Friday, June 25, 2010

Spelunking in the Hymnal 1940

As is my wont on occasion, I spent some time this afternoon at the console of the “Mighty Rodgers” in St Anne’s Church playing through selections from the Hymnal 1940. This volume was the Episcopal Church’s official hymnal from 1943 until 1985, when it was succeeded by the Hymnal 1982, still in the pew racks in Episcopal parishes across the land. (Yes, there’s a three year date discrepancy between the name by which a collection is eventually remembered and the time it is put into use, owing to the fact that one General Convention approves the proposed texts, to which are then assigned tunes by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and the next convention approves the final edition. My suspicion is that most churches will never again issue an actual bound hymnal for wide distribution; there will simply be a series of supplementary new collections which are legally downloadable and reproducible for use in local congregations.)

I became an Episcopalian in the early 1970s, and a semi-mystical experience with the Hymnal 1940 in a piano practice room at Westmont College played a big role in setting me on that path. I was so moved that I thought to myself, “Where have these hymns been all my life? If there’s a church that actually sings them, I need to be in it.” And so I am.

As one who suffers from the curse of being a “classically trained musician” (a polyvalent moniker if there ever was one), there is some irony in the fact that I am pastor of a congregation where there is a good bit of energy for the 2000s version of the sort of musical fare I thought I was fleeing (and being liberated from) when I embraced Anglicanism. The Lord has a sense of humor. I have occasional flashes of pastoral wisdom, which lead me to be judicious in what I ask my people to sing, and, if you know me at all, it shouldn’t surprise you that I let the demands of the liturgy itself, in dialogue with what will actually “work” in this community, shape the selection of musical items that we use in our worship. Consequently, a lot of songs—hymns and service music—that I find personally very appealing have to be kept on the shelf.

This does not keep me, however, from spending an hour on a Friday afternoon rooting around territory that I know I can’t cut and paste into Sunday morning. When I do so, it’s nearly always a bittersweet experience. It’s very like watching Mad Men, which, as a child of the 1960s, I find almost painfully nostalgic, in that it shows me a reality, aspects of which I yearn for, but certainly could not (and should not even if I could) “cut and paste” into the real world of the 2010s.

Today I began at Hymn 451 of the Hymnal 1940. The text is a 19th century paraphrase of Psalm 131, which just happens to be one of my favorite passages of scripture. But the poet, James Montgomery, certainly brings some of his own baggage into the endeavor.

Lord, forever at thy side Let my place and portion be; Strip me of the robe of pride, Clothe me with humility.

Meekly may my soul receive All thy Spirit hath revealed; Thou hast spoken, I believe, Though the oracle be sealed.

Humble as a little child, Weaned from the mother’s breast, By no subtleties beguiled, On thy faithful word I rest.

Israel now and evermore In the Lord Jehovah trust; Him, in all thy ways adore Wise, and wonderful, and just.

The second verse in particular arrested my attention in light of a recent thread on a message board in which I participate (made up mostly of deputies to General Convention). The subject has been the nature of scriptural authority, and whether the canon of scripture is indeed actually “closed",” or could the Church (yes, I know, which manifestation of the Church?) determine that the Holy Spirit is leading it to include some other document—someone suggested National Geographic. I have an opinion or two on this question, but I’m not going to go there now except to observe that, apparently, it was not considered a live option in 1940 when the texts of the new hymnal were forwarded to convention. I don’t think the Episcopal Church is going to evict any of of the Pauline epistles or adopt the Gospel of Thomas as canonical scripture any time soon. But the fact that it would even be brought up is telling enough, and evokes a certain wistfulness for the days of yore.

Moving on now to Hymn 454, here’s a trivia factoid certainly worth a raised eyebrow:

Lord, with glowing heart I praise thee For the bliss thy love bestows, For the pardoning grace that saves me and the peace that from it flow; Help, O God, my weak endeavor; This dull soul to rapture raise: Thou must light the flame, or never Can my love be warmed to praise.

