should and act as they should if we are denying them access to this empowering grace? If we could think and act as mature Christians without regular access to the sacraments, then what need do we have for those sacraments?

So on what grounds might one deny Holy Baptism to that child in Orlando?

I presume the argument is a prudential one based on church discipline: People who openly disobey the Church’s moral teachings cannot be given the sacraments until they repent and promise to alter their ways. To do otherwise is to empty out the authority of those teachings. I don’t think that’s a strong argument for several reasons:

  • It is extremely unlikely that any of the people involved have been well-catechized in the Faith. We all need to face up to the fact that almost no churches in the Anglican tradition, conservative as well as liberal, have taken catechesis seriously for a long time. To deny the sacraments to people the Church has failed to catechize is to make others suffer for the failings of the Church’s leadership.
  • Almost everyone in our society — with the exception of monastics, the Amish, and a few fundamentalist Protestants — has been deeply and persistently catechized by the mass media into a very different model of sexuality than the Christian and biblical one. We should have the same compassion for them as we would for people who have been raised in a brainwashing cult.
  • I cannot see the justice or lovingness of denying a child the sacrament of initiation into Christ’s body because of any shortcomings of his or her parents, especially if those parents have not themselves been well-catechized. Not only is the child being denied initiation, but the congregation is being denied the sacramental task of praying that child into full Christian faith. (Some may say, “Well, they can pray anyway” — which they can: but if that’s the whole response, then what good is Baptism? In my understanding, it is the wedding garment that allows entry to the Great Feast; the person who lacks it is in a dangerous place, and even the prayers of the faithful cannot wholly compensate for that lack.)
  • Moreover, even in cases where church discipline is called for, the denial of the sacraments is the “nuclear option” of discipline — the most severe penalty a church can administer. This seems to be wholly out of proportion to the sins involved.
  • The model of Jesus is here, as everywhere, vital: the man who scandalized the Pharisees because of his willingness to have fellowship, indeed table fellowship, with sinners. We should remember that Jesus did not say to Zaccheus, “Repent and I will come to your house tonight.” Rather, his determination to sit at table with Zaccheus was what prompted Zaccheus’s repentance.

My concern here is that Anglican leaders whose theological instincts are sound and good, who feel the enormous pressure by our society (including many in the Church) to alter ancient Christian teaching to suit contemporary preferences, are allowing their pastoral theology and pastoral practice to be warped by these controversies. We are surrounded by sexual revolutionaries who insist that sexuality is fundamental to identity, is the most important thing imaginable — and in order to resist them we end up agreeing with them, and elevating disputes on sexuality to a level of importance which properly speaking only should belong to credal questions.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that sexuality is something that Christians can “agree to disagree” about — it is too important for that, affects too many lives too profoundly — but rather that our disagreements on these issues should not lead to the “nuclear option” of denying people the sacraments. (I would note that questions surrounding what Christians do with their money are just as important, and in historical terms even more contested, and yet never lead to the denial of sacramental participation.)

To put the matter briefly and bluntly: I fear that in rightly attempting to “hold the line” on sexuality we are in serious danger of allowing something very close to a Donatist spirit to creep into our pastoral theology and practice. And I think this is very dangerous indeed — dangerous to us and to the people whom we would deny sacramental participation. We cannot stress too strongly, it seems to me, that none of us is worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under the Lord’s Table. And we should remember that the task of re-catechizing the Church is going to take a very long time — decades, perhaps centuries — and in the meantime we must be generous and loving to those who have been brainwashed by the world, and not prevent those who desire it from taking the true spiritual food and drink on which we were meant to live. As Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Honor and glory belong to God alone, but God will receive neither if they are not sweetened with the honey of love.”

Anglicanism and Eucharistic Discipline: A Bleat

For some time now I’ve had reflections on theological and pastoral controversies — some in the Anglican world, some the evangelical, some in both — sitting on my hard drive. I’ve decided to post three of them, not so much because I’m sure they’re all right, but rather in the hope that I can cease to chew these issues over and move on to other things. This is the first of my three bleats.


