Friday, July 18, 2008

Anglican Tooth-Aching

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly . COVER . Lambeth Preview . July 18, 2008 | PBS

Anglicans have been a contentious crowd since the tradition was founded under King Henry VIII nearly 500 years ago. Anglicanism has long stressed unity in the midst of diversity. But now, diversity may be stretching the Anglican Communion to a breaking point. At one end of the spectrum is All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, which has been at the forefront of advocacy for more inclusion of gays and lesbians...But at St. Peter's Anglican Church in Tallahassee, Florida, Reverend Eric Dudley reads the Bible very differently. Dudley had been rector at nearby St. John's Episcopal Church for 10 years, but was upset at what he saw as the increasingly liberal theological direction of the national denomination, especially on gay issues.

In Danville, Virginia, leaders at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany say they've been trying hard not to let church battles interfere with their local ministry.

Rev. COLLEY-TOOTHAKER: My personal opinions about the theological matters which are currently plaguing the Episcopal Church really are not so much of import if I keep my eye on the ball, which is to lead this congregation in the work that Christ is calling us to...Mission is actually doing the work that Christ gives us to do.

Funny how these clerical tooth-achers think that anyone other than their coterie of disgusting old ladies take them seriously or regard them as competent to exercise "leadership."

These priests imagined that they could exercise a prophetic mission, persuading their congregations and the public at large, to accept enlightened upper middle class liberal notions about sexual ethics. But the striking thing is that throughout the dispute NOBODY CHANGED THEIR MIND! Not a single member of a liberal congregation said, "Well, I used to think that homosexuals were perverts and that same-sex marriage was ridiculous, but Father has persuaded me otherwise." Not a single member of a conservative congregation said, "Well I didn't used to see any harm in same-sex unions but now I see that homosexuality is wicked and contrary to Scripture so I'm glad that my congregation has affiliated with the Diocese of Timbuktu." Liberal or conservative, these priests haven't persuaded anyone of anything because no one takes them seriously--or should take them seriously.

Clergy imagine that we look to them for moral guidance, but in fact what laypeople want out of the Church is cheerleading, flattery and social control. They want cheerleading, just as they want cheerleading from facilitators, life-coaches and self-help books. People don't read self-help literature to learn anything they don't already believe: they read it to be gingered up, jollied along, encouraged to do what they believe, on independent grounds they should do. And that's the reason people listen to sermons and read devotional literature. They also want to be flattered, and the Church tells its "base" that they're the right sort of people, that they're virtuous because they're smarmy and sentimental, because they're "people persons." It flatters worthless old ladies by telling them that the woman-shit they do is virtuous and important. Finally they look to the Church as an instrument of social control, to keep their kids in line and, more broadly, to promote good behavior generally. That is what the Church supplies, but these arrogant priests imagine otherwise--they think we take them seriously, that we pay attention to their silly notions.

It will be a long time before the Episcopal Church in the US collapses because there's plenty of bucks in endowment, at the national, diocesan and, in some places, parish level. And because a shrinking minority is still contributing, and because some of those disgusting old ladies will remember the Church in their wills. So, within my lifetime there will be plenty of money for litigation, for fighting the good fight against homophobic congregations who want to affiliate with the Southern Cone or Nigeria and take their real estate and silverware with them

I'm sure glad I dropped out because this isn't what I was in the game for.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

As a Worldwide Schism Lurks, the Church of England Endorses Women as Bishops -
The governing body of the Anglican Church in Britain voted on Monday to approve the appointment of women as bishops, a step that appeared to risk a schism in the church in its historic homeland as the Anglican church worldwide faces one of the most serious threats to its unity in its history, over the ordination of gay clergy members.

Why is this man tearing his hair?

This is the Most Rev. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York and Primate of England, Second Among Equals, exhibiting existential angst about the proposal to ordain women to the episcopate of the CofE. Less reverend (and of course flat-out irreverent) folk will wonder why he and his fellow conservatives are so upset. After all, women are now political leaders, military officers and dentists--whatever is the problem?