Two more stanzas of similarly wholesome self-abnegating piety follow. Who’s the author? None other than he who watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor in 1812 and penned the lines that are now known as our National Anthem—Francis Scott Key.

I’ve been known to rehabilitate an item from the Hymnal 1940 for Sunday use from time to time, even while I concede that it certainly needed to be replaced when it was, if for no other reason than that we needed hymns compatible with the revision of the Prayer Book six years earlier. But, like the celebrated eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is a classic in its own right, and can’t ever really be replaced. And it’s a wonderful artifact of an era in the church’s history when it seemed at the same time more sure of itself and more humble than it does now. If I could travel in time, I don’t think I would enjoy the Episcopal Church of the 1940s for what it was—much of it would annoy me. But I suspect that I would to some extent enjoy it for what it was not.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Missional Notes

A Canadian Anglican--a member of a parish that has recently severed its relationship with the Anglican Church of Canada, so it's fair to label him as a "conservative"--has published this piece in the National Post. Do read the whole thing, but here's what piqued my attention:
Is being an antiseptic church where only wholesome families and saintly, celibate, straight singles could fit in — a kind of Stepford Church — an accurate picture of a parish like St. Hilda’s? No. If it were otherwise, I would have to leave.
William Temple, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said: “The church exists mainly for those who are not its members.” All parishes should concentrate on attracting people who are not Christians or churchgoers. Whether or not they are living out of wedlock up with someone — of the opposite or same sex — is immaterial. The hope, though, would be that their perspective and lives gradually change as they become followers of Christ in his Church.
I would much rather attend a church with a high percentage of un-churched gays who are honestly seeking to live according to the Gospel than one with a high percentage of straight cradle-Anglicans who are not. And I don’t think that this would necessarily be unappealing to a gay or straight non-Christian. To say, “we believe in trying to live according to Biblical principles, even though we all may fail to varying degrees” has, I suspect, a more honest ring than the note of desperation in, “come to our church and do or believe what you want”.
I can certainly add my own hearty "Amen" to this. But it raises a host of secondary questions, particularly for liturgical and sacramental churches for whom a liturgically rich celebration of the Holy Eucharist is normative Sunday morning fare. I am ever more of the mind that a key element in the Church's response to the rapidly emerging post-Christendom era is to find ways of relieving the Sunday Mass of the burden of serving as our show window to the world and the primary portal through which an inquirer makes first contact with the ecclesial community.

One dimension of this response involves creating social architecture in parishes by which an unchurched/dechurched individual can experience authentic koinonia without ever entering the nave, or even the church grounds. We need to find ways to make them say, "What was that, and where can I get some more?" The second dimension is to cultivate forms of corporate worship that are non-eucharistic and that are more directly accessible to the unevangelized and uncatechized. People have an innate need to worship, whether they consciously realize it or not. But the Eucharist is not for the uninitiated, particularly with the sort of liturgical accouterments that appropriately feed the souls of those who are evangelized and catechized.

Solemn High Mass is solid food, and is likely to induce spiritual indigestion in those who haven't been carefully and gradually prepared for it. Where's our version of breast milk, strained carrots, and Cheerios?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

