Friday, December 5, 2008

The Legacy of Patriarch Alexy II

Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, died this morning at age 79, after leading the Russian Orthodox Church for 18 years.

Some of you know that I have always had reservations about Patriarch Alexy because of his KGB ties, which were instrumental in his rise to power. Given his background, it was only natural that he would become entangled with Russian nationalism and with the government of Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer. In recent years, however, I have been impressed by the patriarch’s strong opposition to some of the more extreme manifestations of Russian nationalism. In putting down the monarchist faction pushing for the canonization of Ivan the Terrible and Rasputin, for example, Alexy asked rhetorically, “What believer would want to stay in a church that equally venerates murderers and martyrs, lechers and saints?” And earlier this year, rather than serve as an apologist for Russian aggression against Georgia, he issued a heartfelt call to both sides: “Stop! Don’t let more blood shed! Don’t let today’s conflict boil over! Show wisdom and courage: come to the negotiating table to respect the traditions, outlook, and hopes of the Georgian and Ossetian people.

But those who are more interested in international ecclesiastical politics than in governmental politics will remember Patriarch Alexy more for his rivalry with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, his blocking of better relations with the Vatican under the late John Paul II, and his clinging to Moscow’s dominance over the Orthodox Church in the former Soviet republics that gained their independence during his tenure as patriarch. I was delighted to find that everything I might say on these topics has already been said better than I could say it in this brilliant analysis from Catholic World News, which considers Patriarch Alexy’s legacy and the future of the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly with regard to Moscow’s relations with Rome and Constantinople. The article concludes:

If a new Russian Orthodox Patriarch adopted a friendlier attitude toward Rome – or even toward Constantinople, for that matter – his leadership could produce enormous strides toward the goal of Christian unity. But in order to take those strides, the Russian leader would need to question his Church’s strong identification with the forces of Russian nationalism. And simply by raising such questions, he might endanger the current ties between the Moscow patriarchate and the Russian political leadership. The new Patriarch, whoever he may be, will face challenges every bit as difficult as the ones that faced the late Alexei II.

Addendum: My friend Alphonse pointed me to another analysis of Patriarch Alexy’s legacy – this one from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – which takes a broader perspective than just ecclesiastical politics.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Book Meme

James Gibson of Sanctus tagged me with the book meme. I am supposed to pick up the nearest book, turn to page 123, find the fifth sentence, and post the three sentences afterward. For me this will not be as straightforward as one might hope . . .

The nearest book – right at my elbow, since I consult it so often – is Detailed Diagnoses and Procedures, National Hospital Discharge Survey, 1991. Even though it is falling apart, I use its list of ICD-9-CM diagnosis codes, which is laid out in a user-friendly way for quick reference. Page 123 is the second page of a 24-page table. It doesn’t even have five actual sentences on the page. The next closest book is the Ultimate World Pocket Atlas. Page 123 shows the eastern half of the Pacific Ocean, along with North and South America – again no sentences. The next closest book is The Book of Common Prayer (1979). Page 123 contains five collects for Evening Prayer II. Skipping titles and Amens and counting each collect as a sentence brings us to the next page, where we find . . . more collects:

A Collect for Protection
O God, the life of all who live, the light of the faithful, the strength of those who labor, and the repose of the dead: We thank you for the blessings of the day that is past, and humbly ask for your protection through the coming night. Bring us in safety to the morning hours; through him who died and rose again for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

A Collect for the Presence of Christ
Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.

I wish I had landed on a Rite 1 page. Even as my eyes were reading the Rite 2 words, my lips were saying the Rite 1 versions that I recited hundreds of times during my years as an Anglo-Catholic.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Media and the Messiah

Of late, it has often been practically a full-time job to keep up with reading (and occasionally forwarding) my anti-Obama e-mail. While the mainstream American media intently avert their eyes – and ours – from the flaws of their messiah, those who have bothered to look have found a history of out-of-the-mainstream Leftist politics; close ties to terrorists, criminals, and Islamists; and a pattern of deceit, manipulation, and cover-ups. He also maintains a longstanding relationship with ACORN, which, among other crimes, extorted banks into making subprime loans (Obama actually served as an attorney for ACORN on one such case) and is currently being prosecuted for voter registration fraud in several states. (A friend personally witnessed ACORN reps paying under-age teens to fill out multiple voter registrations earlier this month.) In addition, despite his attempts to straddle the fence between pro-life and pro-choice positions, he has the most extreme pro-abortion record of any political candidate in American history. But even if you want to discount these sensationalistic-sounding allegations, it is not hard to find damning indictments in what is commonly known about Barack Obama.

Senator Obama’s campaign rhetoric would have us believe that he is moderate and post-partisan – a new kind of politician for a new era. The media have refused to challenge this attractive image, giving Obama an unprecedented free pass. But the truth is easy enough to discover. Barack Obama spent his formative years in politics as a loyal cog in the Daley machine. He learned to play power politics in the manner that Chicago Democrats are known for. One might excuse him, since he did not invent that system and could not realistically have challenged it. But in doing so one would be conceding that Obama’s record is one of politics-as-usual, not “change”; and one of service as a Democratic Party yes-man, not an independent-thinking leader. His record and his rhetoric are entirely at odds. Which are we to believe?

Those who would believe in the sincerity of candidate Obama’s promises must face the fact that he has already broken his first campaign promise: he pledged to participate in public financing of his presidential campaign if his opponent did. Obama weaseled out of his pledge and his sycophants in the media made excuses for him.

The domestic media’s pro-Obama bias has become so flagrant that it is even drawing attention overseas. The OSCE, which is sending observers to monitor the U.S. elections next week, has issued a preliminary report that concludes favoritism in the major media gives Obama a “hidden advantage.” Meanwhile, Melanie Phillips of the UK’s Spectator exposed Obama’s longstanding close ties to communists, racists, and other extremists, as well as the refusal of the U.S. media to investigate the candidates’ background, in two recent articles.

One American journalist, ashamed of his profession, blames short-sighted, self-interested editors for the media bias:

In other words, you are facing career catastrophe – and desperate times call for desperate measures. Even if you have to risk everything on a single Hail Mary play. Even if you have to compromise the principles that got you here. After all, newspapers and network news are doomed anyway – all that counts is keeping them on life support until you can retire.

