Thursday, October 30, 2014

Welcoming non-believers to church

An Episcopal priest writing in the HuffPo catches on that there are people in the pews who are not believers. He is struck by
the astonishing notion that non-believers can actually enjoy and appreciate being part of a congregation. That they can take pleasure in participating in a family of faith, even without the faith.
I guess he's not read the discussion here at FoJ, where I have nattered on at length on being a "secular Christian" and a church-going atheist.   I was even quoted by Andrew Sullivan.  There are a lot of us who identify as culturally Christian but of course not all of us find a place where we are welcomed.

He goes on,
I believe there is something about experiencing the ancient liturgy that can take us to another part of our being, deep into our spiritual selves -- whether one can recite the Nicene Creed in good conscience or not. Participating in the taking, breaking, blessing, and giving of the bread and wine of the Eucharist can move us into an invigorating place in the spiritual stream of human history from the early church on.
Yesssss.... the rhythm of the liturgy is an important part of it, so deeply ingrained by my Catholic childhood that it is almost atavistic. Although for myself, I don't recite the Creed, and I do not partake of Communion.  Since I am not a believer, that (to me) would be disrespectful of those who are, those for whom there is true meaning (even substance!) in the host.  Although I'm technically "legal" having been baptised and confirmed in the Roman Catholic church.  (I've argued before that my example makes a good case for open table--why should I, a non-believer, be welcomed to partake of something that means nothing to me, when a newcomer for whom it feels life-giving may be denied?)

There's also this:
Worship services provide a place not only to experience sublime peace, but to be challenged to serve. Getting involved in an active community of faith, even without faith, can help us build mutually beneficial relationships, and can also offer opportunities to meet the needs around us --to get out of ourselves and our own concerns, see the hurting world around us, and do something constructive and meaningful about it together.
YES! A big part of the attraction to me is the community. It helps enormously that the community is educated, thoughtful, and active.  Since moving to the Episcopal Church, my wife BP and I have realized that nearly all our friends are fellow Episcopalians.

But the concept of church-going atheists is clearly new to the writer.
This is a phenomenon I'm not sure many church leaders and members are even aware is happening, or can happen. Perhaps we should find a way to open our doors wider to welcome more of these folks who may be "religious but not spiritual" -- the "Friendly Non-theists" -- without seeking to convince or coerce or convert them into belief. That is a matter between them and God, after all, whether the God they don't believe in exists or not.
Well, actually, you already are. We're here.   Because, as the saying goes, you don't have to check your brain at the red door.  We get this:
The Episcopal Church is among those denominations considered to be more open to doubt, questioning, and unsettledness regarding aspects of faith than some other traditions. That sort of faith seems stronger and more authentic to me than an unquestioning, doubt-free faith. It requires work and thought and struggle and prayer. Work that I and many others find pays off in deep meaning and purpose in life. 
So there is room in the church for doubters. Is there room in the church for non-believers?
Depends on the church.  Certainly I'm "out" as an atheist, and in our very educated community, it's not a problem.  I am technically a member, even though I don't identify as Christian:  I was baptised.  I give time and treasure to the church.  I serve in various capacities. I attend services regularly.   Indeed, I'm married to a verger, comment on church politics, maintain an extensive collection of classical polyphony  recordings, and almost certainly qualify as a "church geek".

The Episcopal church welcomes me.  How radical is that?

Some of my previous musings on the subject:
Living with Church
Secular Christians 
Secular Christians:  who is welcome? 

The polarizing effects of Pope Francis

In the aftermath of the recent Roman Catholic Synod on the Family, a fault line has been exposed between traditionalists who favor discipline, no matter the suffering, and pastoralists who favor mercy, no matter the sin.  In particular, the questions are whether the divorced/remarried can be more gently treated (or even welcomed back to Communion), and the proper response to LGBT people.  The traditionalists narrowly "won", but there is clearly concern.