For the Record

The last two to three weeks have been unusually eventful in Anglicanland.
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury published his Pentecost Letter in which, for the first time, he actually spelled out the consequences that would ensue from the Episcopal Church’s consecration of a bishop living in a same-sex partnership.
  • The Presiding Bishop issued a sharp retort, in the form of a Pastoral Letter to TEC, expressing irritation with Canturar’s actions. In the process, she laid down a narrative that contained an unfortunate factual error and an interpretation of Anglican and Episcopal history that many have considered dubious at best (specifically, the relation between Celtic and Roman Christianity in the seventh century, the nature of the Elizabethan Settlement in the sixteenth, and the events surrounding American Anglicans securing the episcopate in the eighteenth).
  • The General Secretary of the Anglican Communion Office, Canon Kenneth Kearon, issued a press release in which he announced the execution of what the Archbishop had “proposed.” (A good bit of misunderstanding, it appears, has issued from Dr Williams’ use of the word “propose,” which, in certain contexts, carries some good bit more weight in British ears than in American.)
  • The Presiding Bishop spoke before the triennial General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, emphasizing the commonalities between the two churches in their commitment to providing the sort of pastoral care to their gay and lesbian members that the majority parties in both churches seems to believe is appropriate.
  • With the news from across the pond still ringing in their ears, members of the Canadian General Synod declined to legislate on the subject of blessing same-sex relationships, in contrast to the approach taken by TEC’s General Convention a year ago. Voices from both ends of the spectrum have expressed disgruntlement at this outcome. Other voices, however, have seen in the Canadian example a “more excellent way” that the Americans might do well to emulate.
  • The Presiding Bishop then turned up at the General Synod of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, a province that is generally rather sympathetic to TEC’s positions, before moving on to speaking engagements in London—at Southwark Cathedral, a bastion of “progressive” Anglicanism, and at a meeting of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. These foreign forays have added fuel to the speculation that she is trying to dig the foundation for a sort of alternative Anglican Communion, one not centered on Canterbury, but on the Episcopal Church (which, she and others will indefatigably point out, already exists in fifteen countries).
I won’t attempt any punditry. I have very little that I might add to what has already been written. I do wish to observe, however, that none of this should come as a shock or surprise to anyone. Many are, nonetheless, shocked and surprised. Neither the activist Left nor the hyper-Right expected the Archbishop to do anything. Both figured him for being long (interminably long) on talk and short on action (if not devoid of it). The liberals were happy about this (“See, he actually is one of us deep down!”) and the uber-conservatives had long since cast him into outer darkness as dithering and ineffectual. Ironically, they are now both staring at one another’s jaws hugging the pavement.
As I have pointed out in this venue many times before, Rowan Williams is nothing if not consistent. He is, in fact, doggedly consistent. And remarkably patient. And unfailingly charitable. The events of this early summer of 2010 may turn out to be part of a hinge in the history of Anglicanism. But there was nothing stealthy about their approach. This handwriting has been on the wall for so long it’s just become part of the decor. Take a look back at Rowan’s letter, The Challenge and Hope of Being Anglican, issued in the wake of General Convention 2006. What we are seeing is nothing less than the implementation of the vision articulated in that letter. For what it’s worth, it’s a vision I embraced then, and I’m glad to see it coming to fruition. This is an exciting time to be an Anglican. And I mean “exciting” in a good way.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Discerning the Body and Blood of Christ

Today is the day on which the feast of Corpus Christi is observed. It was my joy to preside at the Mass for the eve of this feast last night. It is not officially part of the calendar of the Episcopal Church, but it does appear in that of some other Anglican provinces, including the Church of England, as The Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion (Corpus Christi). The 1979 Book of Common Prayer does, however, include an optional proper (“votive Mass”) Of the Holy Eucharist, which it designates as “especially appropriate for Thursdays”, thus enabling communities that wish to observe the feast to do so with formally authorized texts. So while I’m grateful for this provision, I still believe it should be an official feast day of the “red letter” (or, more recently, “bold print”) variety, up there with apostles and evangelists, at least, and probably “feasts of our Lord.”

There are myriad reasons why this is so. I personally like the language of Vatican II, which speaks of the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Christian life. The Church is reconstituted afresh at the altar during every celebration—hence “source”—and the Church is ever straining forward toward the eschatological vision of the messianic banquet, of which every Mass is an anticipatory foretaste—hence, “summit.” The Church is then never more herself than when gathered at the altare dei. Everything else we do—formation, fellowship, service—springs from the Eucharist and leads us back to the Eucharist.

