October 20, 2014

More on General

In response to a very defensive comment from a current member of the Board of Trustees of General Theological Seminary, which argued essentially that if the public knew what the Board knew (but couldn't divulge, nudge nudge, wink wink; and that the Board had no other options available) I posted the following, presented here in a lightly edited version, with a few links added for convenience of reference:
When it is not even possible to find with ease a copy of the current much-amended bylaws of the Board of Trustees of the General Seminary, and we are told to trust the trustees who know things they cannot divulge, and when faced with what appear to be abuses, it is very difficult to believe, let alone trust, that any proper process is being followed.

What is abundantly clear is that the letter from the faculty was neither intended to convey, nor did its "plain English" state, that the faculty were submitting their resignations. That the Board purported to "accept" the resignations, rather than engaging in a process to terminate employment by legitimate means (if that was to be their decision, and for which a special meeting, with notice, was required in older versions of the bylaws) represents a failure in due process. The Board were not backed into a corner. They had plenty of options at their disposal (including doing nothing), and they chose a path remarkable for its duplicity and irresponsibility.

The Trustees, above all, seem to think they are the institution. They are not. In academia -- which is not just like other not-for-profits -- the faculty are the heart of the institution, together with the students. The faculty are not mere employees, they are not merely "staff" -- and above all they are not simply replaceable production line workers.

I join Bishops Dietsche and Breidenthal in their call to return to the status quo ante as soon as possible.
  Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

October 16, 2014

On Texting

In Matthew 19, Jesus cites texts from Genesis 1 and 2 ("male and female he made them" and "for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife") in order to show that "what God has joined together no one should separate." In other words, this is his response to the question about if and when divorce is appropriate.

However, in current discussions, this text is more likely to be applied as an effort against marriage equality; sometimes even within traditions and by people who do not hold fast to the opposition to divorce which appears to have been the point of Jesus' teaching.

This assertion of a subtext, removing the prooftext from its context, strikes me as a pretext.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

October 11, 2014

The Church's Treasury

General Theological Seminary
Commencement Day Eucharist, 1997

(Various Occasions #24)
Psalm 8 - Ecclesiastes 3.1,9-13 - 1 Peter 2.11-17 - Matt 6.19-24
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Today’s readings might well be paraphrased as, Don’t Worry be Happy, Be a Good Citizen, and Try Not to Make too Much Money. The first — Don’t Worry Be Happy — is engraved on the outer wall of the Hoffman Refectory, in its more formal Latin version, Carpe diem; the second — Be a Good Citizen — is sound advice only so long as one lives in a good city, a good state.

 Of the three, it is the third, Try Not to Make Too Much Money, that appears to be particularly directed at those who serve in the church. Anyone who goes to seminary on the basis of the promise found on a matchbook cover, Go to College to Increase Your Earning Power, has either pulled the wrong catalogue off the shelf, or is two sandwiches shy of a picnic. True, the church leaves its threshing oxen unmuzzled — but it keeps them on a short leash and moving in circles at a hectic pace. In short, devoting one’s life to the work of the church — as most of us here have chosen to do — or have been chosen to do — is an effective way to follow our Lord’s advice not to lay up treasure on earth.

If, that is, we are talking about the kind of treasure that comes printed with portraits of dead politicians, in various denominations. But there is another kind of treasure that is more beguiling than the folding green. And it exists in various denominations, too: Not fives, tens and twenties, but Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran... It is a treasure which those who serve the church, and the church itself, are tempted to store up, perhaps compensating for getting less of the kind with a politician’s image and likeness on them: whether that politician be Tiberius Caesar or Andrew Jackson.

This compensation is the treasure of respectability, of stability, of survival achieved by walking the safe road of compromise. It is the treasure of becoming established of becoming an institution.

The First Letter of Peter shows this process at work; it counsels good citizenship as a strategy for survival in the Empire. Fortunately for the church, the Empire got so bad that “good” citizenship became impossible; for if the church was to remain the church it must eventually collide with Caesar.