And then the opportunity presents itself: an attractive young candidate whose politics likely matches yours, but more important, he offers the prospect of a transformed Washington with the power to fix everything that has gone wrong in your career. With luck, this monolithic, single-party government will crush the alternative media via a revived Fairness Doctrine, re-invigorate unions by getting rid of secret votes, and just maybe, be beholden to people like you in the traditional media for getting it there.

And besides, you tell yourself, it’s all for the good of the country . . .
While I believe there is probably truth both in this explanation and in the problem of “liberal media bias,” let me propose an alternative hypothesis just for fun: the media are scripting the story of Barack Obama according to the celebrity template – build him up and tear him down. They resist any attempt to examine the celebrity’s shortcomings at this stage of the story because they know that the first act must end in triumph. Obama must win the election and perhaps even move into the White House before negative information can be entertained. The media have invested too much in this narrative to risk endangering the dramatic impact with a premature scandal. But, should Obama become President, I predict that before the end of his first term someone in the media will break away from the pack and launch the scandal storyline. That’s just what the media do to celebrities.

And that’s what usually happens to messiahs, as well. In fact, there are great similarities between the messiah storyline and the celebrity storyline – that’s the whole premise of Jesus Christ, Superstar.

I will leave you with this Tleilaxu epigram from Frank Herbert’s 1969 novel, Dune Messiah:

Here lies a toppled god –
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Political Parties

In my last post, I recommended Jonathan Haidt’s essay, “What Makes People Vote Republican?” Haidt took it for granted that Republican equates to conservative – i.e., that Republicans value loyalty, authority, and purity, while Democrats do not. This comports with the commonly agreed upon usage of the major media and party leaders today, but a little history will show that there is nothing inherently conservative about the Republican Party.

A century ago, the Republicans were the progressive party. They stood for three things: 1) Negro rights, 2) individual liberty, and 3) corporate profits. They were the party of the educated urban elite – and those who aspired to that status. They wanted to reform society to free individuals from the stultifying effects of the old boy networks that controlled local governments, community and family life, and American culture in general. The Democrats, by contrast, as the beneficiaries of those old boy networks, generally favored maintaining the status quo. They advocated what we in the 21st century might charitably call family values and strong communities. All in all, we might go so far as to say the Republicans were liberal and the Democrats were conservative. (If we wanted to stereotype them in the most negative way, we might depict the Republican as a portly banker in a frock coat who takes glee in foreclosing on mortgages; and the Democrat as a southern sherriff putting away his sheet after a night of cross-burning.)

So how did the parties get switched around? Well, in some respects they didn’t. The Republican Party’s advocacy of low taxes and limited government follows logically from its historic mission. There is really nothing conservative about these policies – they are essential elements of classical liberalism in the tradition of John Stuart Mill. Among the Founding Fathers, these same policies were advocated by the “liberal” Jefferson against the “conservative” Hamilton. The Democrats’ concern for the welfare of the working classes, meanwhile, is in continuity with their historic concern for immigrants in the north and farmers in the south.

But, starting with FDR, the Democrats embarked upon a slow march to the left throughout the 20th century. To deal with the Great Depression, President Roosevelt borrowed some ideas from the German and Russian totalitarians – it looked like the wave of the future, and it was widely thought to be a necessary evil at the time. The growth and centralization of federal government power created its own constituency for extending that growth still further. The Democrats became quasi-socialist in practice, if not in name. Because they were imposing major changes on society, they labeled themselves “liberal,” which was seen as a good thing; and they branded all of their various opponents as “conservative,” which was commonly understood as a bad thing. Those who opposed socialism at home and communism abroad began drifting Republican, and the GOP began to live up to its new conservative billing in some respects.

Still, in Haidt’s moral dimensions, the Republicans were probably no more conservative than the Democrats. As late as the 1960s, Democrats were uniformly opposed to abortion (Jesse Jackson called abortion “genocide against the black race”), while the individualistic Republicans were divided on this issue, to the extent that they cared about it at all. It was not until Roe vs. Wade and George McGovern’s nomination for President that the Democrats made their decisive obeisance to social liberalism, which alienated much of their conservative working-class constituency.

Meanwhile, the Republicans had been reorganizing and redefining themselves. William F. Buckley, Jr., made conservatism intellectually respectable, and Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for President brought it out of the closet. But it took Ronald Reagan to make it politically viable. He welded together all of the disparate groups that the “liberal” Democrats had derided as “conservative.” By this time, the label "conservative" was no longer seen as derogatory (except by liberals, who were increasingly out of touch with the electorate), so Reagan encouraged everyone who had been labelled as “conservative” to wear the label with pride and unite against those who called themselves “liberal.” The economic conservatives who opposed big government and excessive regulation could join with the social conservatives who opposed indecency and abortion because they both opposed communist imperialism abroad. It was in the Reagan era that the Republican Party became truly conservative.

And that was probably the high-water mark of conservatism in the GOP. Apart from judicial appointments, there is nothing particularly conservative about the Bush administration. Haidt’s moral conservatives are a captive minority in the Republican Party. Many of them are uncomfortable with party leaders who have reverted to the old-fashioned Republicanism of individualism and big business. Some of them might even long for the return of the old pre-McGovern Democrats.

Today, neither major political party is ideologically coherent. The Democrats pose as friends of the poor and working classes while capitulating to the demands of their corrupt, wealthy backers and pandering to every special interest they can fit into the party tent. They have compromised on every issue but one – a woman’s right to abort her baby whenever and however she wishes – much to the consternation of many an old-line liberal Democrat. The Republicans, meanwhile, trumpet family values while facilitating the efforts of Madison Avenue to undermine those values in favor of an exploitive, individualistic consumer culture.