By far the most eloquent exponent of this insight into the Eucharist that I am aware of is the late (Anglican) Benedictine scholar Dom Gregory Dix. His magnum opus, The Shape of the Liturgy, is bone dry for long sections. But when he decides to wax poetic, he deposits a gem that can only be contemplated breathlessly. The most glorious of those gems is this:

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.

The point could be made both more precisely and more concisely, but I can’t imagine it being made more compellingly.

Now, to shift attention in a way that may seem abrupt, but, upon closer examination, perhaps not so … the Presiding Bishop published yesterday, in the form of a pastoral letter to the Episcopal Church, her response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Pentecost letter, which was made public last week. As a statement from a Primate of the Anglican Communion, it is disappointing, at least, for its historical and theological naiveté. However, it is not my intent here to comprehensively “fisk” the PB’s effort; that is being done admirably elsewhere. Rather, I want to focus narrowly on the final paragraph of the letter:

As a Church of many nations, languages, and peoples, we will continue to seek every opportunity to increase our partnership in God’s mission for a healed creation and holy community. We look forward to the ongoing growth in partnership possible in the Listening Process, Continuing Indaba, Bible in the Life of the Church, Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, and the myriad of less formal and more local partnerships across the Communion – efforts in mission and ministry that inform and transform individuals and communities toward the vision of the Gospel – a healed world, loving God and neighbor, in the love and friendship shown us in God Incarnate.

Rarely is the nature of the battle for the soul of the Episcopal Church, Anglicanism, and Christianity itself, more starkly evident than in this paragraph. At first blush, it seems harmless. The first sentence uses biblical language (from Revelation) in its reference to “many nations, languages, and peoples”. But she twists words that, in their original context, denote the universal and inclusive character of the whole people of God through space and time, and employs them to designate only the Episcopal Church, and to make the political point, “Who needs you, Archbishop? We’ve already got our own international ‘communion’.” This would be insidious even if it were substantively true, but it’s not. With the exception of Haiti, TEC’s presence in the 14 non-USA countries in which it has a presence is miniscule. To say “We’re in fifteen nations” as evidence of the internationality of TEC is a deceptive ploy that works only among those who don’t examine the facts.

But the real nugget is this: “…our partnership in God’s mission for a healed creation and holy community”, and later, “a healed world, loving God and neighbor, in the love and friendship shown us in God Incarnate.” Again, on its face, there doesn’t seem to be anything to argue with here. What professing Christian could be opposed to a “healed creation” and “holy community”? What’s not to like about “loving God and neighbor”? Unfortunately, this says nothing wrong in itself, but it says too little if it is taken as a capsule of the Good News which it is the Church's privilege to share. It is nothing more than re-packaged and warmed-over Social Gospel liberalism of the sort advocated by Walter Rauschenbusch in the late 1800s. In this view, Jesus is not so much a divine savior as a powerful exemplar, one whose holy life of love and concern for the poor and sick and outcast inspires his followers to work for justice and peace until, gradually, the Kingdom of God is ushered in and all people dwell in freedom and love. It was predicated on the notion of constant incremental improvement in human social behavior. The cataclysm of World War I, of course, pretty much destroyed this thesis, and World War II drove the point home.

What’s missing from the Social Gospel is a connection to the Paschal Mystery, and the practices (including the Eucharist) that are flow from it, rooted in the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit as the Church is constituted., all seen as God’s definitive saving and redeeming intervention in the human predicament. It is God who brings about his own Kingdom, in his way and in his time. The Church’s vocation is to announce that Kingdom and model it, but not to take responsibility for making it happen. Yes, God has a “mission” of reconciliation, and, yes, the Church’s mission is congruent with God’s own mission. But the Church’s mission has a finer point on it. We take our place within the missio dei not by reforming society (an effort of which the Millennium Development Goals are the Presiding Bishop’s favorite sign), but by being an alternative society, a sign that says to the world, “Things can and will be different.” We live out that semiotic [one of my favorite words—look it up!] vocation in a number of ways, all of which, by the way, spring from and lead back to the Eucharist.