Those who had counseled accommodation then found themselves called to re-evaluate — surely Saint Peter repented of his advice to honor the emperor when crucified head-down; and just as surely Saint Paul must have reconsidered the wisdom of appealing to Caesar’s justice when he faced Caesar’s sword. Both apostles eventually realized that they could not serve two masters — Christ and Caesar — though too late for them to leave epistles to that effect.

Imperial persecution clarified the church’s vision with the bright light of the refiners fire, and empowered it to see that survival on Caesar’s terms was not worth survival. Thank God for the martyrs whose blood tempered the steel of the early church; thank God for the confessors who realized that the time had passed for playing goody two-sandals.

And, strange as it may sound, thank God for the Caesars, the Domitians and the Diocletians and all the others who gave the church something to stand up to, something to stand up for. It was persecution that reminded the church of its primary mission: not to survive at all costs, not to survive by ceasing to be itself — but to spend itself for the life of the world, as its Lord had done.

It took the Caesars to remind the church that those who seek to save their life will lose it. It took the Caesars to remind the church that it was the body of Christ — Christ crucified under Pontius Pilate, who suffered death and was buried, and only then was raised from the dead. Christ set the pattern for the church’s life. Only by losing one’s life can one’s life be saved; only what dies can be raised again.

Much time has passed since those fiery, foundry days. The world’s animosity towards the church — with a few notable exceptions — has cooled to chilly toleration. And how has the church responded? How does the church expend its energy these days, now that Caesar no longer persecutes so vehemently? Isn’t most of the church’s warfare these days intramural? Where is the church’s treasure being spent — on outgoing mission, or ongoing questions of self-definition?

Is the church laying up treasure in heaven where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and thieves cannot break in — or is it squandering its wealth on the ecclesiastical equivalents of mothballs, Rustoleum, and security systems?

It happens in parishes, national churches, religious orders — it even happens in seminaries! ....so I’m told… The focus shifts from the mission to the mission agency, from the work itself to the procedures, protocols, and policies for carrying out that work; from the apostolic mission to the apostolic order; from the vision to the vision statement.

The church’s vision, once turned outward to take in the needs of a suffering world, turns inward. When this happens, the church’s vision is in danger of the double darkness of which Christ warns in the Gospel — blindness that thinks it sees. The church’s view and perspective become blinded by its own bulk, its own reflection, its own precious self.

When this happens, the church risks its title as a wonderful and sacred mystery and is on the verge of becoming an institution like any other. A church preoccupied with survival rather than with mission, risks abdicating its role as bride of Christ and becoming more like Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Preoccupation with self-perpetuation transforms the church from a wedding festival with lamps ablaze and eyes bright with future hope, to a draped and shuttered room whose lonely inhabitant tries in vain to preserve a past that never was.

Am I exaggerating? Think of the energy and resources that have gone into addressing the fears of those who see the Episcopal-Lutheran Concordat as the end of the church as we know it. The Episcopal Church treasures the episcopate, and rightly so — but here is an opportunity to extend the very thing we treasure if we are willing to set aside preoccupation with its substance for a time to focus on its purpose.

The apostolic order is not an end in itself, but the chosen means for the apostolic ministry and the apostolic message:— it is the chosen vessel to bear the good news to the ends of the earth.

We are called and commissioned in that apostolic succession, to that apostolic mission, called to risk what we treasure, to spend what we have for the sake of the gospel, to risk what is most precious to us in order to share it.

And the gospel message we share is strengthened when we share it in a gospel fashion: only those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them; only what dies can be raised; only what is spent can be redeemed. True wealth, after all, is revealed in what you are willing to spend, not in how much you possess. The life of the church is death to self; and the church is most truly itself when it spends itself with an abandon that matches the liberality of the spendthrift Christ — Christ who gave himself up on the cross, who spent himself completely, who emptied himself and took a servant’s form. And he did it all for love, for the love of his bride, the church.