While Jonathan Haidt’s article gives valuable insight into the phenomenon of moral conservatism, I’m not sure how far it goes in answering the question its title poses. It might explain why some people vote Republican, but Republicans of that sort have declined in influence and waned in their loyalty to the party. In their view (or perhaps I should say our view), the Republicans might still represent the lesser evil, but in the era of Bush and Cheney, not always by much.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Moral Psychology and Politics

Some months ago in one of my “reading list” posts, I pointed my readers to the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. My friend Bill, who gave me the original tip on Haidt, recently sent me a link to Haidt’s article, “What Makes People Vote Republican?” To liberal academics, who rarely encounter anyone unlike themselves (except for undergraduates, most of whom can be easily manipulated, intimidated, or dismissed), this seems to be a real puzzle. Not surprisingly, these academics have no trouble producing self-serving theories that explain away behavhiors they disapprove of as irrational, misguided, or just plain stupid. (This obviously does not apply to economists, as our discipline requires us to assume that people always behave according to rational self-interest.)

Haidt takes his fellow liberals to task for their (literally) two-dimensional definition of morality and the resulting mischaracterization of how conservatives think. He himself overcame his knee-jerk disdain for his opponents in the culture war while doing research in India. The “liberal” attitudes that came to him so naturally in the context of his own academic-American culture were impossible to reconcile with the life of his friends in India, “a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society.” As he came to know and like his friends in India, he developed greater empathy for their culture.

Eventually, Haidt produced an inclusive definition of morality that evaded the ideological biases of previous definitions: morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible. He found five moral dimensions that are hard-wired into human nature as it has evolved over the millennia: 1) harm/care, 2) fairness/reciprocity, 3) ingroup/loyalty, 4) authority/respect, and 5) purity/sanctity. While liberals think entirely in terms of 1 and 2, conservatives are more holistic, operating in all five moral dimensions. Conservatives understand the concerns of liberals because they also value the things that liberals value. But liberals do not understand conservatives because the last three dimensions simply do not register with them as things that anyone would be sincerely concerned with.

I highly recommend the article. There is a link on the page to a longer article in a similar vein, in which he challenges the simplistic atheism of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris: “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.”

Monday, August 18, 2008

Dormition Lamentations

Last night after Vespers I had the great joy and privilege to join in singing the Dormition Lamentations. Some 15 years ago, the service from which these hymns are taken served as my introduction to devotion to the Theotokos. But, since this service is no longer done by either Melkites or Antiochians (and, as far as I can tell, never was done by anyone else in this country), I was afraid I would never hear these hymns again.

At Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church, they used to have a service on the Eve of the Dormition known as the Epitaphios of the Theotokos. It is exactly parallel to the Epitaphios service of Holy Friday, a service of lamentation for the death of Christ. Central features of that service include the singing of three long, beautiful lamentation hymns and the veneration of the epitaphios, an embroidered icon of the preparation of Christ’s body for burial by Joseph and Nicodemus, which is placed in a flower-covered bier. The Dormition Eve service included lamentation hymns for Our Lady, sung to the same tunes as those of Holy Friday, and veneration of an embroidered Dormition icon.

The first time I visited Holy Transfiguration for its title feast on 6 August, Fr. Joseph encouraged everyone to return the following week for the Epitaphios of the Theotokos, emphasizing its similarity to the service of Holy Friday, which is by far the parish’s best attended service. The Dormition Eve service was not nearly as well attended, but that just made it feel more intimate. The hymns gave me the sense of attending the funeral of a stranger who was universally loved, making me wish I had the privilege of knowing her. At Holy Transfiguration their custom is to come forward and gather close around the priest for the reading of the Gospel. On this occasion, since the congregation was so small, Fr. Joseph invited us all to remain up close for the homily. After the service I went forward again to venerate the icon and to receive a flower from the bier.

I returned every year, always inviting friends to join me for my favorite service. After serveral years of declined invitations, one friend finally joined me. But the service was not the one I remembered – instead of the Lamentation service they were doing Vespers. My friend Mary was impressed, but I was disappointed. Hoping this was just a one-off aberration, I returned the next few years, but it was always Vespers. I finally asked their cantor about it, and he informed me that they were no longer permitted to do the service because there were problems with the English translation they had been using. Until they had an approved translation, they could not do the service. And no one was working on a new translation.

Around the same time, I have learned, Metropolitan Philip also discontinued the service in the Antiochian Archdiocese, reportedly because he felt there was a danger of excessive devotion to Mary in some Middle Eastern ethnic parishes.

This past Thursday evening I had planned to be out of town, but a mishap forced me to return home. Therefore I was able to attend the Vesperal Liturgy for the Dormition at Holy Cross. During communion, standing at the front near the chanters’ stand, I heard some women of the choir singing the opening words of a hymn:

In a grave they laid thee, O my life and my Christ.
In a grave as well, the Mother of Life;
A strange sight both to angels and mankind.

Even though I had not heard the hymn in a decade and the tune was a bit different than the one the Melkites used, I knew instantly that I was hearing the first Dormition lamentation, and I moved to the back of the church, right in front of the choir, to hear it better. After the Liturgy, during the veneration of the cross, they sang the other two lamentation hymns. Afterwards, I thanked protopsalti Emily for these hymns. On Saturday evening after Vespers, when the lamentations were sung again, I joined in.

My favorite verse comes from the second of the three hymns:

Heaven now becomes passable by men and women:
Come, all you Christ-bearing people,
and rise with the Mother of God!

Here is the old Melkite translation of the same verse:

Now Heaven is opened even unto all the members of mankind;
Come, then, all you baptized who bear Christ the Lord,
Let us enter with the Mother of God.

Our veneration of the Theotokos is not entirely disinterested. We see in her a basis for our own hope of admission into heaven. She is a type of the Church, and, as such, she represents all Christians. Other hymns of the Epitaphios of the Theotokos, as I recall, are quite explicit in presenting Our Lady’s Assumption in terms of bridal imagery: Christ invites his Mother, representing his Bride the Church, into his heavenly marriage bower. This touches on the eschatological and soteriological implications of the Dormition.

