Friday, March 26, 2010

Disappointments in Nation Building

March 26, 2010

While playing in a charity golf tournament today (and playing spectacularly badly) I had to dodge conversation with a caddy who was eager to instruct an Englishman in the dreadful state America is in thanks to ‘government taking over healthcare’. I pretended with dispatch that I was hard of hearing.

On returning home I came across a disappointing article in Newsweek (March 29, 2010) under the banner “Scandal in Afghanistan: The Exclusive Story of how we’ve wasted $6 billion on a Corrupt and Abusive Police Force that may Cost Us the War”. The article describes the levels of illiteracy, the corruption which gets police weaponry, funded by us, into the hands of the Taliban and the drug addiction. The only thing missing from the descriptions of one of our parishioners who is a contractor in that country is the sexual abuse by older men of younger recruits.

It is clear that we can have short lived alliances and some victories here and there as a result, but the long term occupation of Afghanistan is not a viable option for a government determined to reverse the deficit spending that goes with waging war. I await the tea bag protest about our continuing our efforts there.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

March 23, 2010

There are many pearls in this stunning novel by Muriel Barbery but none more so that the reflection of Mme Michel on reading a Master’s Thesis on William of Ockham: “Given that primates are primarily interested in sex, territory and hierarchy there seems little point in spending time on the prayer life of St. Augustine.” Has she been following Anglican blogs?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Health Reform

March 22, 2010

This morning I am grateful that sooner or later, in one way or another, the vast majority of people in this country will be able to receive healthcare through a proper insurance program. I have never imagined that such a change would not cost me something and confess that I am not really excited about paying for it. Nonetheless, removing some of the absurdities of our current system such as sick people not being able to get insurance and emergency rooms in public hospitals serving as primary care for the uninsured clearly needs to happen. I’ve heard two speakers at our ‘eggonomics’ breakfasts on this subject and have been given reason to suppose that some, if not all, of the provisions of this bill will end up in various courts as one interest or another resists change. It is also clear that we are going to need a lot more doctors than we currently enjoy and that there is some danger of standards being ‘relaxed’ in order to get them. These kinds of things, together with the fact that some of the provisions of the bill are not intended to take affect for some years from now mean that we will not really know what reform will look like for some time.

President Obama made the case early on in his tenure that the economic meltdown was of such significance that we would not be ‘getting back to normal’ and that many of the stressors had to be addressed along with regulatory reform. Our extraordinary healthcare system was chief among them. At a parish forum yesterday leaders of our vestry shared that we do not yet really know what ‘the new normal’ looks like even if the contours are beginning to emerge. We know that for us it will not be ‘just like it used to be but with less resources’. Part of what we mean when we talk of ourselves being ‘a worshipping community, growing in Christian faith, through engaging God and neighbor’ is that we will work to help one another grow in our capacity to face or roll with or respond to the challenges that life presents us. I have no doubt that reforming our healthcare system will touch everyone of us sooner or later and that adjusting to whatever the change means will be challenging. I’m also clear that whether we were for or against the expansion of our system to include tens of millions more Americans in it, we are no less beloved of God this morning than we were yesterday and that we will continue to support one another in times of joy and sorrow in the community of faith.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Lenten Mediation on the Prodigal and a basis for Unity

March 16, 2010

Eating and drinking with sinners? Horrors. What was Jesus thinking? Could it be that he was not terribly interested in purity of the kind that sets up boundaries and barriers and separates one person from another? I've been wondering if the basis for unity among Christians is not agreement or 'like-mindedness' but is more our ability to look one another in the eye and hear one another's stories around the Lord's Table. The basis for unity is our transcending not our differences from one another, but the negative consequences of those differences. The basis for unity is not overcoming difference in favor of similarity, but appreciating difference as part of our unity in the magnificent and endless possibilities inherent in creation. What we discover around the Table is that we are eating and drinking with sinners and they discover our sinful or distorted being at the same time. Like the prodigal, we discover the prodigious love of God for all of creation in our difference around that Table. It is as we learn to recognize, understand and even appreciate difference that we become more fully ourselves, more clear about who we have been created to be and more compassionate toward others.

It is as we allow our attention to be turned toward what really matters and toward that which is of ultimate worth that we are participating truly in worship. We properly look for the effects of worship in our lives and not in the worship itself. Frequently we will not be aware of those effects of worship in our lives. At other times we will notice that we are living with a little more compassion for the follies and foibles of others than was the case in the past. Or we will discover that we enjoy being a little more generous and a little less anxious than our internalizing of all the world's messages of scarcity had previously allowed us. Once in a blue moon we might enjoy some experience of the presence of God in our being convicted of sin or called to repentance; in our being aware of forgiveness and granted a powerful sense of common cause with those about us; with our knowing the might and majesty and glory of God in a theophany during some magnificent anthem; or simply being touched at the moment of communion when just for a second or two we know ourselves one with our creator and unaware of time. All such gifts during the worship itself are exactly that—gifts of grace—and not something we can conjure, manipulate, coerce or guarantee.