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote a piece in the NY Times that threatened schism if Pope Francis doesn't hold the line against the divorced.
The Catholic Church was willing to lose the kingdom of England, and by extension the entire English-speaking world, over the principle that when a first marriage is valid a second is adulterous, a position rooted in the specific words of Jesus of Nazareth. To change on that issue, no matter how it was couched, would not be development; it would be contradiction andreversal
SUCH a reversal would put the church on the brink of a precipice. Of course it would be welcomed by some progressive Catholics and hailed by the secular press. But it would leave many of the church’s bishops and theologians in an untenable position, and it would sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents — encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism. 
Interestingly, he claims that even if a minority, the pure minded traditionalists somehow count more than everyone else.
Those adherents are, yes, a minority — sometimes a small minority — among self-identified Catholics in the West. But they are the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were. They have kept the faith amid moral betrayals by their leaders; they do not deserve a theological betrayal.
Fr John O'Malley writing in America Magazine scolds Douthat.
What is being said here? I think we can assume that change, if it comes, would come from the synod, a body of duly ordained bishops at a meeting duly convoked by a duly elected pope. It is a body, moreover, that has at its disposal the full range of Catholic theologians and theological opinion on a world-wide basis. I think we can assume that, influential though the reigning pope always is in such situations, Francis neither wants to nor is able to force his agenda (whatever that might be!) on the members of the synod. I say that in the face of Mr. Douthat’s insinuations to the contrary about Francis. 
While the synod is in session as a body of bishops working collegially with the pope to take measures for the good of the church, it is a binding and authoritative teaching organ in the church. Do not all orthodox Catholics believe that that authority is to be accepted over their own personal fears, expectations and hopes? 
Do not all orthodox Catholics believe that that authority is most certainly to be accepted over the objections of “a minority—sometimes a small minority,” as Mr. Douthat describes himself and his fellow-travelers? This minority self-identifies as orthodox and, it seems, potentially more orthodox than the synod. But it is a self-identification without credentials to validate the claim. 
Finally, what are we to make of this: “Remember there is another pope still living!”? “Another pope still living!” This sounds like a threat. Are Mr. Douthat and the like-minded Catholics for whom he speaks appealing to a pope more to their liking over a pope less to their liking? If so, the statement has a regrettable sinister ring. Or what? Let’s hope that Ross Douthat does not mean his reminder to be as schism-suggesting and radically un-Catholic as it sounds to my conservative ears.
Meanwhile, Fr Geoff Farrow, a priest who came out during the Prop 8 campaign, warns us against reading too much into Pope Francis.  Doctrine, he says, isn't changing--it is just wearing a kindlier mask.
The current Synod in Rome is part of the well-choreographed theater intended to bolster Francis’ popular image as a champion for a more tolerant acceptance of LGBT people and to give Catholicism a much needed pass on this issue. The long term goal is to reverse gains made by LGBT people and subordinate them once again. It is to reestablish the Catholic Church as the final authority in morality, with power to translate those morals into legislation in civil governments.
So what's a Catholic family with a gay child to do?  Fr Farrow makes a recommendation:
Join an Episcopal USA Church. Your child will be formed with the positive Christian values that you cherish, you will enjoy a far superior liturgy and more beautiful music. You will also be a member of a community that welcomes and esteems your child and does not merely tolerate him/her or impose impossible conditions (life long celibacy) on your child.
C'mon in, there's always room for another!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hot Air

I've had little to say for the last few days, because it all seems same-old same old.  I've been feeling burdened and burned out by work and by politics.

Marriage equality has had a booming month so far, with 32 states now having equal marriage rights.  Appeals are flying but the Supreme Court seems content to stay out of it unless and until there is a conflict between circuits.  Fundamentalists are throwing hissy fits and demanding the right to discriminate against LGBT people on the grounds of religious freedom. To which the answer is, if an adherent of a white-supremicist church (and there are such) demanding the "right" to discriminate against a black person in the civil realm, would we allow it?  How about a refusal to serve a Muslim woman in a head scarf?  But I've gone on about this at length elsewhere and I haven't the energy to do it again.