The back cover of today’s bulletin related how the service is celebrated in Jerusalem, where it originated:

Nowhere is this feast celebrated with as much solemnity as in Jerusalem itself. On the eve of the feast, a large procession begins at the Jerusalem Patriarchate and winds its way through the narrow streets of the Old City, slowly making its way to Gethsemane. An icon of the Dormition leads the procession, with clergy, monks, nuns, and pilgrims following closely by. The two-hour walk ends at the church there, with the Lamentations Service celebrated at that time. In front of the altar in the edifice – beyond the burial chamber of the Mother of God – is a raised spot, upon which rests the shroud in which the body of the Virgin was wrapped. It is customary for those in attendance to venerate the processional icon of the Dormition and then stoop down and go beneath it as a sign of piety.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Transfiguration and the Cross

When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. – Luke 9:51

I like to visit parishes on their title feasts. I figure that if anyone knows how to celebrate a feast with proper attention and enthusiasm, it will be a parish named for the feast. This is certainly true of Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church, where I go every year to celebrate today's feast. Tonight, Fr. Joseph's homily cleared up something I had long wondered about: why the Transfiguration is celebrated on 6 August. Previously, the only theory I had ever heard suggested that this just happened to be the date on which the lectionary reading for the feast (Matthew 17:1-9) fell, but that never seemed very satisfying.

I knew the Lutherans had introduced the practice of commemorating the Transfiguration on the last Sunday before Lent, based on the verse from Luke quoted above. It was shortly after the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) that Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem," setting in motion the events leading to his arrest and crucifixion. The Transfiguration provided an appropriate high point from which to begin the Lenten descent towards Holy Week, which was historically as well as liturgically correct. Most other Western liturgical churches subsequently adopted the Lutheran practice, including the Catholics and Anglicans, who nonetheless maintained the 6 August feast as well.

Fr. Joseph told us this innovation actually restored an older practice, in which the Transfiguration was observed shortly before Lent or in its early weeks. (The dedication of the Second Sunday of Lent to St. Gregory Palamas, whose theology drew heavily on the Transfiguration, might preserve this ancient tradition in a less explicit way.) Continuing, Fr. Joseph called attention to the fact that we celebrate the Transfiguration on the 40th day before the Feast of the Holy Cross. Thus, the date maintains the traditional and biblical connection between the Transfiguration and the Cross.

Our focus on the Cross actually began on 1 August, when we commemorated the Procession of the Precious Cross, and will continue through the Octave of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This can be seen most clearly on Sundays at Matins, where the appointed Katavasia are those of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross from 1 August through 21 September, with brief breaks for Katavasia of the Transfiguration (7-12 August) and of the Dormition (14-23 August).

My patron saint gets into the act here too! St. Joseph of Arimathea is featured most prominently in the services of Holy Friday, with the commemoration of his removal of Christ from the Cross and burial of Christ. His personal feast day, however, is assigned to 31 July, the Eve of the Procession of the Holy Cross, which maintains his inevitable connection to the Cross.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Second Coming of J.C.

The media are going gaga for Barack Obama. He clearly arouses the kind of hope and love that can, with only a little exaggeration, be described as messianic. Given the criticism the media have endured recently for their uncritical acceptance of President Bush's case for war against Saddam Hussein six years ago, one might think they would take extra care now to put politicians through their paces and evaluate their responses critically. But they are once again failing in this responsibility and allowing themselves to be swept up a wave of popular sentiment.

The U.S. media's fawning over Obama is now beginning to draw attention in the foreign press. Today the Times of London published this hilarious satire, which tells the story of Barack Obama in a way that parallels the story of Jesus in the Gospels: And this is the testimony of one who speaks the truth and bears witness to the truth so that you might believe. And he knows it is the truth for he saw it all on CNN and the BBC and in the pages of The New York Times. (Hat tip to CDL.)

Meanwhile, John McCain's campaign assembled a video collage of reporters and pundits expressing their infatuation with Obama and posted it on YouTube. There were two versions, each set to a different Frankie Valli recording: "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and "My Eyes Adored You." The former version was the overwhelming favorite of McCainiacs, drawing over 80% of the votes. Unfortunately, both versions were taken down after Warner Music Group objected on copyright grounds, but you can read about it here. (Warner apparently had no objection to non-Obama versions of the songs on YouTube, which you can hear by clicking on the song title links above.)

Obama reminds me not of Jesus Christ, but of a different J.C. – Jimmy Carter. In the early post-Watergate years, Carter was a fresh face who combined a moderately liberal political record and a promise of an end to Washington-business-as-usual with personal integrity and sincere religious values. He was the sort of person on whom many Americans – a majority, as it turned out – could project their hopes for a White House free of the corruption and power politics that prevailed under Nixon. Now, in the wake of another discredited Republican President, Americans are looking for a new Jimmy Carter, and they like what they see in Barack Obama. However, it appears to me that Obama shares Carter's weaknesses as well as his strengths – particularly his inexperience and vagueness on the issues. If elected, Obama, like Carter, will probably turn out to be an ineffectual one-term President.

And then we will once again excoriate the media for failing to do their job.

P.S. While looking for the above picture of Obama and Carter, I came across this article from The New York Observer, which noted the similarities between the two Democratic Presidential candidates five month ago.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Anglican Meltdown

I have been reading about the accelerating Anglican meltdown for the past week. It is all playing out pretty much like I expected, but much faster. The usual Anglican proclivities for stalling and compromise seem to have been forgotten everywhere but in England itself, and they're in danger even there. For those not in the loop on Anglican news, here is a summary of recent developments:
  • The Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON), a group of conservative, mostly Evangelical, Anglican leaders meeting in Jerusalem last week, announced what is being widely interpreted as a move to sidestep the Anglican Instruments of Unity and either take over the communion or create a new church within the shell of the Anglican Communion.

  • Also last week, more than 1,300 clergy of the Church of England, including 11 bishops, signed a letter in which they threatened to defect from the C. of E. if this week's meeting of the General Synod gave the go-ahead for consecrating women bishops without providing legal protection to those who cannot accept the validity of priestly orders for women.

  • This week the General Synod, meeting in York, defeated all compromise proposals and took the next step towards the consecration of female bishops with only a flimsy "code of practice" to protect Anglo-Catholics. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York both spoke in favor of stronger protections, but the synod paid them no heed. This not only ensures a significant split in the C. of E., but it also further weakens the authority of Archbishop Rowan Williams.
It looks like most of the traditional Anglo-Catholics in the UK will soon begin a mass migration to Rome. The main obstacle to this in the past has been the UK's liberal RC hierarchy, who don't want a bunch of well-educated, conservative Anglo-Catholic clergy crashing their party. In the early 1990s they successfully thwarted the mass conversion of Anglo-Catholics. This time, however, the Anglo-Catholic bishops have gone straight to Rome, where they have found a sympathetic Pope who is not afraid to upset his English bishops by circumventing their schemes. (He was already peeved at them for defying his recent Latin Mass edict.) By the end of the year, there could be the beginning of some sort of Anglican Uniate arrangement in the UK.