Christ and his bride are that perfectly mad young couple who store up no treasure — who spend all they have on each other, but having each other need nothing else. You know the story: she cut off her hair and sold it to the wigmaker to buy him a watch-fob; he pawned his watch to buy her a tortoise-shell comb — gifts, that in their purchase and giving were rendered utterly useless and yet infinitely precious, for they represented the gift of the self for the other.

What, then, is the church’s true wealth? Only Christ, and him crucified. Are we mad? Yes, we are, but so is Christ, who with divine madness values each of us poor fragile creatures as chosen and precious treasures. As the old, old, love song tells it, Solomon’s love song, the Song of Songs sung to a Christian tune: Christ is our treasure, and we are his.

Long, long ago, a good deacon faced the powers of Caesar as they oppressed the church. The authorities demanded he turn over the church’s treasures. Expecting him to bring forth gold and silver, how surprised and angered they were when he assembled the poor and the sick and said, This is the church’s treasure.

We — the members of Christ’s body — are the church’s treasure still, because beloved and treasured by Christ, because we are where his heart is, and no moth, no rust, no thief can touch us. We are the treasure of the church, and this holy place is its treasury. This place, and every place where the church gathers, and every place from which it is sent forth, though they be earthen vessels, are God’s treasury. Don’t you ever let anyone tell you they are just institutions. And don’t you ever let anyone make them so. You who teach and you who learn, you who worship and you who proclaim, you who administer and steward and care for the fabric of these vessels, keep your vision clear, always turned to the needs of the world that the church is called to serve. Carpe diem: Seize the day — the time is now. Christ is risen and ascended, and the Spirit is poised to shower us with gifts. Realize your citizenship in God’s kingdom — the country without borders where there are no aliens.

We are Christ’s treasure, and Christ is our treasure, — Christ who gives himself into our hands, precious fragile treasures of bread and wine that feed and strengthen us to spend ourselves in Christ’s service, to turn from the service of self, to do the work God gives us to do in truth and beauty for the common good. May we now and ever spend ourselves freely — spend ourselves selflessly in company with the saints: those gone before, those sitting here now, and those yet to come — all those saints who bought by Christ, are free to serve — Christ’s treasure on earth as he is ours in heaven.

Note: as indicated above this sermon was preached in 1997. It still seems timely, in spite of some of the illustrations being dated. However, other circumstances have arisen to replace them, so if you will apply the rule of mutatis mutandis, I share it here.

October 4, 2014

Generally Speaking

One would have to be living under a paving tile if not a rock not to have heard of the turmoil that has been under way at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan. I won't go into the details here, as the unfolding of this tragic conflict has been amply covered on blogs and websites and in social media. I would be tempted to say it is like watching a slow-motion trainwreck, were it not for the fact that the Internet has enabled what appear to me to be rather hasty quid-pro-quo reaction and counter-reaction, as well as a halo of commentary.

I take a good bit of this personally. I am an alumnus, having graduated in 1997. I was the valedictory preacher, and in my sermon heightened the tension between the seminary as "an institution" and as "God's treasury" — with my strong preference for regarding it more wholesomely as the latter. Two of the faculty from whom I learned the most while there, Drs. Good and Hurd, are among the eight faculty most touched by the current conflict. I have met the Dean in the past, and shared a meal with him at Dr. Good's table in what I can only regard as happier days. I know members of the Board of Trustees, including Bishop Sisk, with whom I have worked closely and whose prudence and judgment I have long admired. So, much of this appears to me, emotionally, to be an example of bad things happening to good people.

And it is difficult to set those emotions aside, especially given the haste and the form of the charges, counter-charges, and reactions. Rush to judgment seems to have become the watchword, rather than due process and careful consideration. In particular, it seems to me that interpreting the job action by the eight faculty as resignation from their positions is not a helpful approach. At the same time, it seems prejudicial to allow the Dean to continue functioning in the face of what at least some feel to be substantial complaints, rather than imposing a form of administrative leave to allow a cooling off period.