Part of it is the failure of the less reverend to recognize that, from the theological point of view, there is a problem--in particular that priesthood is not simply a job, which women or anyone with the appropriate skills and credentials can do, or that conservatives' refusal to recognize women's ordination is more than resistance to admitting women to an Old Boys' Club. The NYTimes doesn't quite get it:

[T]raditionalists unreconciled to the end of the male monopoly within the clergy revived the battle over the issue of approving women as bishops, warning that it could lead to a breakup of the church in Britain.

Some conservatives are offended by the failure of almost everyone but themselves to recognize that secular competence and qualifications are just not what is at issue. The question is whether women can be a vehicle for the supernatural charismata constitutive of priesthood: whether they have the appropriate metaphysical status and can do the spooky stuff.

I used to think that this was the whole of it, but now see that it's only the smallest part because most conservatives in the Church, like their liberal opponents, identify religion with social arrangements and "values," and are not very interested in metaphysics or mysticism at all. For them, women's ordination is a symbol and symptom of a world gone to the dogs: the breakdown of the family, the rejection of objective moral standards, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, political correctness and social chaos. Personally, I am firmly committed to objective moral standards, detest political correctness and think social chaos would be a bad thing but am otherwise on the side of the dogs. I don't know any beings short of the angels who do better on objective moral standards than retrievers, like my chocolate lab, Ducati: herein is love.

The root problem is that after the Enlightenment the Church lost its nerve. Kant persuaded most educated people, for a time, that metaphysics was not intellectually respectable. What was the Church, the West's chief purveyor of metaphysics, to do? Presumably, get into another line of business--or make a minor sideline, the ethics business, its major enterprise. And that is what happened. By the 18th century the empirical sciences, mathematics and logic had been captured as secular enterprises; the social sciences and much of philosophy would soon follow. Ethics was still up for grabs so the Church made a play to capture it because, unlike metaphysics, in the wake of Kant's First Critique, it was respectable. Like Hope in Pandora's box, it was all that was left.

But not for long, because ethics soon became a secular enterprise and the Church soon enough became embroiled in the same losing battles it had fought over cosmology, astronomy, biology and history.

So now we see the Church digging in its heels to fight the Last Battle--which it will inevitably lose. Conservative clergy represent themselves as champions of objective ethics and decency pump out the doctrine that the only alternative to the code of conduct they promote is no code of conduct at all but self-destructive confusion, chaos and violence leading to social meltdown. On the ground, their followers conceive of religion is little more than an instrument of social control, ironically, very much like my mother who despised religious belief but hand that it was a good thing because it "kept uneducated people in line."

So now we see the likes of Archbishop Sentamu pissing in their purple knickers because they're convinced that the ordination of women symbolizes the rejection of all objective moral standards and means the end of civilization as we know it, while conservative Christians in the US and abroad are convinced that only the Old Time Religion will keep violence and chaos at bay. They are of course dead wrong--and that is an empirical fact. But there's a point to their worry that progressives don't recognize: for the lower classes, their best shot at living decent lives, given the gross defects of our current social arrangement, is to get strong religion or join the military. For them, this is the royal road to social mobility and the Good Life.

As to the Church, it will certainly collapse, though not in my lifetime, because both liberals and conservatives have given up on religion, which is its only legitimate business.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Social Justice or the Common Good?

Party in Search of a Notion | The American Prospect

For many years -- during their years of dominance and success, the period of the New Deal up through the first part of the Great Society -- the Democrats practiced a brand of liberalism quite different from today's. Yes, it certainly sought to expand both rights and prosperity. But it did something more: That liberalism was built around the idea -- the philosophical principle -- that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.

This, historically, is the moral basis of liberal governance -- not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity. Liberal governance is about demanding of citizens that they balance self-interest with common interest. Any rank-and-file liberal is a liberal because she or he somehow or another, through reading or experience or both, came to believe in this principle. And every leading Democrat became a Democrat because on some level, she or he believes this, too.

Michael Tomasky has been pushing this analysis of what went wrong for the Left in the 1960s for quite some time now and he has it exactly backwards. On his account the New Left transformed the agenda of American liberalism from a communitarianism, aimed at promoting the "common good," to an ideology of individual rights, individual opportunity and social justice.