Unfortunately, I don't think many of the UK's Anglo-Catholics will head for Orthodoxy. Most of them are already closet Romans. Also, the Anglo-Catholics who would be most inclined to Orthodoxy are the same ones who are likely to "stay and fight" until the first woman bishop is actually consecrated. And Orthodoxy in the UK is really not set up to encourage converts. For example, there is no provision for use of any Western Rite. The Oriental Orthodox might actually be in a better position to pick up converts, with their British Orthodox Church, which is under the Coptic Pope.


I wrote most of the above to a friend yesterday. There have been new developments today.

Two Anglo-Catholic bishops have written letters announcing the inevitable departure of their flock for Rome. The Rt. Rev'd Andrew Burnham is Bishop of Ebbsfleet, and the Rt. Rev'd Edwin Barnes is the retired Bishop of Richborough and President of the Church Union. Ebbsfleet and Richborough are the suffragan sees of Canterbury occupied by Provincial Episcopal Visitors, better known as "flying bishops," who minister to traditionalists who do not recognize the priestly orders of women. At the same time, Catholic blogger Damian Thompson, who has been reporting on secret meetings of these same bishops with Vatican officials, has now unveiled the outlines of a plan to allow Anglo-Catholics to move Romewards as a group. Rome will appoint a bishop to offer pastoral care to ex-Anglicans, who will gather under the umbrella of the Fellowship of St. Gregory the Great.

Meanwhile, the leading Orthodox sympathizer in the C. of E., the Rt. Rev'd Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, released an eagerly awaited pastoral letter in which he expressed hope that the London Plan, under which traditionalists in his large diocese have been accommodated, could continue into the future.

Coming next week: The Lambeth Conference.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Common Human Nature

On Friday in the Times of London, religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill’s headline was “Archbishop of Armagh invokes scripture in defence of homosexuality.” While that was a bit more sensationalistic than necessary, the Most Rev’d Alan Harper, Primate of the Church of Ireland, actually did begin to lay the groundwork for a theological, rather than merely political, rationalization of the acceptance of homosexual relationships by the Church. But his theological argument, in turn, rests on his anticipation of future scientific developments.

In a speech to the annual conference of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Archbishop Harper pointed to Richard Hooker as the source of the Anglican method of interpreting Scripture through the application of Tradition and Reason. He also recalled the importance that Anglicans place on science and knowledge. For illustration, he applied this method to the first chapter of Romans, where St. Paul writes, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another . . .”

The archbishop conceded that science had not yet rendered a final verdict on whether or not people are born homosexual, but he believed (in Gledhill’s words) “that it seemed increasingly likely that they had no choice in the matter.” He concluded that if this were the case, then the Church would have to revisit the question of whether homosexual relations were really unnatural, rather than natural: “If such comes to be shown, it will be necessary to acknowledge the full implications of that new aspect of the truth, and that insight applied to establish and acknowledge what may be a new status for homosexual relationships within the life of the Church.”

Here is the flaw in the archbishop’s reasoning: It implicitly denies the existence of a common human nature. Instead, it imputes a different nature to homosexuals than to heterosexuals, such that they are subject to differing moral standards, based on their differing nature. As if homosexuals were a different species.

But why stop there? Some progressives of a more gnostic orientation go much further, essentially classifying each person as a sui generis being. Every individual is so distinct that there is no human nature. The concept of species, if it is valid at all, does not apply to us so-called “humans.”

Others, who call themselves transhumanists, do not assert that this is now the case, but they long for the day when technology will make it so. Through a combination of eugenics, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, cyborg implants, and other things we have not yet imagined, mankind will “take control of its own evolution.” Unless mankind came to an agreement on the direction this development was to take and enforced it rigorously, it would obviously lead to a branching of humanity in many directions away from its original nature.

If there were really no common human nature, what would be the implications?

1. If we do not share a common nature, there is no basis of a common morality. If homosexuals are a different species with a distinct nature, then they could have an entirely different natural law. In addition, they would not automatically be able to make claims based on human rights.

2. Anyone who does not share the human nature is not saved by Christ. As the Cappadocian Fathers taught, what is not assumed by Christ is not saved. In the Incarnation, Christ assumed our human nature in order to rescue and heal mankind. Those who do not share in this nature do not share in the salvation. Moreover, if you abolish human nature entirely, as the radicals do, then the Incarnation becomes meaningless or moot.

3. If there were no human nature at all, it would obviate the applicability of Darwinian evolution to mankind. Evolution is all about the origin of species. If we are not a species, then the question of our evolution is moot. (Note: It would be inconsistent for anyone to invoke Darwin at any stage of an argument against universal human nature. Some of the leading exponents of evolution have occasionally fallen into this trap.)

How, then, should one who takes the existence of human nature as given (whether from an Incarnational or a Darwinian basis) respond to Archbishop Harper? I think he is right to think about how the Church ought to respond to the likely reality that at least some instances of homosexuality have a biological basis. But I think he is wrong to proceed based on the inference that homosexuality is therefore “natural” for some people. On the one hand, this would separate homosexuals from other humans. On the other hand, it would seem to lump all homosexuals into the same category with each other. In short, it would herd homosexuals into a conceptual ghetto.

I would propose that it works better to think of homosexuality as a minor congenital anomaly. (The older term, birth defect, seems a bit too harsh, so I’ll eschew it here.) Few of us are born perfect. I have a couple of minor congenital anomalies myself – so minor that I was not even aware of them until well into my teen years, and they have no effect on my day-to-day life. Following the archbishop’s logic, I might say that these are not actually anomalies, but rather characteristics that make me a different sort of creature – and a perfect example of that sort of creature, to boot. Perhaps the only instance of that sort of creature in existence.