Some of this appears to me to be systematic and institutional: I'm on record as not being a big fan of Boards of Trustees in general; nor do I think it wise to vest too much power in a Dean (and President), as I believe academies function best as collegial bodies in which the faculty have the principal governing role — led, but not dominated by, a Dean. It is helpful to note that in the 1832 statutes of the seminary, the deanship rotated on an annual basis among the faculty in order of seniority, and the principle functions of the Dean were coordinative and administrative. All major decisions concerning curriculum were to be made collegially. One detail gives an idea of the Dean's scope of action: the school Janitor is to report directly to the Dean.

Most importantly, as tempting as analogies are, it is a misunderstanding to map other structures onto the peculiar academy which is the General Theological Seminary. The Dean is not to the Faculty as a Rector to a Vestry, far less a congregation. (If there is a "vestry" it is the Board of Trustees, though even there the analogy breaks down on almost all counts.) Given that this is a seminary and not a secular school, it is also important not to map its situation too closely to that even of a secular academy. For one thing, the chapel has a historic role in the life of GTS, and some of the allegedly unilateral changes in the chapel worship made by the Dean are among the complaints raised. While it is quite true that the seminary is not a monastery, the life-giving heartbeat of the school is the round and rhythm of daily worship and prayer. In fact, it seems there has been far too much knee-jerking, and not enough knee-bending, in the current tumult.

I have no answers other than to appeal for reevaluation of extreme action, and a pullback to a moderate and moderating position in which grievances might be addressed without prejudice or favor.

And in the meantime, the seminary is in my daily thoughts and prayers.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

October 1, 2014

Fragment of a Litany

God is not wise… God is Wisdom.
God is not eternal… God is Eternity.
God does not exist… God is Being.
God is not the travel nor the traveler… God is the Way.
God is not the lover nor the loving… God is Love.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 16, 2014

Visionary Woman

Hildegard of Bingen is one of those unique and challenging people from the distant past who seem to be in touch with something beyond time and space. She was a mystic and a scientist, testimony to the fact that a close observation of the things of this world need not occupy one interested in the next.

I commend Margarethe von Trotta’s film on the life of this wonderful character. I delayed watching it (on Netflix); perhaps I thought it would be a pious and tedious tract. On the contrary it is an absorbing and entertaining portrait of an extraordinary woman — extraordinary in her own day, and likely any day up until the present, and perhaps even now.

My "quick icon" is based on the actress who plays Hildegard, Barbara Sukowa. She captures the ambiguities and imperfections of this very real woman. 

One of the most fascinating things about Hildegard is her music. It inspired me to write my own setting of "Come, Holy Ghost" for the profession liturgy for some of the Sisters of Saint Gregory. No recording was made at the time, and it hasn't been performed since (as far as I know). So I offer a synthesized choir which sounds a bit like a group of (perhaps) Bulgarians for whom English is a second language. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy... Here's to Hildegard!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

MP3 File

September 10, 2014

Carts and Horses

I've held my tongue on the subject for a while now, but I find that proverbial fire burning within.

While there is much to commend in the TREC letter  (on the restructuring of The Episcopal Church) when it comes to practical streamlining and downsizing some of the superstructure of the Episcopal Church (including several proposals I've made myself over the years, such as trimming deputation sizes and retiring some CCABs) I still find myself wondering to what extent we are putting cart before horse — if the horse really exists and it isn't all cart, all form with no real handle on the function.

I raise this because it seems to me that the Great Unanswered Question is: What is this superstructure (PB, GC, EC, etc.) for? What are the ministries that can only, or best, be performed for the good of the church and the world by an [inter]national organ of the ecclesiastical body, so conceived and so constituted.

And I find I can think of precious few things that require or commend such an [inter]national structure: setting the law and liturgy of the church; engaging in formal interreligious and interfaith dialogue and work; [inter]national level mission programs and ministry. These are off the top of my head -- there is likely more; but however much is best or only done at this supreme level, it seems to me that the vast bulk of the work of the church is done in and by the parish, secondly by the diocesan and regional entities, and only thirdly at the national and international level.