In fact the New Deal and Great Society, which he applauds as effective, if flawed, programs were devoted to promoting individual rights, individual opportunity and social justice. Roosevelt added "freedom from fear" and "freedom from want" to the traditional four freedoms guaranteed in the constitution. The Civil Rights Movement of the '50s and early '60s, which Tomasky cites as a prime example of Americans pulling for the common good was precisely about individual rights, in particular, the right of individuals to be "treated as individuals" rather than as members of separate estates defined by skin color.

The New Left, by contrast, was deeply communitarian. The New Left merely replaced the the old, conservative commitment to the common good of a national community that excluded racial minorities, stigmatized gay people, and failed the poor, with the communitarian identity politics of restricted communities, defined by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability and the like.

The difference between the Old Left and the New Left was one of objectives and mechanisms for achieving them. Old-style liberalism was narrowly focused and its goals were clear: economic security, material well-being and opportunity. It embodied a vision of the Good Life represented by Norman Rockwell's "Freedom From Want." The Good Life was Levittown--on this traditional liberals and conservatives agreed, even as they disagreed about the means for attaining it.

Old-style New Deal liberals believed that government programs, contrived by technocrats, were the fairest and most effective means for promoting the Good Life. The WPA, CCC and an alphabet soup of New Deal programs would provide jobs. The GI bill would provide education, training and the opportunity for more Americans to move into the middle-class. FHA and VA loans would finance homes in leafy suburbs. All (white male) Americans would have good jobs that paid a "family wage" so that all (white) Americans could be bourgeois. Economic experts in government service would design programs to make that feasible and government bureaucrats would administer them.

The goal of the Civil Rights Movement was to desegregate Levittown--to make the bourgeois life feasible for minorities. The values, means and ends were the same. The Good Life was the life of the white, Anglo middle class and the aim of the Civil Rights Movement was to see to it that members of racial and ethnic minorities could get it too. The means were also the same: government programs and social engineering.

The New Left repudiated the values and goals to which old-style liberals were committed. Children who had grown up in Levittown did not want to move back and were contemptuous of working class strivers who struggled to achieve and maintain a way of life they rejected. In addition the New Left were deeply distrustful of traditional mechanisms for social improvement. They did not merely reject the Establishment as it was--they rejected establishment as such: they distrusted hierarchal institutions, credentialed experts and impersonal mechanisms.

It is easy to see why most Americans found this program repugnant. The institutions that comprised the Establishment--schools and universities, government and the military-industrial complex--provided reasonably fair opportunities for individuals to achieve their goals. The rules and requirements were clear. You got grades and passed tests so that you could go to college. You got more grades and passed more tests to get a credential that guaranteed a good job with a regular paycheck, benefits and a retirement plan. You saved money for the down payment on a house, maintained good credit and got a mortgage. You didn't need to be hooked into a social network or "have contacts"; you didn't need to be socially skilled, lucky or likable. The system was transparent--and it served the interests of "middle American" careerist strivers.

Once the New Left became established, the Democratic Party lost its focus on economic issues and "liberal" was redefined. Environmentalism, reproductive rights, peace and other projects that had nothing to do with the defining agenda of the left as it had been became signature issues of the New Left, which dominated Democratic politics. To the extent that Democrats cared about bread-and-butter issues at all their concern was focused primarily on the underclass and in particular on individuals who could not, or more often, would not pay their dues. Democrats became the Mommy Party with a vision of the state as a secular communitarian church devoted to caring for the least of the brethren. It embodied the sentimentalities and romantic fantasies of the elite but had little to offer the great body of working class Americans who did not regard themselves as victims and did not want care or compassion but fairness, opportunity and the guarantee that if they played by the rules their rights would be respected.

So I agree with Tomasky. Democrats need to "kick some old habits." But it's the habit of framing social issues in communitarian terms and describing their agenda in the language of compassion, care and the common good that they need to break if they are to win over most Americans, who want transparency, a level playing field and the assurance that if they pay their dues they can achieve their goals.