The Republicans (or the right-wing fanatics who have taken over the Republican party) scarcely even pretend any more to support democracy, but admit that they want to prevent Democratic constituencies from voting.  They  continue providing money and power to the Koch brothers, the fossil fuel industry, the military-industrial complex, and the big banks.  And the climate is continuing its dangerous change. It's hard to conclude anything than that we are screwed.

The Roman Catholic Synod on the family backtracked on making overtures to respect LGBT people, let alone welcome them. The conservatives are smirking at their slap-back of Pope Francis.  And yet, the transparency in the final document and the votes on each paragraph are such that it appears there is a more closely divided church, between conservatives by-the-book happy to lay crosses on other people's shoulders, and progressives of more pastoral instincts.  Polls show a surging majority of young American Catholics support gay rights and marriage equality.  At least arch-conservative Raymond Cardinal Burke, known for his love of garments liturgical, has suffered another demotion.

In the Episcopal Church, there's been the agonizing slow-motion crash at General Theological Seminary in New York.  I don't know much about seminaries, but I know a lot about secular academe, where the faculty have been demoted to a minor managerial role as the institutions become increasingly corporatized.   At GTS, it  bears all the hallmarks of heavy-handed institutional leadership, a hot-house atmosphere with a weakened faculty making dramatic ultimatums, and a board digging in its heels.  One would somehow have hoped that a seminary would do better,  both the faculty and the board.

And the Northern White Rhino species is down to 6 individuals, guaranteeing they will go extinct.

Stupid humans.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Leaving church

Several articles worth noting today about and around.

First, the Barna Group looks at the unchurched, and identifies many of them as "post-Christian".  THese aren't people who don't understand church, but those who have been there and find it wanting.  (This reminds me of an early conversation here, where one of our commenters earnestly tried to educate me on the tenets of Christianity, as though if I just learned about it, I could be saved. I had to tell her more than once that I had been there, done that, with a robust Catholic education.  It wasn't ignorance that made me an atheist.)

They identify 5 trends, including secularization and resistance to the idea of church. And, notably, skepticism about church generally:
When the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive and negative contributions of Christianity in America, almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community....
When "Christian" becomes synonymous with "right wing politics", there's a problem.

We see the additional frustration with the identification of faith with sex  in another study, this one of young Catholics who leave. 
Only 7 percent of these young adults who might have turned out Catholic can be called “practicing” Catholics—if “practicing” is tightly defined as attending Mass weekly, saying that faith is extremely or very important, and praying at least a few times a week. About 27 percent are at the other end of the spectrum, classified as “disengaged,” meaning that they never attend Mass and feel religion is unimportant.....[T]he most obvious factor identified in both the interviews and the survey data in Young Catholic America seems to be disaffection from Catholic sexual teaching, dramatically so with respect to both premarital sex and birth control.
Pew Research tells us that those who identify are Catholic are overwhelmingly pro marriage-equality and LGBT rights.  Indeed, even a majority of Catholics in their 50s support the freedom to marry.  

Meanwhile, Millenials with faith are challenging it--outside the box, you might say.  Less driven by rigid identity, more flexible.
We are far more likely to admit publically when we doubt certain long-held Christian beliefs. We are more likely to crowd-source our faith. We are more likely to evaluate what in our doctrine reflects more privilege than faithfulness. 
This is not a sign that we have abandoned orthodoxy. It is a sign that we have abandoned certain presuppositions that limited the definition of Christian orthodoxy for too long. The demand for purity in faith looks more like a desire to conform to the image of Jesus — and not the image of a predominately white, male, middle-class denominational line. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Something seismic from the Roman Catholic Synod

Writing in America Magazine, Jesuit Fr James Martin describes a "stunning change" from the Synod on the Family:
The Synod said that gay people have "gifts and talents to offer the Christian community." This is something that even a few years ago would have been unthinkable, from even the most open-minded of prelates--that is, a statement of outright praise for the contribution of gays and lesbians, with no caveat and no reflexive mention of sin. And, regarding same-sex partners, the Synod document declared, remarkably, "Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners." That any church document would praise same-sex "partners" in any way (and even use the word "partners") is astonishing.