And until it is manifestly clear just what work is best done at that level, arguing about how the workforce should be structured to accomplish it is premature — and very likely a waste of time and energy. “Form follows function” should apply to ecclesiastical structures as well as buildings.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 5, 2014

Order in the Court

Richard Posner's opinion in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, striking down anti-marriage equality obstacles in Wisconsin and Indiana, is a fine piece of work, as others have noted. One thing that stood out for me was his citation of Supreme Court Justice Alito's dissent in Windsor, in which Alito refers favorably to the argument "that marriage is essentially the solemnizing of a comprehensive, exclusive, permanent union that is intrinsically ordered to producing new life, even if it does not always do so." (133 S. Ct. at 2718)

This thesis is one of those truthisms that mere repetition does not prove. It is absurd on the face of it, but that doesn't stop some people taking it seriously. The principle problem lies in the word intrinsically, which means essentially, necessarily, or inherently: something that is in the nature of a thing as and in itself, without which that thing would not be what it is. So, why does this not work for marriage? I can quickly come up with four reasons.

First, to attach a modifier like intrinsic to an action (such as marriage or sexual intercourse within marriage) is already philosophically questionable, since actions are by their nature not "substances" or "things" but the behavior or activity of things.

Second, the notion of an order is about intention or plan — even further removed from being intrinsic, since intent and plan necessarily involve a state not yet realized.

Third, the action in question, and the estate in which it takes place, is one involving more than one actor — two "things" if you will — and this also violates the notion of intrinsic as particular to a thing.

This is brought home in the final astounding admission that the desired result — assuming it to be desired, which it often isn't even when possible — does not always take place. So much for it being essential, inherent, or intrinsic — something which may not be possible can hardly be held to be essential.

It is fine to say that procreation ought to take place within marriage; but to attempt to reduce marriage to one of its possible outcomes — and one acknowledged not to be possible in many cases — is looking into the beautifully decorated wedding hall through a very narrow crack.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 31, 2014

The Speed of God: Mainline Religion

Karl Marx famously observed that religion was the opiate of the masses, meaning that it provided an escape from the harsh realities of life. This may well be true, but looking at the conflicts arising in the Middle East these days, I’m inclined to observe that religion is the amphetamine of the masses.

Now, some will suggest that the conflicts between Arabs, Christians and Jews in Palestine/Israel, or between or among Islamists (Sunni and Shi’a) are simply proxy struggles for what is at base political conflict. I think this gets things wrong, and does a disservice to religion, as well as politics.

There may well be cynical non-believers who make use of the religions conflicts of our time to their own political ends. However, there are also true believers for whom the religious issues are the source and end of the conflict. A look at European history will show that this is not a new phenomenon. Look back to the European conflicts of the 15th through the 17th century — focus just on England if that makes it easier — and you will see people killing each other over things like vernacular liturgy and the theology of the Eucharist. There is nothing new about beheading or burning people over religious differences. As I said in an earlier post, if you want to understand the Muslim present, look to the Christian past.

It is also no use trying to play one Muslim off against another — or to accept with an easy nod the soothing reassurances of the “good Muslims” that the Islamists are in error and do not truly represent Islam. Who says? Council after council anathematized those it deemed “heretics”; the Pope said the same thing about Elizabeth I; American Baptists distance themselves from the folks in Westboro; the Global South Anglicans will condemn Episcopalians as apostates. These divisions of opinion do not mark the boundary between true and false religion — or if they do, who is to decide which side is right? One chooses one’s side based one’s own understanding of what is right and just and true — but so do they all, excepting the odd occasional cynic who might just be doing it all for political gain; and I think every side may have one or more such game-players.

So I hate to be the bearer of bad news to those who think that “good” religion will solve the problems of the current world crisis. Religion isn’t the solution; it is the problem. Christians trying to be sweet and reasonable by saying to Jews and Muslims, “We all worship the same God” is really a bit condescending, and ultimately false, since only some nominal Christians are willing to soft-pedal the orthodox notion that Jesus is God — so not really quite the same as the God of Judaism or Islam, at least from their point of view.

