December 20, 2014

Static Charge

There is a well-known twist on an equally well-known saying: “Don’t just do something; stand there!” While this can be good advice for a stage actor in her first TV role, or a person perched on a narrow ledge, it takes on a very different quality in the church, particularly when it comes in the form, “Please don't do anything that might upset other members of the Anglican Communion.” This was the philosophy that lay at the heart of the still-not-fully-adopted Anglican Communion Covenant, and it has reemerged in the past few days in the form of a charge from the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order to the Anglican Church of Canada not to amend its canon law to allow for same-sex marriage within the church, in order to give more time for delicate relationships to heal.

There are a number of problems with this request, itself a response to a request from Canada, and I suppose if you ask you will receive; though one is reminded of the saying, “Who among you, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone.” The most glaring problem for matters of "Faith" (a part of the Commission’s work) lies in the distance between the core doctrines of the Christian faith and issues surrounding marriage, especially civil marriage, as far as Anglicans are concerned. I won't repeat the obvious here, but note the absence of much reference to marriage in the core doctrinal statements of the early church (the Creeds), the silence of the classical Anglican Catechism on the subject, and the short references in the Articles of Religion that acknowledge marriage as “allowed” and that it is “lawful” even for clergy to marry “as for all other Christian men... at their own discretion...” (Note to Scotland!)

The second “faith” problem lies in the implication in the IASCUFO statement that this is a temporary urging, and that as soon as relationships are healed in the uneasy marriage of inconvenience the Anglican Communion, it will be belly up to the wedding prie-dieu. So this is not pitched as the faith for all times, but a temporary moratorium. The implication is that same-sex marriage will be acceptable as soon as those offended by it reach a better mind, and it is only to avoid offense that the delay is counseled. Saint Paul commended giving in to “the weak” in matters indifferent such as food; but he held the line when it came to matters he regarded as important, such as circumcision. In this case marriage is clearly important to some — those who are marrying; no one need take offense as someone else’s marriage is for them to work through, and for others to respect. If you don’t want same-sex marriage in your own province, then don’t approve it.

This sums up for me the deepest problem with this static charge: the confusing ethic that underlies the request: “Do not do for yourself what someone else doesn't want to do for themselves.” This barely recognizable “tweak” of the Golden Rule has long been the ethical standard in the dead center of Anglican circles. Rather than walking together, it amounts to standing still together, and is utterly foreign to the way history shows the church at its actual work in promoting transformation. Had this principle been employed in the 16th century, there wouldn’t be an Anglican anything today. The whole history of the church is based on some one or ones doing something that some others thought was a Bad Idea at the time.

I wrote a short blog post entitled “What Should Have Happened” about this ethical stance back in 2006, and I think it worth repeating here:

  • The General Convention should have listened to the clear directions of the Primates and repented and repudiated all that had been done to offend
  • The Episcopal Church should have ignored the tradition of national church polity and remained as a missionary arm of the Church of England even after the Revolution.
  • The Church of England should have listened to the pope and never separated from Rome.
  • The Eastern Orthodox should have done the same and submitted to Rome so as not to sever communion.
  • The martyrs should have followed Saint Paul’s advice to obey those in civil authority.
  • Saint Paul, in the interest of not tearing the fabric of the early church, should have acceded to the circumcision party instead of trusting to his own private interpretation of Scripture.
  • The Jerusalem Council should have ignored the anecdotal evidence of Paul and Barnabas — which could only serve to make Law-abiding Jewish converts uneasy.
  • Saul should have ignored his personal “experience” on the road to Damascus and followed his orders from the Sanhedrin.
  • The other apostles should have ignored Peter’s “dream” and stuck to the letter of the Law.
  • Jesus should have heeded Peter’s advice and turned back from Jerusalem.
  • He might also have considered more seriously the various options presented to him in the Wilderness Report.
  • Joseph should have ignored the “personal revelation” he received — again in a dream, no less — and acted in accordance with the Law, and when he found Mary to be with child by someone other than himself, had her stoned to death, and her unborn child with her.
  • Then we wouldn’t be having all these problems with the Anglican Communion.
True then, true now.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 11, 2014

Faulty Divorce

There is such a thing as “no fault” divorce in which the parties agree to separate with no other “cause” than their desire no longer to continue in their marriage. By its very nature this is not something that one party can impose on the other. When one spouse says to the other, “I can’t go on living like this,” a number of responses are appropriate. These include:

  • “What have I done?”
  • “Can’t we work this out?”
  • “Are you saying you want a divorce?”
It would, however, be inappropriate and presumptuous to say, “You’ve asked for a divorce; so be it.”