The Synod also asks questions, challenging dioceses and parishes: "Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?"

This represents a revolutionary change in how the church addresses the LGBT community. Nowhere in the document are such terms as "intrinsically disordered," "objectively disordered," or even the idea of "disinterested friendships" among gays and lesbians, which was used just recently. The veteran Vaticanologist John Thavis rightly called the document an "earthquake."
Now, no LGBT couple is going to get married in the Roman Catholic church any time soon (and probably never). But it could be that the Synod is expressing some dismay at the effects of the culture war in rejecting civilly married gay Catholics from the pews, purging them from service roles, or rejecting the children of gay parents for Baptism and schooling. We can but hope.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Six years ago today, we were legally married in the State of California, and my life hasn't been the same since. What a joy it has been. I am so very, very lucky!

Touched by an Angel

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love's light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free. 

-Maya Angelou

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A gay free zone? Religious liberty, the Republicans, and the Christian Right

The Republicans are in agood position.  They can point fingers at the Supreme Court, but thanks to SCOTUS, they can complain about marriage equality without actually dirtying their hands doing anything to stop it.

 Ed Kilgore has a perceptive piece in TPM Cafe on how they are playing this into a "dogwhistle" that nevertheless keeps the footsoldiers of the Evangelical Christians in the tent doing the work (and the voting).   And it's all about "religious liberty" and the gay-free zone that they want:
["Religious liberty"] even more effective than opposing “judicial activism,” because it borrows the aura of an almost universally valued American principle. And it’s less aggressively theocratic, as well, insofar as its proponents do not (at least in this context) propose to ban same-sex marriage (or to ban abortions or contraceptives), but simply to create a zone in which gay marriages don’t have to be recognized (and abortions and contraceptives provided or subsidized). 
So far, claims that same-sex marriages will threaten “religious liberty” have mostly emerged from conservative Christian quadrants of the wedding industry, and proponents of giving them broad exemptions from laws they don’t like haven’t made a lot of progress (though less formally, opposing gay rights on religious grounds has been a boon for businesses like Chick-Fil-A and for careers like Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson). But as the “religious liberty” movement continues to develop, you could see it morph into the theoretical foundation for a parallel society in which the painful diversity of contemporary life, and its disturbing clatter of demands for “equality” and “non-discrimination” and “rights” (other than religious rights and the Right To Life, of course) is simply excluded, along with “government schools” and secular news and entertainment. 
And this is the goal of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and others -- to have the legal right to live in a "gay free zone" where LGBT Americans are legitimately denied services, employment, or recognition as fellow Americans.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Are gays part of the Catholic family? A question for the synod....

There's a big  Roman Catholic synod on the family in Rome, which has ranged from a married couple  discussing the need to include gay children, to a Cardinal saying that teaching boys to clean up after themselves , rather than wait for girls to do it, confuses them as to their appropriate gender role.

At the same time, independent of Synod, out gay priest Fr James Alison is there at a conference, and speaking about LBGT people in Catholicism.  And he has quite a lot to say.
What we have .... is the somewhat amazing realisation that, exactly in the degree to which it has become clear that we are simply the bearers of a not particularly remarkable non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, in that moment, as we find ourselves seeking the Lord, we are found to be bearers of Catholicity on terms of equality with everyone else. .... 
And that all our understanding of good and bad, insider and outsider is going to change because of this. The process is obviously much more painful and difficult, at least initially, for those who had a strong stake in promoting a form of public goodness in which we were bit-players, as necessary examples of what was wrong. And much more joyful for those of us who are finding that after all we have been telling the truth. It is not the case, as we were so often told, that we are simply being particularly self-indulgent, or that our love is harmful to others, or that we are crazy to think that we are normal, or that we have been misled by hedonism and relativism into purely subjective, unrealistic desires that are part of some dehumanising trap.

....No, truthfulness does not wait for the convenience of those wedded to untruth before peeking out. It breaks out, as if from captivity, bearing witness to the One who sent it to run wild among us, and takes us on a giddy, and ultimately joyful ride. The Spirit does bring the peace that comes with truth, but not by following the schedule of those whose fear would hold it back.  
Go read the whole thing!

Monday, October 6, 2014

And then there were 30....

Today, the Supreme Court decided not to hear the 7 marriage equality cases on its docket.  By denying certiori, it means that the lower circuit court decision affirming marriage equality in each of those cases is upheld.  That means for the five states in question (Utah, Virginia, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Indiana), it's the end of the line and marriages can begin again.

Moreover, six additional states that currently have bans in the 4th, 7th, and 10th circuits will fall under these decisions.

So we may see marriage equality in West Virginia, South and North Carolina, Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming as well.


The arc of justice just bent a little more.

The Court can always weigh in if any of the remaining circuits make decisions that are appealed.  This is more likely if one of those decisions goes against the wave for equality.

Scotusblog has more.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Christian Right v the Christian Left

From the Daily Beast, describing The Religious Right’s Slow-Motion Suicide
I it’s not just same-sex marriage. The country has liberalized culturally in a range of ways in the past six or eight years, and it’s not only not going back, it’s charging relentlessly forward. .... 
[The Christian Right is] a group that is losing power, and I think the leaders and even the rank-and-filers know it. Their vehicle, the Republican Party, is going libertarian on them. Rand Paul, whether he wins the 2016 nomination or not, is clearly enough of a force within the party that he is pushing it away from the culture wars. He is joined in this pursuit by the conservative intellectual class, which knows the culture wars are a dead-bang loser for the GOP and which finds the culture warriors more than a little embarrassing, and by the establishment figures, the Karl Rove types, who stroked them back in 2004 but who now see them as a liability, at least at the presidential level. There are still, of course, many states where these voters come in quite handy in that they elect many Republican representatives and senators.
Of course, they aren't going easily.  And they have a new bogeyman, the Christian Left.
A resurgence of the Christian left may seem a distant hope, but the idea of it has certainly spooked the Christian right. Such is the impetus for Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel & Damaging the Faith. It's a curious book from accomplished evangelical author Chelsen Vicari, who aims in it to address a "crisis" in evangelicalism — namely the rise of a Christian left. 
Vicari's book is neither a principled critique of Christian leftism writ large nor a principled defense of a Christian right-wing; on the contrary, it's very narrowly focused on American Christians who align with the Democratic Party versus American Christians who align with the Republican Party. It's in favor of the latter, of course, but in so doing it visits a number of tired arguments that are only tenuously linked to Christianity, and are more thoroughly associated with secular partisan politics.

Are we on the Christian left really the Bogeyman? Do we really have that kind of influence? 
Not yet — but we are working on it. 
And it’s working. 
And that’s what makes us so scary to Vicari and her readership. 
When we were a voice that was constantly drowned out by the megaphone that is the Christian right and their maniacal stronghold on traditional forms of communication, Vicari probably thought of us as that annoying little dust bunny under the bed that just would not go away. 
With the continued rise of new forms of communication and the way social media has given progressive Christians the ability to connect and be heard, we’ve become a threat. We’re no longer the annoying little dust bunny under the bed. We are the big bad monster that is ruining everything.
What conservative Christianity has become looks far too little like what the teachings of Jesus would encourage us to be. 
Causing a crisis of faith in that kind of belief system? I’m all for it.