Anglican practices of Communion have historically been quite variable, with different parishes in different regions at different times choosing to make Holy Communion or Morning Prayer the usual Sunday morning service. But the conditions for admission to Communion have not varied so much. Typically, people baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity who are not “notorious evil livers” and who are at peace with their neighbors are eligible. When there has been a practice of Confirmation — not universal among Anglicans — then that may also have been a condition, though more recently it has been left to the discretion of parents to decide whether to have their children come to the Communion rail.

I might add that when Confirmation has been a prerequisite for Communion, that Confirmation has often been connected to the brief and beautiful catechism of the 1662 BCP, with its elegant invocation of three central texts of Eucharistic and daily worship: the Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Communion practices are a useful point of focus to explore a development that concerns me greatly: what looks to me like the abandonment, among all varieties of North American Anglicans, of certain longstanding Anglican practices.

Before I go any further, let me pause to note that I have no stature to debate these matters. I am neither a bishop nor a priest not a biblical scholar nor a liturgist nor a theologian. I am just a layman of some years’ standing — one of the sheep. But, as C.S. Lewis said in his great essay on “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” a sheep at least can bleat. Consider what follows as my bleat.

When an Anglican complains about the abandonment of longstanding practices, he or she usually has the Episcopal Church (TEC) in mind. And indeed many TEC parishes and dioceses have been jettisoning their Anglican, and more generally Christian, inheritance as fast they can manage. One of the key abandonments here has been ceasing to make Trinitarian Baptism a prerequisite for admission to the Lord’s table, and I can’t imagine a more thoroughgoing practical rejection of the Christian message than open Communion. For, if the traditional view is that Baptism is the sacrament of reconciliation and Communion the sacrament of the reconciled, open Communion effectively denies that we need to be reconciled to God: God is perfectly happy with all of already, so — in defiance of the parable of the Wedding Feast — we’re all automatically welcome at His table, wedding garment be damned.

But I fear that ACNA, or at least some of the parishes and dioceses of ACNA, in their eagerness to differentiate themselves from TEC, have also set aside Anglican tradition, just in an opposite way. I live in Waco, Texas, which places me in ACNA’s Diocese of Forth Worth, and this diocese will admit to Holy Communion only those baptized Christians who affirm the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Now, the teaching of the Real Presence is a strong element in Anglican theology since Hooker, and something that I affirm with all my heart and soul and mind; but to make it a requirement for admission to the Eucharistic feast strikes me as just as un-Anglican as open Communion. Affirmation of the Real Presence is not even in the Articles of Religion, and those were meant to be binding only on ordained clergy. To ask ordinary laypeople to make affirmation that priests were historically never required to make, or else bar them from the great meal of the Church, seems to me indefensible from any historically Anglican point of view. (And I am setting aside the question of whether apprehension of the Real Presence is actually possible outside the experience of its benefits. That Christ is truly present in the sacrament is indeed a truth-claim, but not one that we apprehend in the same way that we apprehend that 2+2=4. But again, we can set that aside for now.) And, equally, to deny that meal to faithful and validly-baptized Christians from traditions that do not acknowledge the Real Presence strikes me as a massive failure of hospitality in one of its most important senses. St. Paul’s notion of the “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10) seems immensely relevant here.

Presumably the exegetical defense here would be that those faithful Baptists and other are “those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:29). But to make access to Communion contingent on holding a particular interpretation of a single extremely obscure verse is surely un-Anglican at best — especially since so many not qualify under this particular interpretation. Could Richard Hooker — who wrote “The real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood is not to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament” — receive Communion in the diocese of Fort Worth? Could Jeremy Taylor? (“CHRIST is present in the Sacrament to our spirits only, i.e. not present to any other sense but that of faith.”) Could John Stott?

It might be objected that this is a diocesan mandate, not a more broadly denominational one. But that is a very large part of the problem. On an essential matter of the basic practice of the church — essential especially in our age, in which Communion is offered at least weekly and perhaps more frequently than that — a bishop can be dictatorial while the denomination as a whole remains agnostic. (By a similar logic though in a different venue, ACNA priests have the option in their parishes to remove the filioque from the creed. The filioque, about which there have been such bitter and tragic disputes over the centuries, reduced to a parish-level decision — as though it is pure adiaphora!)

I have noted that there are historic relations that link admission to Communion with Confirmation and Confirmation with a Catechism. ACNA is equally Janus-faced about this matter as well. In what the chair of the Catechism Committee, J.I. Packer, admits is a deviation from Anglican tradition, To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism is longer, more detailed, and more complex than its predecessors. This, Packer says, is because the new document “is intended as a more comprehensive catechetical tool” to be used in a variety of instructional contexts. In general, the new catechism is well-made, though sometimes it inadvertently gets into disputed or ambiguous territory. For instance, when it says that “when the Lord Jesus Christ returns, the world as we know it will come to an end,” that is only accurate under certain meanings of “as we know it” and “come to an end.” Which makes me wonder whether this is a matter that belongs in a Catechism.

That, however, is not a question I can answer without having a better understanding of how the Catechism is to be used, and that’s hard to tell from the document itself. In his prefatory letter, Archbishop Bob Duncan says that “the degree to which it is used directly for instruction, and the amount of memorization asked of individual catechumens, is left up to the catechist to determine by context and circumstance.” It seems, then, that Archbishop Duncan does see this catechism as an element of preparation for Confirmation — but perhaps only if individual priests choose to use it? It’s hard to tell. And of course nothing is here said about the link between Confirmation and admission to Communion.

So on the one hand ACNA clearly wants to be more rigorous than TEC, not to make the parent denomination’s mistakes again; but, like so many children who rebel, it ends up replicating some of the problematic tendencies of the previous generation. Here’s a detailed and specific Catechism — but only use it when you want to, and in the way you want. Being a faithful baptized believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is enough to get you welcomed to the Eucharistic feast — well, in many dioceses, anyway. Parish priests may add or subtract the filioque at will. There is the appearance of rigor but, on the diocesan and sometimes the parish level, about as much of a choose-your-own-adventure model as there is in TEC.

In the Anglican way at its best, affirmations, expectations, and definitions are kept clear, minimal, and firm. That’s why my favorite Anglican documents are the 1662 Catechism and the Lambeth Quadrilateral. When TEC showed itself unwilling or unable to enforce even the most minimal commitments for belief and practice, ACNA responded with a series of expanded rubrics and statements — most of which are made optional and therefore lack power to compel and unify. Given that ACNA is trying to hold together a diverse constituency, this may be understandable. But that is of little comfort to the poor confused sheep bleating from the pews.

It seems clear to me that the one thing the clergy of ACNA have been able to agree on is that they want to avoid the wishy-washiness that emptied out the doctrine (and the pews!) of TEC. They concluded that in order to avoid such a fate they needed to make their own affirmations more specific and more detailed. But they have not so far been able to agree on what those more detailed statements must be. So increased strictnesses are put on the table — but only as options, at either the diocesan or the parish level.

I am inclined to think that this approach was bound to fail and indeed was misbegotten. The problem with the TEC isn’t that there aren’t enough rules, or sufficiently specific ones, but that the existing rules are so often flouted. Parishes opened Communion and ceased to be bound in their public readings by the lectionaries, or even the Bible. Bishops openly defied the doctrine and discipline of the church they had pledged to defend.

Is it too late for ACNA to rethink all this? I fear it is. But still, I plead: be brief, be blunt, be straightforward. Tell us what the Nicene Creed is, without offering substitutions on the menu. Keep the requirements for admission to the Lord’s Table minimal but clear, and police them firmly. (Remember that this is the “spiritual food and drink” on which the followers of Jesus are meant to feed, and that we do not function as well when we lack access to it.) Beware of extraneous forms of strictness, especially if they’re only optional. Be willing to sacrifice some of your own preferences in order to bring peace and understanding to your sheep. Such rules and disciplines as are formulated, obey. In non-essentials let there be liberty, in essentials unity, in all things charity … and in a great many more things clarity.