Similarly, when a worker approaches a boss and says, “I can’t go on working under these conditions,” there are appropriate and inappropriate responses. Appropriate responses include:
  • “What conditions? What is / are the problem(s)?”
  • “How can we work this through to our mutual satisfaction?”
  • “Things aren’t going to change; are you planning to resign?”
It would be utterly inappropriate to say, “I accept your resignation.” You can no more “resign” another person than you can force them to divorce you. You may be free to fire them or divorce them, but that puts the action — and the responsibility — on your side.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 26, 2014

Of Confidence and Confidentiality

Issues of disclosure have been much in the news lately. From the scandals plaguing the Roman Church to the debates about the seal of the confessional in the Church of England, to the concerns about closed meetings of Executive Council, and unpublished bylaws at the General Seminary, there appears to be a good deal of confusion about what things, and when and how and to what extent, ought to be kept under wraps.

One of the common reasons advanced for confidentiality concerns “personnel matters.” But when the personnel matter under discussion is misconduct — in some cases to a criminal level — then confidentiality that allows the guilty employee to find another job in a similar setting amounts to conspiracy, and in the long run serves no one well. Even if it did, that is a road down which no one should want to tread.

Another reason for confidentiality is that being allowed to reveal incriminating information about oneself without fear of it going any farther is essential to the ministry of reconciliation in the confessional. The argument here is that few would avail themselves of this ministry without the assurance that what is said will not be held against them. I can understand the pastoral practical side of this, but have been unable to find any dogmatic rationale that supports the notion, particularly given the dominical teaching on the dangers of hypocrisy: that what is said in secret will be made known at length (Luke 12:1-3). The apocalypse is a warning that in the end nothing is covered up that will not be revealed.

Obviously some things do deserve the protection of confidentiality — which at the level of the confessional applies to the act of confession as well as its content. But some things, by their nature, demand public notice. Among these are minutes of meetings, actions taken by boards of directors, and changes made to bylaws. This is particularly the case where the decisions are taken in the name of some larger entity than just those immediately present in the room. Any action that touches a wider constituency ought to be communicated to that constituency.

Above all it is important to distinguish between confidentiality and secrecy. For instance, doctor / patient and attorney / client confidentiality is well understood not to prevent a doctor or lawyer from discussing a case study — with the name of the patient or client concealed.

To apply this to some of the current controversies about publication of actions of church bodies, I have suggested that in part the Chatham House Rule would make good sense in such situations. Under this rule, the subject matter of a closed meeting, and comments made in it, can be shared, but the identity of the speaker and the speaker’s affiliation are not to be revealed. This allows for open discussion of the subject matter without endangering anyone for expressing an opinion that might be controversial.

But in the end, I have no confidence in confidentiality when it amounts to selective secrecy.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


November 23, 2014

The King Is Here

SJF • Proper 29a • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, When the son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory... and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

We come now to the last Sunday of the church’s calendar year — you know our calendar doesn’t quite match up with the secular and civil calendar that starts in January. Our church year starts on the First Sunday of Advent — next Sunday — and so this church year ends this week.

It ends with a celebration that goes in some places by the name of the Feast of Christ the King. It’s a reminder of who our King is, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the one under whose feet, as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, all things are put in subjection.

Our gospel today shows this our King in action. The Son of Man comes in his glory, sits on his throne, and executes judgment. Talk about an executive order! For this is not just an order, but a judgment; and a chilling judgment it is. For those who are rewarded are not great heroes and martyrs. No, the reward of blessing is given to people who did very ordinary things: who fed the hungry and gave the thirsty something to drink, who welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, who cared for the sick and visited prisoners.

And those who are judged guilty, are not perpetrators of horrible crimes — those who here are sent away into eternal punishment are not mass murders and terrible villains. No, they are people who simply failed to do the same things the blessèd ones did: who gave no food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty, who shunned the stranger and provided the naked with nothing to wear, who didn’t care for the sick or visit those in prison.