Alas, like the cyborgs in the Terminator film series, the Social Gospel keeps reappearing, and the Presiding Bishop’s pastoral letter is its most recent iteration. It is, sadly, not a wrong vision, but an inadequate vision. It is not as much anti-Christian as sub-Christian. It fails to discern the Body and Blood of Christ. This Episcopalian thinks we can do better. We must do better.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Technology Wish List, Revisited

I have at times in the past written about how I try to employ technology as a useful servant—hopefully without inadvertently letting it become my master. (I will let those who know me best decide whether I fulfill that second aspiration.)

Here’s my latest quest: A task management application that really works for me.

Before going paperless in my personal organization aids some nine years ago, I was as devotee of the Franklin Planner, and particularly fond of its task prioritizing tools (ABC-123). Then I used the FranklinCovey add-on with MS Outlook happily for several years, until I moved into an environment with an Exchange Server, and everything seemed to be constantly going to hell. So, about a year ago, I went Outlook-free, and have never regretted my decision.

What do I miss about my former arrangement?

  • Outlook is visually attractive—nice “eye candy.” Very little else comes close on that score.
  • Outlook is integrated—tasks, calendar, contacts, email, and notes, all on one screen, with databases that are on friendly speaking terms. However, integration may be more attractive in concept than in practice. I have grown completely accustomed to moving between various tabs in my browser to access each of those functions, and it really isn’t a bother.
  • The classic F/C ABC-123 task management, combined with MS Office’s feature-rich dialogue boxes.

I’m currently using ToodleDo as a task manager (having earlier spent a few weeks with Nozbe). What I like about it is that it is feature-rich, performs quickly and reliably, and is inexpensive (I have a premium account, but the free one is quite robust).

But here’s what annoys me about ToodleDo:

  • The interface is just plain ugly. There’s no kinder way to say it.
  • The interface is awkward in that it takes up the whole width of my browser window. So unless I want to take the time to resize the window every time I click on my Tasks tab, I am forced to put a whole lot of unnecessary mileage on my mouse. Added up, this consumes time that can begin to be called “serious.”
  • I’m not fully in control of what I see in the main view (“Hotlist”). It uses a sophisticated algorithm based on start date, due date, and priority to determine what shows up. Sometimes stuff is there that I don’t want to see, and sometimes (not often) I’ve missed a task that I did want to see. This is not a huge problem, but a definite irritation.
  • No drag-and-drop to re-prioritize or change start date.
  • I can’t click on any given date and see what tasks are going to be active on that date. This means that I can’t refine my next day’s tasks the night before; I have to wait for them to show up in my Hotlist the next morning.

So here are the specs for the ideal task management app that I haven’t found yet:

  • It must be web-based. I have made the mental transition to cloud computing, and there is no going back.
  • It must have an iPhone version to which it syncs automatically. (The iPhone app doesn’t need to be all that great; mostly I just want to be able to add a task when one occurs to me.)
  • My task planning is driven by Start Dates. (Due Dates are of only marginal importance.) When I enter a task into the system and give it a start date, I want that task to go away and hide until that date, at which time I want it to show up conspicuously.
  • Along those lines, it would be nice to be able to drag a task to a date on a calendar to assign a Start Date.
  • There needs to be some way I can functionally emulate the ABC-123 prioritizing I like so much.
  • I’ve grown fond of being able to tag tasks with categories (aka Folders), and being able to sort them by those categories when I want to.
  • The same goes for Contexts (in the Getting Things Done sense), but this is not hugely important.
  • It must have the functional ability to create Projects, and then to break those projects down into Tasks.
  • Sharing is not a big deal. In fact, it’s no deal at all. I can take it or leave it, but don’t want to be distracted by it.
  • The visual interface doesn’t need to be a work of art, but it should be elegant, classy, and perhaps even customizable.

Any ideas out there?