The more traditional approach is to say that these anomalies are unnatural, and I am therefore an imperfect manifestation of human nature. My anomalies do not make me my own species. They do not subject me to a different morality. They might sometimes make living as a human more challenging than would be the case for a more perfect human, but they do not separate me from the common human nature.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Kosovo 1: The Albanians

Yesterday the new constitution of the world’s newest state, the Republic of Kosovo, came into force. Few Americans know the history of this small, land-locked Balkan nation. The usual American ignorance of all things foreign is compounded, in this instance, by layers of the nationalistic propaganda endemic to the Balkans, which make the truth hard to discover even if one goes looking for it. In my next few posts I hope to cut through the ignorance and the nonsense to shed some light on Kosovo. In my first post I will give an introduction to the Albanian people, which constitutes the majority of the population of Kosovo, focusing in particular on their religion.

The precise origin of the Albanians is lost in the mists of time, but it is generally believed that they are descendants of a pre-Slavic Balkan population. A combination of linguistic and historical evidence suggests that they might have been partially Romanized Dacians living in what is now the Hungarian-Romanian border region, who fled to what are now northeast Albania, Kosovo, and northwest Macedonia to escape the invading Huns in the fifth century.

Speaking an Indo-European language with no extant close relatives, the Albanians are divided into two sub-groups, each with its own dialect. The Tosks of southern Albania were traditionally Eastern Orthodox, and the Ghegs of northern Albania were traditionally Roman Catholic. In the centuries following the Turkish conquest, a majority of Albanians converted to Islam, but in the early 20th century about 30% of the population of Albania remained Christian. Smaller percentages of Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia remained Catholic. Many of the Muslims, moreover, were only nominally so, and Islamic practice was not particularly rigorous. Bektashism, a liberal Sufi/Shi’a sect, is quite popular among Albanians. It is sometimes considered a crypto-Christian sect, as its members retain many Christian practices such baptism, communion, three ranks of clergy, venerating saints and icons, and drinking wine. But it also exhibits Gnostic tendencies and teaches reincarnation.

For the most part, the Orthodox tended to be concentrated in the south near Greece, the Catholics in the north near Montenegro, and the Muslims in the middle, with Sunnis in the cities and Bektashis in more remote areas. But Albanian identity was stronger than any religious identity, and members of the different religions mixed and intermarried freely. The relative weakness of religious identity was probably compounded by the fact that none of the religions offered worship in the Albanian vernacular, but only in Greek, Latin, and Arabic, respectively.

Because the Albanians were not united by religion, Albanian nationalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a secular movement, downplaying if not actually suppressing religion. Then, in the 1960s the communists who ruled Albania, enamored of Maoism, followed China in instituting a Cultural Revolution. They abolished all religion, and it became illegal even to celebrate Christmas privately in one’s own home. Churches and mosques alike were demolished or converted into “cultural centers.” Many clergy who did not renounce their faith were imprisoned. As a result of the two decades of official atheism, 60-70% of Albanians today do not practice any religion, though they might retain a nominal religious identity. The Albanian population of neighboring Yugoslavia, including Kosovo, however, did not face such extreme forms of persecution.

Dode Gjergji, the Catholic Bishop of Kosovo, reportedly intends to re-convert the population of Kosovo to Catholicism – and he does not expect this to be a particularly difficult task. He says that Albanians converted to Islam only because of Turkish pressure and that they remain friendly to Christianity. Indeed, many Muslim Ghegs retain two names, an official Muslim name and an unofficial Catholic name, and they remember exactly how many generations it has been since their ancestors were Catholic. But Bp. Gjergji is taking nothing for granted. He plans to secure the prayers of one of the 20th century’s greatest saints – and the world’s most famous Albanian – by dedicating his new cathedral to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Ecumenism Reading List

Last week, while following a trail of links, I landed on this interesting post from the blog Torn Notebook. It quotes from a book by Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev, who cites St. Gregory the Theologian, who was reflecting on St. Athanasius. St. Gregory, like St. Athanasius before him, valued the unity of the Church so much that he was not willing to permit division over petty disputes about doctrinal semantics. Both the passage from St. Gregory and the commentary on it by Bp. Hilarion are well worth reading. This is the second in a series of five posts on the subject of “Church Unity and Legitimate Variance,” all of which can be found archived here, though you'll have to scroll down a bit on the page to find them all.

Continuing a bit further on the ecumenical trail tonight, I found a couple of other interesting items. Earlier this month, Melkite Patriarch Gregorios III addressed Pope Benedict XVI on the state of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. His address included this section in which he recounted the Melkites' particular vocation for Christian unity. He concluded with this appeal:

We are indeed rather the Eastern “enfant terrible” in communion with the Church of Rome. That was the goal of the initiative of the late Archbishop Elias Zoghby in 1996: to be in full communion with the Church of Rome and with Orthodoxy. That may be a dream, an Utopian vision, but it is also a prophetic vision.

We would like to live, in the very heart of the Catholic Church, a life that could be accepted by Orthodoxy. Let us do so, Most Holy Father. That is the key to all real progress along the ecumenical way. Accept us, Holy Father, as we are: Eastern Orthodox, who want to live our full and complete Eastern Orthodox tradition in full communion with Rome. That is the really big challenge for the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, as has been evident at every stage of the ecumenical dialogue since 1980 and especially at Belgrade and Ravenna.

For all that, Most Holy Father, we need your prayer, your approbation and your blessing.

Finally, the Byzantine blogosphere is buzzing with commentary on the news from Timisoara, Romania, that an Orthodox metropolitan received communion in a service at a Romanian Catholic church. No one seems to know for sure what the metropolitan was thinking, but some are describing it as a bold step forward in ecumenical relations, while others see it as a scandal.

I will close with a list of blogs I have encountered that focus on Church unity:
The Anastasis Dialogue
Byzantine, TX
De unione ecclesiarum

Friday, May 9, 2008

Steward of the Treasury of Grace

A friend, formerly Anglo-Catholic, now Roman, just sent me a list of links to his favorite blogs. This one, written by an Anglo-Papalist priest and scholar in the UK, recently featured a series of four short posts that, together, constitute a translation of a short passage from a homily by St. Gregory Palamas on the Mother of God. The section I found most striking was the end of part three, which offers the image of Mary as keeper of the treasury of grace:

[T]hrough thee is illumined the spirit by the indwelling of the divine Spirit; for thou didst become steward (tamiouchos) and full content (perioche) of graces; not so that thou mightest keep them by thyself, but so that thou might fill the whole of everything (ta sumpanta) with grace – because the Dispenser of inexhaustible treasures ordains (epitropeuei) it on account of the distribution: for why would he make the undiminshed wealth to be closed up?

To read the whole thing (which is quite short, even though it is spread out over four posts), click here and then scroll down to the second-to-last post. The four posts are titled, "Mary's Month of May."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lyrics for Holy Thursday

From the album Wandering Strange

The Last Song

After the supper was over
     and the table had been cleared away
When the last bottle was empty,
     there was nothing much left to say
Jesus started humming an old tune,
     everybody fell right in
They sang the last song, the last song

Matthew started singing the low part,
     John grabbed the high harmony
Their voices filled up the night air
     all the way to Gethsemane
Judas walked some distance behind them
     like he had forgotten the words
They sang the last song, the last song

Just before they got to the garden
Just before they all fell asleep
Just before Barabbas was pardoned
And Jesus was nailed to a tree

I reckon it was some kind of soul song,
     maybe kind of sad and slow
All about how we get weary,
     all about holding on
Only Jesus knew what was coming,
     still he never said a thing
He sang the last song, the last song

He could have made a toast to the good times
     and only the best for his friends
He could have stayed up late reminiscing
     about the long strange trip it had been
But he went just like a lamb to the slaughter
     knowing it was part of the plan
And sang the last song, the last song

Kate Campbell and Walt Aldridge
© 1999 Large River Music (BMI) /
April Music/Waltz Time Music (ASCAP)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dating the Crucifixion

The Synaxarion readings we use at my church during Holy Week have one feature that strikes me as very odd: they assign Roman calendar dates to the days of the week of Christ's death and resurrection. Last night at Bridegroom Matins, for example, the Synaxarion that I read to the congregation said that the day when Judas agreed to betray Jesus was Wednesday, which corresponded to 21 March. Counting forward, this implies that the Crucifixion occurred on the 23rd, and the Resurrection occurred on the 25th. I have been unable to track down the source of this chronology.

I am aware of two dates that were assigned to the Crucifixion by early Christians. The first was 6 April. Later on, for some reason, this date was displaced by 25 March. (It is no mere coincidence that these dates precede Theophany and Christmas, respectively, by nine months, but the dates of those feasts were based on the date of the Christ's death, not vice versa. I'll skip that tangent for now and save it for a separate post in December.)

Modern scholars have attempted to determine the date of the Crucifixion by reconstructing the Jewish lunar calendar for the range of years in which Christ might have died. Following Luke 3:1-2, which places the beginning of Christ's ministry with respect to the reigns of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Philip, and Lysanias, the range of plausible years can be narrowed to AD 29-36. In addition, St. Paul's conversion is usually dated to AD 34, which restricts the range further. Then it becomes a matter of extrapolating the lunar cycles backwards to the first century and seeing which years, if any, fit the chronology presented in the gospels. In performing these calculations, allowance must be made for the imprecision of Jewish reckoning. Sometimes the month might have begun a day after the new moon if the moon was not visible, and occasionally an error might be made in determining when to add an intercalary month (a 13th month to keep the lunar calendar in sync with the solar calendar) at the end of the year.

One complication is that the gospels present two different chronologies of Holy Week. The Synoptic gospels, which present the Last Supper as a Seder meal, imply that Jesus was crucified on the first day of Passover, 15 Nisan. John, however, tells us that Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover, 14 Nisan. So both chronologies must be considered.

The first person to do these calculations was Sir Isaac Newton, in 1733. Newton narrowed the dates down to 3 April 33 and 23 April 34. He then chose the latter date based on a correspondence between the grain-plucking episode from the gospels (Mark 2:23) and his understanding of the growing season for grain. However, his selection of AD 34 was based on rules of the Jewish calendar that were not yet in effect in the first century. Therefore, Newton's work was not taken very seriously.

Scholars of the 20th century returned to this question. They settled on two plausible dates: 7 April 30 and 3 April 33. Note that both dates correspond to 14 Nisan, and are thus consistent with John's chronology, not with the Synoptics.

For many years, AD 30 was the consensus favorite. I suspect there were two reasons for this. First, it had become accepted the Christ was born in 6-4 BC. Many people were attached to the notion that Christ had died at the age of 33. If he had died in AD 33, that would have made him nearly 36-38. Therefore the earlier Crucifixion date was favored. Second, based on the erroneous belief that Christ was born in AD 1, in conjunction with the idea that he died at age 33, it was popularly believed that Christ was crucified in AD 33. Scholars tend to enjoy the feeling of superiority that comes from dismissing such popular beliefs. (I'm not sure why they did not think, rather, to question the death-at-age-33 theory . . .)

In the last decade, however, the consensus has shifted with near unanimity to AD 33 as the year of the Crucifixion. In AD 30, Christ's ministry was still in its early stages. AD 33 has astronomy, history, and tradition going for it.

In addition, further astronomical research has found that there was a lunar eclipse on 3 April 33. This is consistent with Peter's quotation from Joel (Acts 2:20): "The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood." In addition, the late-second-century apocryphal Report of Pilate to the Emperor Claudius claims that at the Crucifixion "the moon appeared like blood." This was a common description of lunar eclipses in that era, and it might very well record a memory of an eclipse on the day of the Crucifixion. This is the icing on the cake for AD 33.

Unless something forces us to make a radical re-evaluation of the era in which Christ lived or the correspondence of the days of his death and resurrection to the Jewish Passover, the consensus in favor of 3 April 33 is unlikely to change. In the meantime, I will continue to try to get to the bottom of the dates in the Synaxarion.

The Tao of the Cross

As I mentioned early in Lent, I have been slowly reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. Actually, I’m not sure the term translation captures what Mitchell has given us. His work is often highly paraphrased, and sometimes it goes way beyond paraphrase, becoming a fresh expression of his interpretation of the gist of a chapter. Chapter 50, on the subject of life and death, is a difficult chapter, and even attempts at literal translation can vary widely. Most translations involve the number thirteen, tigers, rhinos, and armor – like these three translations. But Mitchell skips all of these. Instead he gives us a description of the Master who accepts the inevitability of death and is therefore not afraid to live. It reminds me of nothing so much as Christ in his last days. Without further ado . . .