However, we nor they need not alter beliefs in order to work towards a pluralistic world in which people resolve not to kill each other over religious differences. What is needed is something like the Elizabethan settlement — which derives not so much from an act of will or resolve to peace as from a war-weariness in which all but the most zealous finally recognize that the continued fighting is getting them nowhere fast, and it is time to stop mainlining the speed of religion. Christianity more or less reached this detente a few centuries ago; we can only hope that Islam doesn’t take as long to reach its stasis point.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 29, 2014

Heaven on Earth

Charles Chapman Grafton was an early member of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, with a missional heart and soul for the Gospel nourished in the Anglo-Catholic spirit of Edward Bouverie Pusey: which is to say, one who understood both the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty. He served at Boston’s Church of the Advent, and later as Bishop of Fond du Lac. He was an active supporter of the revival of religious life in The Episcopal Church, and assisted in the foundation of the Sisters of the Holy Nativity. He also sought rapprochement with the Orthodox and Old Catholic church leaders of his day.

It would be a great mistake to reduce such a legacy to the “Fond of Lace” school of prettified and petrified worship of the means of worship. For people like Grafton, the smells and bells were not an end in themselves, but a mark of the singular dignity evoked by a lively awareness of the presence of God in our midst, and in our persons, a deeply incarnational faith.

May he and all who seek the glimmers of God's presence — in art and music and the human person — here on earth rejoice unto the ages of ages in the imperishable halls of heaven.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
icon in wash and ink 2013

August 26, 2014

(No) Thanks for the Complement

One of the problems with the theory of gender complementarity is that it tends to reduce the human to the visually physical. Heterosexuality is held to be normative on the basis of gross anatomy — the fact that male and female bodies exist is taken uncritically to mean that they not only can join, but only can join. This biological determinism ignores that much (if not most) of sexuality is mental and emotional — and that these aspects of the human being are also just as much physical (in the brain and nervous system, in particular as acted upon by the endocrine system) as the gross anatomy of the external sexual characteristics. The “dishonorable members” cannot say to the brain, “I have no need of you.” Every member shares in the wholeness of the body.

The essence of sexuality, as in so much else about what it means to be human, lies in the inside, not the outside: it is content, not form alone, that constitutes the human person.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 21, 2014

Living in Another's Skin

I have only ever once been accused of shoplifting, at a Pathmark in Yonkers, when the "security" attendant saw me put something in my pocket and failed to recognize it as a shopping list. (What of value in a supermarket he imagined I could put in my pocket, I can not tell, but suffice it to say the incident was embarrassing, angering, and put me off shopping at that store ever again.)

However, I also realize that what was a one-off unpleasantness for me is, for anyone born brown or black in this America, a daily possibility or worse, probability. I recall years ago hearing in shock from one of my African-American brothers in Christ of his experience being challenged as he opened the trunk of his own car as we gathered for an evening meeting in White Plains NY. That simply would never happen to me, in my own skin, which makes me both grateful and furious.

For I do not deserve this favor, nor did he deserve the hassle, nor does anyone deserve to be shot unarmed in the street, strangled on the sidewalk, or pummeled on the highway. The chances of my being challenged as I enter my own home or car are vanishingly small. The possibility I will be shot in the street, unarmed, is almost nonexistent. As a white male I have almost no basis for sympathy with my African-American brothers and sisters on the basis of my own experience, other than my being human, and being at the end of it all saddened and shocked and angry that I live in a racist nation.

There, I've said it. I live in a racist nation. Having a black president only goes so far; and I dare say if Barack Obama were wearing a jogging suit on a poorly lit street, not surrounded by Secret Service agents, he might well be challenged if he tried to open the trunk of a car one evening in the aptly named White Plains.

I just want to say, Stop it. Stop it, now. Train the police to use less lethal methods, and prosecute to the fullest extent those who don't. Put to rest the constant need to suspect on the basis of a profile all too aptly suited to fit the native prejudices. End the madness of the war on drugs that has nourished the vast bulk of this problem in the first place, like its pale ghost uncle Prohibition. End it all. Just stop!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG