Thursday, April 26, 2007

Archbishop Rowan on Moral Vision and Politics

On Tuesday, the Most Rev’d Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, delivered the William Wilberforce Lecture in the city of Hull, the birthplace of the English reformer whose efforts led to the abolition of the slave trade. Websites that one would normally expect to be authoritative anticipated his subject variously as “Wilberforce and His Legacy”; “Moral vision should be at the heart of politics”; and “Freedom and Slavery.” The Telegraph titled its preview of the lecture, “Archbishop attacks 'erosion of Christian values',” while The Sunday Times called its extract of the speech, “Down with godless government.”

When the full lecture was published on the official website of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the title was “Freedom and Slavery.”

Archbishop Rowan is often described as a “liberal” — in fact he describes himself as such. But in this age when the terms liberal and conservative are used in numerous, mutually inconsistent ways, that label alone tells us little. Two short passages from the Times extract of his lecture should make it clear that, as an outspoken opponent of both individualism and relativism, he's the sort of liberal who often upsets other self-described liberals.

Wilberforce and his circle believed that if a sinful system existed and its sinfulness implicated them as well as others, they were under an obligation to end it. There is no simple gulf between personal and public morality; and Christian morality is not about “keeping yourself unspotted from the world” in any sense that implies withdrawing or ignoring public wrongs.

But if the state enacts or perpetuates in the corporate life of the nation what is directly contrary to the Christian understanding of God’s purpose, then Christian activism in respect of changing the law is justified, primarily when the state is responsible for — so to speak — compromising the morality of all its citizens.

This is at the heart of what Wilberforce was concerned about. He is not campaigning for the state to impose a personal morality, and would probably have agreed that such a policy would take away the essential aspect of personal liberty in choices about one’s own life. But he is campaigning for a moral state — that is, for a state that does not compromise its citizens, and that recognises wider considerations than those of immediate profit and security.

This makes sense, though, only if it is possible to convince those who run things in the public sphere that there are human values and ethical norms to which an entire society is answerable. In our relativist climate, this is very difficult. What tends to happen is that nothing much is left as a substantive moral basis for public life except a poorly defined principle of tolerance or avoidance of mutual harm. The idea that you can give substance to a common social ethic, something to which society as a whole can be held accountable, is unfashionable and unwelcome. Even from the point of view of many who have no religious commitment, there is a recognition that this is a thin diet.

I believe that it is possible for a state to have a moral basis without thereby becoming confessional or theocratic. It involves a state being ready to recognise its own history; to say that its horizons and assumptions are indeed grounded in a set of particular beliefs, and to embody in its political practice ways of allowing those foundational commitments to be heard in public debate.

The establishment of the Church of England, as it has evolved in the past century or so, has turned out to be such a mechanism — a rather awkward one. But if the church were to be disestablished, the question would still be there in an acute form: how does the state properly expose itself to argument about its collective moral status?

One important point came through more clearly in the full lecture than in the Times extract: Criticism of slavery and the slave trade in the 18th century came only from Christians who were motivated by their religion; the theoretical egalitarianism of Enlightenment rationalism, for instance, was never translated into opposition to slavery.

Towards the end of his speech, Archbishop Rowan raised the issue of reparations for slavery, and, in the academic way he is known for, he hashed through various aspects of the issue without coming to a clear conclusion, bringing the speech to a rather weak and muddled ending. I can only hope it will not obscure his overarching theme of restoring moral vision to the vocation of politics.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Recapping Holy Week: Great and Holy Saturday

In the Byzantine Rite, all of the services of Holy Week occur about half a day early. Thus, the evening service each day is Matins, the morning office, of the following day. I suspect there was a practical reason for this at one time, now forgotten, but a frequently heard explanation is that we do this because the events we are commemorating – and in which we participate – turn the world upside down.