And the reason these two groups of people are judged as blessed or cursed is because those they served or rejected were not just anybody — they were the King himself in disguise.

+ + +

We’ve all heard stories about kings in disguise. It is a daring enterprise for a leader to put on a false beard and eyepatch and a humble garment and wander among his subjects. He had best have a strong will and a solid ego, for the things he hears may not be to his liking. Without his crown, without his royal robes of state, a king may be treated just like anybody else — for good or ill depending on who is doing the treating. One of my favorite stories is that of King Alfred, who was hiding from Danish invaders back in the ninth century. He hid undercover for a while in a peasant’s hut. One day the peasant’s wife told him to keep an eye on cakes baking on the griddle while she went out on an errand. With all of his troubles, his mind wandered, and he allowed the cakes to burn. When the woman of the house returned she gave him a ferocious tongue lashing — not knowing, of course, that she was speaking to her king.

+ + +

But we don’t have that excuse. We’ve been given the warning of who our King is. Jesus, our King, has told us in words of one syllable that as we treat the least of those who are members of his family, so we have treated him. When we fail to give food to the hungry, when we neglect to give drink to the thirsty, when we don’t welcome the stranger, or fail to give clothing to the naked, when we don’t care for the sick and ignore the prisoners: we are doing it to him.

We at Saint James Church have a number of opportunities, not just as individuals as we walk through the streets day by day, but as a congregation, to honor our Lord’s royal presence among us. Let me just mention a couple with immediate impact in the next few weeks.

First of all, this Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, and as we have done for the past several years we will have a midday worship service and then serve hot meals to any who come to our door that afternoon; and I invite all of you to come and help in that service and to share in that fellowship.

Second, your vicar and deacon have at our disposal a small fund which comes from the loose plate offering received several times each year. It is called “adiscretionary fund,” and it is used entirely for charity and outreach. When someone off the street comes to the office door and asks for something to eat, or help filling a prescription, or money for the train home to Yonkers, it is from this fund that we’re able to give a fare-card, or a few dollars. Deacon Bill has been using part of his discretionary fund to provide food to the hungry through the Elijah Project: it’s a wonderful and creative way to share, and involves members of the parish in the work of sharing. And believe you me, it is at this time of the rolling year, as the winds grow cold, that more and more people are in need of help. So today’s loose plate offering will be set aside for that purpose, and so I ask you to be generous, helping us to help others in your name. There is an old saying that the ministry of hospitality may lead you to entertaining angels unaware. Believe me, when we serve any who are in need we are not just serving angels, we are serving Christ our King as well.

These are just two concrete and real things you can do to honor our King in disguise as he spends time among us, in the here and now, so that in the day of the great “then” he will recognize us as having treated him as he deserves.

+ + +

I mentioned King Alfred a moment ago. Well, a story is told of another English king, George V, who planned to pay a visit to the northern industrial city of Leeds. The town council was very excited, and posted banners announcing the royal visit throughout the city. Multitudes flocked in the streets to celebrate, waving the Union Jack and cheering to the sounds of the brass bands. A children’s school was fortunate to have its schoolyard right on the route of the railway train upon which the king would leave the city. It was agreed and arranged that the children would be outside in formation to greet the king as he went past, and he would wave at them in return. The children were, of course, terribly excited. The great day came and the children were ready to sing their song of greeting. Down the track, out of the long tunnel, the royal train came into the bright sunlight, the engine steaming and chugging its smokestack, the steam whistle loudly announcing the arrival. The train slowed as it came by the schoolyard and his Majesty King George V emerged from the coach at the end of the train and took up his place on the platform where the assembled children could see him. He was dressed as he normally did: in a black morning coat, striped trousers and vest, and a silk top hat. He waved politely to the children with his pocket handkerchief, and then the train picked up speed and he slipped back into the coach. The cheering of the excited children subsided, until there was only the sound of one little girl who was weeping her heart out. A teacher asked the little girl why she was crying. And the child looked up, and through her sobs and tears bitterly complained, “I thought we were going to see the king; but it was only a man in a top hat!” She was expecting to see the king looking as he did in the picture on the classroom wall, with his crown and red robe trimmed with ermine. That’s what she was expecting, but that’s not what she saw.

+ + +

What do we expect our King to look like? As we pass by a hungry person on the street do we think, “This is not our king, for where is his crown?” When we see someone cold and shivering in a threadbare coat, do we think, “This is not our king, for where is his regal robe?” When we hear that someone is sick and alone, do we assume, “This could not be our king, for a king would have courtiers and officials to take care of him.” When we see a stranger, do we say to ourselves, “This could not be our king, for where are his ambassadors?” When we hear of a person in prison, do we think, “This could not be our King, for no king would ever be convicted of a crime and sent to prison!”

What do we expect our King to look like? He has told us exactly how he looks. He looks like a man — a man hungry or thirsty; he looks like a woman — a woman far from home and looking for help; he looks like a child — a child sick and alone. For our King is King even without his crown, even without his robe of state; even without his top hat and morning coat! He is our King even when he is hungry, even when he is thirsty, or sick, or naked, or lonely, or in prison. He is even our King when he is nailed to a cross — and he did that for us.

What shall we do for him? He has told us. “Oh, that today, you would hearken to his voice.”+


November 4, 2014

Board Stiff

In spite of a few hopeful signs at the end of October, the effort to resolve the ongoing tensions at the General Theological Seminary have reached another detente. One can hope for movement, and hope has the power to grease gears, but what is needed above all is the greater virtue of charity: an ability to give, even when one believes one is in the right. And my concern is that I and others lack the third virtue of faith that the Board of Trustees is prepared to adopt that posture.

The Board of Trustees' positive move of offering to engage an outside specialist in reconciliation (the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center) was offset by the apparent refusal to provide a mechanism for a permanent neutral ombuds officer to field complaints (presumably from any side), as proposed by the eight faculty who are engaged in a work action — and now without salary. The Board instead proposed that a committee chaired by one of its own members serve in that capacity. This in itself appears to be a rejection of the notion of neutrality — for how can a member of the Board (even of Trustees) be trusted to maintain a neutral pose (that is more than a pose) in fielding complaints against actions of that Board? Given the fact that a subcommittee of the Board dismissed earlier complaints — an action that contributed to the current conflict — a truly outside auditor is needed. There is an old Latin saying, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — Who will watch the watchers? The saying is apposite to the present situation.

At the same time, the question is fairly raised: What can an ombuds officer do? If the Board is able to ignore the complaints brought to it by faculty and students, what is there to teethe an ombuds office to hold others to action? This is an endemic problem in institutions that essentially operate on a notion of "good faith" and principles of obedience; and if "the fish stinks from the head" and there is no mechanism for replacement of that head, yet another impasse is surely at hand.

It seems, in the long run, as I've noted elsewhere, that a different approach to the governance of the seminary is needed. The original model, in which the Trustees were distant and largely hands-off, confining themselves to assuring the reputation and financial stability of the seminary, and the main day-to-day work both of administration and education were the focus of the faculty (one of whose members annually served as dean in rotation) makes a good deal of sense. Given the abject failure of the current (and preceding generation) of Boards of Trustees in holding up the financial end of things, apart from overseeing the slow parceling off of much of the patrimonial property, it would appear that outside professional help is likely in order in any case.

Finally, I want to add a word rejecting the notion that the day of the residential seminary is over, and that the formation of clergy can be left to distance learning or other models. First, the notion is patently false at the outset: there are perfectly stable (financially and otherwise) seminaries even among the small number of Episcopalian institutions, that continue to maintain an essentially residential model (I think of VTS and Sewanee — the latter of which could hardly be more residential if it tried!); to say nothing of the many secular colleges and universities that do quite well with a residential model.

Second, there is more to the training of clergy than education. The more important part of the training lies in formation: and one formed for service in the community that is the church must have some experience — even if it is only for three years — of the ancient rhythms of that church's life, nourished with daily worship. One of the more shocking revisions of the current administration at GTS was the paring back of the daily round of worship. It is of course completely true that the seminary is not out to create Benedictine monks and nuns — yet the wisdom of the Rule of Benedict, the balance of prayer, study, and work as tools for spiritual and personal formation and education, has stood the test of time in a way any seminary would be happy to match.

In short, there is no simple solution to the problems at General Seminary. But grace and flexibility are essential for any short- or long-term solution, one hopes geared to a future more productive than the recent past.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

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