So we find ourselves being welcomed as sinners and eating with others like us in the company of our gracious host—the one who runs to meet us as we lay bare our hearts before the throne of grace.

Bishops, Ecumenism and Interfaith Conversation

March 14, 2010

Christ and Culture is the name of a new book (Canterbury, 2010) edited by Martyn Percy and Mark Chapman from England and Ian Markham and Barney Hawkins, both of the Virginia Seminary and representing this side of the Atlantic. It is far from having the kind of weight of its famous Niebuhrian predecessor and is essentially a series of papers by Bishops reflecting on aspects of their role and work. There is a fair amount of referencing and exegeting official reports and documents of one sort or another.

Where the effort had some ‘bite’ for me was in consideration of ecumenical and interfaith concerns. Most of the contributions dealing with ecumenism pointed toward doctrinal conversations with various official bodies and bemoaned the difficulty of having a particular group who could ‘speak with authority’ for Anglicans without the fear or likelihood of being contradicted by the actions of any province acting somewhat independently. (Guess who they mean.) I have some sympathy for the problem and think that conversations with the Inter-Anglican Doctrine Commission are a decent place to start. What no one seems interested in acknowledging in this book is that ‘gracious restraint’ and the like in regard to actions consequent to belief about the proper place and status of gay and lesbian Christians is not simply an intellectual exercise that can be put on hold, but one that has real effects in the lives of real people.

A similarly conservative tenor is found in the essays on interfaith conversation in which it is argued in one way or another that diversity of belief and practice amounts to ‘disunity’ and is a scandal or stumbling-block in presenting the faith to representatives of other faiths. I would rather that a compelling case be made for a communion of churches who live by grace before law. I would also like some acknowledgement that faiths other than Christianity also display a remarkable diversity of expression. Neither ecumenical nor interfaith conversation can be effective if they are really about control, however frustrated our representatives to such conversations become.

Liberal Democracy

March 13, 2010

Lurking in the murky politics of healthcare reform is the question of abortion, and the determination of those for whom this is a critical moral issue to ensure that no federal funds support abortions in any way.

I have a friend who believes that all embryonic human life has the status of ‘human being’ and that therefore any abortion is murder by definition. He is a single issue voter by his own admission and talks of how what he identifies as ‘the genocide of abortion’ grieves his heart. He is utterly sincere and if I believed his premise I would have to agree with him. I am more inclined to go with what is and accord the moral status of human being only to those who have been born. That does not mean that I think abortion is ever within the intent and purpose of God for humanity, nor that a zygote or fetus had no moral standing at all, nor even that ‘viability’ is a distinction without merit. I do believe that sometimes abortion is the best choice a woman can make for her life without therefore proclaiming it ‘good’.

Michael J. Perry of the Emory Law School has written on The Political Morality of Liberal Democracy (Cambridge, 2010). He says that a liberal democracy is committed first to the proposition “that each and every human being has inherent dignity and is inviolable” and second is committed to “certain human rights against government…such as the right to freedom of religion.” (p.10) He examines in some detail a religious basis for morality and also (though with less success) asks whether there is or can be a secular basis for the morality of human rights. He looks at ideas of religious and moral freedom before moving on to the question as to whether religion can ever serve as a basis for lawmaking. His answer is that it may not when some kind of religious commitment is the only rationale for a particular course of action. Such a law, in effect, is discriminatory or coercive of those who do not share the religious point of view and is therefore not consistent with the axiomatic interest of liberal democracy. There may, however, be laws that have a clear additional or alternative rationale for government having a compelling and obvious interest apart from a religious premise.

And so he looks at two moral issues: same sex unions and abortion. With regard to same sex unions he asks what kind of interest a State might have in not extending certain civil rights to same sex couples. After looking at and dismissing some claims to State interest in banning such behavior, he looks at State interest in declining to encourage what religious belief might see as immoral behavior. He writes “State refusals to extend the benefit of law to same sex unions obviously succeed in serving the interest in not supporting or incentivizing same sex sexual conduct understood as immoral conduct. However, under the right to moral freedom, that interest is not a legitimate (or, much less, a weighty) governmental interest.” (p. 149)

With regard to abortion he reaches a different conclusion. He does not make a case for or against a particular view of when a life should be granted the moral status of a human being (with inherent dignity and inviolable). He does argue that a view that affords such status to unborn life is plausible and that liberal democracy can therefore make a legitimate decision to grant protection to unborn life on something other than a religious basis. He does not shirk attending to the great costs a ban on abortion can have on the lives of many women, but writes “However that the costs (of a ban on abortion) are undeniably great does not entail that one cannot plausibly conclude that unborn human life has the requisite moral status and that therefore the public benefit achieved is sufficiently great to warrant the costs.” (p.136)

In other words he thinks a case can be made for legislation which bans abortion, but not a case for withholding certain civil rights to same sex couples. I am not persuaded that the decision to accord the moral status of human being to the unborn is anything other than a religious belief and therefore should be ruled out on the same basis as his case against legislation which opposes same sex unions.

Still an Anglican?

March 13, 2010

A recent meeting of the Advisory Council for the Anglican Observer to the United Nations was held in London. I was struck once again by Archbishop Williams’ grasp of international issues, especially our foci which include addressing sex-trafficking and the education and empowerment of women. I was also struck by a sense that by being in England, both at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop’s London residence and office, and at St. Andrew’s House in Notting Hill, the ‘headquarters’ of the Anglican Communion Office (ACO), many of those attending appeared to assume that we were at or near the heart of the Anglican World. I have no evidence for this opinion but have a strong sense that we, as Episcopalians, should count ourselves lucky to be associated with such magnificence. And in a sense, I do count myself as fortunate to be Anglican.

While I was in London I picked up a book published before the last Lambeth Conference and edited by Caroline Chartres called Why I am Still an Anglican (Continuum, 2006). In it various ‘notables’ like P. D. James and Fay Weldon along with clergy of various stripes, the requisite Member of Parliament and so on reflect on their Anglicanism. In spite of one ‘Nigerian perspective’ from someone who serves in various roles in that country and in the British Commonwealth, who is also a Trustee of the British Museum (Emeka Anyaoku); and a journalist writing from Europe (Edward Lucas), the only version of Anglicanism that is really considered as such is the Church of England. Many of the contributors wax eloquent about the glories of Choral Evensong or their memories of school chapels. There is a certain amount of English hand wringing about ‘troubles’ in the Communion. One novelist married to a C of E clergyman (Ann Atkins), wrote about her view of scripture including her ‘huge admiration’ for the Roman Catholic Church. She says “One of the great strengths of Anglicanism is that it is local. Of course it is important that we are also a part of a great big global family. But there is always a tendency to heresy in the heart of man, and what makes Anglicanism strong is that it is rooted in the parish, rooted in the place, so if a province like ECUSA errs and strays…well it’s a shame, but it doesn’t bring down the rest of us.” (p.37)

Even those with some grasp of the international realities of our Communion (Archbishop Williams excepted) show a tendency to English-centrism if they are English and it is, quite simply, a skewed perspective and one that does not serve the Communion well.

I don’t know if the Anglican Observer at the UN is viable as long as Lambeth and the ACO feel unable to pay for the person and her office. It is certainly not something that ought to have a special fundraising body to support it. But those pesky Americans are welcome to raise it if they can. The belief of some seems to be that there is no way that any of the money can be raised in England. It is strange to have the sense that my own countrymen are determined to ‘get it wrong’.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Conversions to Rome

March 7, 2010

You may have read about Anglican parishes converting to Rome. There was an article last week in the Telegraph under the headline “100 US Anglican parishes convert to Roman Catholic Church.” You have to read quite a way into the article before discovering that this group is part of something called ‘The Traditional Anglican Communion’ whose members, many of whom are in Australia, separated from other Anglicans in 1991. The American branch (called the Anglican Church in America or ACA) has joined their Australian branch in accepting the Pope’s invitation to traditional Anglicans to come to Rome en masse. This group, who mostly follow traditional Anglo-Catholic liturgical practice and interpretation of the Thirty Nine Articles, separated themselves for the most part over liturgical innovation and the ordination of women. The American branch which claims 100 congregations was itself an attempt to unite ‘continuing Anglican churches’ in the US, but as is often the case, people who agree about not liking something (in this case TEC) have a hard time agreeing about what they do like. The only parish in Georgia appears to be in Columbus.

There area host of these breakaway groups which you can try and sort out by looking here. There are also conservative ‘fellowships’, some of whom continue within Anglican churches in communion with Canterbury such as ‘Forward in Faith’. In England, this group is also exploring conversion to Rome.

From everything I can tell, this move makes complete sense for the ACA and has integrity with respect to their own belief, practice and history. It appears that the Roman Catholic ‘invitation’ grew out of negotiations with this group in particular.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


March 6, 2010

I was in England earlier in the week where people were still talking about a Tory Member of Parliament called Sir Nicholas Winterton. In the wake of the MP expense scandals this man said he was “infuriated” by the suggestion that MPs should not be able to claim for first class travel. He did not want to travel with people from “a different walk of life” and might have to stand “when there are no seats”. This is not good stuff for a conservative party on the eve of an election that most pundits say is “theirs to lose”. He manages to show an extraordinary disregard for his party’s efforts to show that they are not the party of the privileged. He wins my first ‘dinosaur’ award for the week.

The second goes to the Retired U. S. Air Force Chief of Staff (1990-94), Merrill A. McPeak who penned a column of the New York Times last Friday. He argued in favor of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy for the military (which he helped craft). His main point was the tired old unsubstantiated point about ‘unit cohesion’ in teams on the battle front. He believes that the presence of open and honest homosexual soldiers would be a problem for others. The military in this country have been at the forefront of introducing cultural change and reducing, if not eliminating, prejudice in matters of race. That expertise could easily be put to good use in helping build ‘cohesion’ among military personnel who may still be prejudiced about gay and lesbian people as is Merrill McPeak.