On the morning of Holy Saturday was the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil. I have attended this service regularly for several years, since it was the one Byzantine service that did not conflict with any of the services of the Triduum as observed at my old Anglo-Catholic parish. A Vesperal Liturgy begins with about two-thirds of Vespers, the evening office, which then merges into the Divine Liturgy, beginning around the point of the Little Entrance. The Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday is a baptismal service, equivalent to the Easter Vigil of Western liturgical churches. Like the Easter Vigil, it includes the reading of the prophecies. At Holy Cross we read three prophecies, but some parishes read more. After the second reading, one of my fellow catechumens was baptized and chrismated. Taking the name of her patron saint, she will hereafter be known as Katherine. In the first picture, Fr. Gregory blesses the water in our makeshift baptismal font – a large plastic horse trough (the Orthodox Church prefers to baptize by immersion). In the second photo, the newly baptized (but not yet chrismated) Katherine kneels before Fr. Gregory as her sponsor and Deacon Mark look on.

After the Liturgy, at which the newly illumined Katherine received communion for the first time, we all went downstairs for the traditional Holy Saturday snack of dates, figs, nuts, and sweet wine before resuming a strict fast in preparation for the Pascha Liturgy that night.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Recapping Holy Week: Great and Holy Friday

Today was the first day since Thursday 29 March that I have not attended at least one church service. I was so exhausted that I slept until 2 PM!

I'm pretty sure I have attended every Orthodox Holy Week service except the Palm Sunday Liturgy at least once before, but this was the first time I have done it all. I found the Lenten fast much easier than I expected, but remaining on my feet through most of 36 hours of liturgy in the past 11 days was a much more rigorous discipline. Trevor has already blogged on the relief that prostrations bring to an aching back, so I'll say no more on the subject.

I took Friday off work and spent the whole day at church. We began at 9 AM with the Royal Hours, which concatenates the offices of the First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hours. Each office consists of a few psalms, a hymn sung by the chanters, and three readings – Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel. Compared to the Royal Hours of Christmas and Epiphany, the Gospel readings were longer and seemed more central. The Gospel reading at each office was a large part of the Passion story from a different Gospel, proceeding in canonical order through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Shortly after the Royal Hours we began the decoration of the bier. It is customary to place an embroidered icon of Christ's preparation for burial, called the epitaphios, inside an elaborately flowered tomb or bier. About ten of us helped to place flowers and greenery into blocks of oasis, fastened to the top of the bier until it looked something like this:

Given that my patron saint is Joseph of Arimathea, I thought it was especially appropriate that I should participate in the decoration of the bier.

The next service, at 3 PM, was Vespers of the Removal from the Cross, also known as the Unnailing Service, since the nails holding the icon of Christ to the cross are removed. Two of my fellow bier-decorators were selected to remove the nails and place the near-life-size icon of Christ in a shroud before it was placed on the altar. Then the epitaphios was brought out and placed in the bier, where we venerated it, each in turn, by doing a double prostration, kissing it, and doing a third prostration.

The final service of the day, at 7 PM, was my favorite Byzantine service, the Lamentation service. We sang three long, beautiful hymns of lamentation for our Lord's death, also recounting the actions of Joseph, Nicodemus, and the myrrh-bearing women. Then we inserted poles into the bier and carried it in procession around the church as we sang the Trisagion. I served as one of the eight pall-bearers, who took turns carrying the heavy bier. When we returned to the church, we held up the bier above the door between the narthex and the church. After everyone had passed under it, we replaced it in its original position at the front of the church. At the conclusion of the service, after we venerated the epitaphios again, Fr. Gregory handed out flowers taken from the bier.

This service was followed by an all-night vigil, sponsored by the youth of the parish. The vigil began with the reading of Matthew. I stayed to listen to the gospel until I heard the verse, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light," at which point I decided it was time to loosen my yoke. So I venerated the epitaphios again, took another flower for my icon corner, and went home to get a few hours of sleep.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Lyrics for Holy Saturday

I've spent so much time in church this week (22 hours so far, with about another 4 to go) that I haven't had a chance to listen to most of my usual Holy Week music, like "Jesus Christ Superstar" and Handel's "Messiah." Right now I finally found an hour to listen to Kate Campbell's album of hymns and gospel tunes, "Wandering Strange," while I catch up on my e-mail. But it doesn't look like I'll get to U2's "Achtung Baby."

Yes, you read that right. While Bono's lyrics often draw on Christian terms and symbols, this album contains a song that is both subtle and explicit, "Until the End of the World." I had probably heard this song a dozen times, half-listening, and classified it as just another rock song about love, either unrequited or gone-bad. Then one time I popped the tape into my tape deck as I was leaving work for a Melkite Epitaphios service on Good Friday. With my mind focused on the events the Church was celebrating this day, I finally heard the real meaning of the song: During the Harrowing of Hell, Jesus encounters Judas, who sings this song.

Haven't seen you in quite a while
I was down the hold, just passing time
Last time we met it was a low-lit room
We were as close together as bride and groom
We ate the food, we drank the wine
Everybody having a good time
Except you
You were talking about the end of the world

I took the money, I spiked your drink
You miss too much these days if you stop to think
You led me on with those innocent eyes
And you know I love the element of surprise
In the garden I was playing the tart
I kissed your lips and broke your heart
You, you were acting like it was the end of the world

In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows they learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
Waves of regret, waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You, you said you'd wait till the end of the world

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Where the Vultures Are Gathered

And they asked him, "Where, Lord?" He said to them, "Where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together." – Luke 17:37

Since November, when my institute moved to new quarters, I have had a view from the eighth floor of the second tallest building in Calverton, Maryland. For the most part, the view is disappointing – I can gaze down upon the rooftops of all the other buildings in the office park, which are not designed to be attractive from above. But it has also proved to be an excellent perch for watching birds. I have seen as many as 30 Canada geese gathered in and around the little pond in the middle of the office park, along with a few ducks. On other days I can watch big flocks of crows. Today I saw two big crows searching under rocks on the roof ledge just two offices down. Since that office is currently unoccupied, I was able to camp there and watch them up close. Their search turned up something interesting and they flew away, one of them doing some fancy aerobatics on its way to the ground.

But my favorite birds to watch from here are turkey vultures (or, as we used to call them back in Indiana, turkey buzzards). Most days I don't see them at all, but on a windy day like today they are out in force. At one point today I could see 10 of them in the air at once! I think the wind must interact with the tall building to create currents that the vultures find useful. One day they kept flying directly at my window, only to swoop straight upwards at the last second before impact. Vultures know how to use the currents to gain speed and elevation.

The sight of so many vultures reminded me of the verse from Luke quoted above. While translators invariably give eagles as the primary translation, interpreters prefer the alternative translation, relegated to a text footnote in the RSV: vultures. As scavengers, vultures will gather wherever they find a dead body to feed on.

The disciples are pestering Jesus, wanting to know the time and place when the Kingdom of God will appear. And the Lord, characteristically, gives an indirect answer that demands their deeper engagement with the question, rather than something they can write on their pocket calendars. Could he be telling his disciples that they should watch for some commotion that signals the Kingdom, just as a gathering of vultures signals the presence of a carcass? Probably not, since he had just told the Pharisees earlier in the chapter, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is !' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you." Perhaps he is warning them to be prepared, because the Day of Judgment will find them just as vultures find a dead body.

Today was Holy Wednesday. According to tradition, this was the day when Judas agreed to betray his Master to the Jewish leaders. The vultures are already gathering, sensing that Jesus is vulnerable.

But this is also the day when the Orthodox Church commemorates Jesus' anointing by the sinful woman, who proceeded to wet his feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair. In contrast to Judas, she prepared herself for the coming of the Kingdom by repenting of her sins, and she thereby anointed the King himself before he was crowned with thorns and ascended the throne of the Cross to begin his reign.