Here endeth the bleat. Those of you who can instruct and correct me, please do so.

so it’s like this

For years now you’ve been hanging out with your friends at a nice little bar, a place you’re all comfortable with. It’s not perfect; it can get a little raucous sometimes — not everyone there is perfectly behaved, to say the least —; but you sort of know when to drop by, and where the quieter corners are. (There’s a big flashy noisy club around the corner, owned by the same people who own this bar, but you never go there. Not any more. It used to be okay, though.)

But some bad shit has gone down recently, shit that has affected all your friends (though some more than others, and people whom you don’t know most of all) and things have changed. Lately, whenever you’ve dropped by, a good many of your friends are having Primal Scream therapy sessions in the bar. You understand why they’re doing this, and you don’t blame them; and from the sympathetic looks on the faces of some quieter folks around, you discover that they don’t blame the Screamers either. In fact, from time to time almost everyone lets out a scream or two.

This goes on for a while. And eventually you realize that it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Not only are there a good many people who simply need to scream, there’s also an emerging sense within the group that to stop screaming would be, implicitly, to say that everything is more-or-less okay.

When someone suggests that the management gently ask the screamers to go elsewhere, you just laugh. It’s not that kind of management. They’re hands-off to a fault, and in fact some of the shit that has gone down has gone down in the bar. So while it may have been a nice social place for you, it hasn’t been so great for everyone else. Which, when you think about it, doesn’t help your attitude towards the place.

Lately when you’ve been walking by at your usual time, you’ve paused … and then kept walking. You haven’t been there in a while. Somehow going home and reading a book or watching a movie seems better for your spirit. Your friends may be wondering where you are, and you feel bad about that, and you really miss them, but … it really belongs to the Primal Scream group now. Which is fine, you guess — they need somewhere to meet. But you probably won’t be back.

English as she is spoke

The text of a Colorado ballot initiative:

Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as a punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?

People voted “No” in large part because they didn’t know what the hell was being said.

social media strategery

All partisan logic is precisely the same:

Strategy 1: Practice deflection by whataboutism. When somebody points out that your side has done something bad, change the subject by saying “but what about…”

Strategy 2: Do your very best to ignore any evidence that your side has behaved badly.

Strategy 3: When forced to confront that your side has behaved badly, argue that such behavior is highly uncharacteristic of your side, but absolutely, indeed almost universally, characteristic of the other side.

Strategy 4: Treat your own emotional intensity as a mark of the righteousness of your cause and the seriousness of your devotion to it, while denouncing people who are equally emotional in the wrong cause as hysterical whining pearl-clutching babies.

Strategy 5: Never fact-check any Facebook post, tweet, or news story that serves your political narrative. Instead, spread it to as many of your fellow partisans as you can, in the secure knowledge that they won’t fact-check it either. Conversely, factcheck the shit out of anything from your opponents, and if you can’t actually disprove it just reply with “lol.”

thought for today

American politics is now nothing more than rival assertions of tribal identities. There are no Americans; there are no human beings; there are only instantiations of racial and sexual identities looting the store of our economic and cultural capital. In such a world the most ruthless bullies acquire more loot than everyone else. Tomorrow’s bullies will have a different set of policy proposals but will be temperamentally and morally identical to today’s.

When you’re ready to start the political conversation with by affirming that everyone in the room is a human being — not necessarily right about anything in particular, not necessarily good or even decent, but a human being in precisely the same sense that you are a human being, and that every single human being in this country should be subject to the same laws and norms enforced equally across the board, then get back to me. Until then, I don’t know what to say to you. I’m not refusing to speak; I just don’t know how to speak your identity-politics language without giving up everything I believe about humanity, and about what politics is for.

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