The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.
He doesn’t think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day’s work.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Dating Easter

Most of North America's Christians are now three weeks past Easter. Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Anglicans, as well as members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, all celebrated Easter very early this year, on 23 March. Meanwhile, it is still one week until Passover and two weeks until Orthodox Easter. I am still looking at two more weeks of fasting, while my Anglo-Catholic friends are already half-way to the Ascension!

It has long been a principle of the Church that all Christians should celebrate the Resurrection on the same day. A number of councils, such as the Synod of Whitby, tried to get all the Christians in a region on the same page with respect to the date of Easter. How did we get to the current anomalous situation?

The early rule adopted by the Churches of Rome and Alexandria was that Easter should be observed on the first Sunday after Passover. Passover, the 15th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar, would normally fall on the day of the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. At that time the date of Passover, as observed by rabbinical Jews, depended upon observation of nature, not computation.

The Roman version of the rule ensured that Easter would always be observed after Passover. If Passover fell on Sunday, then Easter would be celebrated on the following Sunday. This was motivated in part by history: According to the Gospel of John (e.g., 19:31), the Crucifixion occurred on Friday, Passover was observed on Saturday, and the Resurrection occurred on Sunday. Therefore, they reasoned, Easter should be observed after Passover. But it might also have been motivated in part by an anti-Jewish attitude that was prevalent among Christians of some regions, who preferred to separate the Christian Passover (Greek Pascha) from the Jewish Passover (Hebrew Pesach).

To complicate matters, around that time, the Jews reformed their calendar to simplify the determination of when to add an intercalary month (a 13th month to keep the lunar calendar in sync with the solar calendar). Formerly, the Sanhedrin would announce the insertion of the extra month based on four factors: the equinox, the ripeness of the barley and of the fruits of trees, and the birth of sufficient lambs for the Passover sacrifice. The new calendar, traditionally attributed to the 4th-century rabbi Hillel II (though more likely adopted gradually between the 1st and 9th centuries) was rule-based rather than astronomical. The dispersion of the Jews all over the Mediterranean world made it difficult to communicate the beginning of the ecclesiastical New Year (1st of Nisan) to everyone. The new calendar was intended to ensure that all Jews could start the new year together, and thus celebrate Passover and other festivals together. But the rule-based calendar sometimes departed from the celestial calendar, resulting in the observance of Passover before the equinox. Some Christians, especially in the East, followed the new Jewish determination of Passover, while others rejected the Jewish calendrical innovation and made their own independent determination of the Paschal full moon. (Local variations in calendrical practice among both Christians and Jews make the picture somewhat more complicated than I have described here.)

The Council of Nicea, in response to Constantine's request, addressed the issue of when to celebrate Easter. The council decided that Easter should be observed by all Christians on the Sunday following the full moon on or after the vernal equinox. That is really all the Church said about the date of Easter at the time. If you read much about this issue, you will no doubt encounter various claims that the Council of Nicea mandated more detailed formulae for determining the date of Easter (e.g., basing it on the Julian calendar or employing a 19-year lunar cycle), which just happen to coincide with the writer's biases. But such claims are entirely unfounded. Variant lunar cycles, for instance, persisted until the 9th century in some places.

A few decades later, with some Eastern Christians still taking their cue from the Jewish observance of Passover, the Church again addressed the matter in an appendix to the Apostolic Constitutions. Canon VII of the Holy Apostles states, "If any bishop, priest, or deacon celebrates the holy day of Pascha before the vernal equinox with the Jews, let him be deposed." The key phrase here is not "with the Jews," but, rather, "before the vernal equinox." The implication is that Christians are to ignore the new Jewish calendar. The Church had little choice but to make this ruling. The contrary ruling would, essentially, have given the Jews the power to determine when Christians celebrated their most important festival. Here the Church proved more conservative than the rabbinical Jews, retaining the ancient Jewish practice long after the Jews had abandoned it.

The Jews have not observed Passover before the vernal equinox since the 9th century. Their rule-based calendar has drifted, so that now they sometimes observe Passover later than the astronomically determined date, but never earlier. Like this year, for instance. The vernal equinox took place on 20 March, and the moon was full on the following day, 21 March. But the Jews will commence their celebration of Passover at the next full moon, 20 April.

Many Orthodox Christians, perhaps including most of the clergy, seem to believe that the reason we Orthodox Christians observe Easter so late is because the canons require us to observe Easter after the Jews have observed Passover. This year, for instance, Orthodox Easter falls on 27 April, a week after Passover, which is consistent with this claim. But while this might be a useful rule of thumb, it is not an actual rule, let alone a canon. The Passover date that Easter must not precede is that determined by the ancient method – 21 March this year. Far from requiring Christians to celebrate Easter after the new Jewish Passover date, Canon VII of the Holy Apostles actually requires us to ignore the innovative Jewish dating of Passover.

It is easy to demonstrate that the Church has no rule requiring Easter to follow Passover. A number of times in the 6th through 8th centuries, the Church actually celebrated Easter on the same day when the Jews were beginning their celebration of Passover. This last occurred in AD 783. It has not happened since then because the Julian calendar, which came to be used by Christians, drifted even faster than the Jewish calendar. Orthodox Christians still use the Julian calendar for determining the date of Easter. That is the real reason why Orthodox Easter always follows Passover.

It is common knowledge that the Julian calendar currently runs 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. (Most European Catholic countries and their colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, as decreed by Pope Gregory XIII. Other countries were slower. Britain, for example, did not adopt the new calendar until 1752. Greece was the last European country to adopt the Gregorian calendar, in 1923.) What is less well known is that the Orthodox also follow a different calculation of lunar cycle, which runs a few days behind both astronomical reality and the Gregorian lunar cycle. This year, for instance, the astronomical full moon will occur on 20 April, while the Orthodox lunar tables assign the Paschal full moon to 25 April.

The difference, then, between Orthodox and Western Easter dates occurs because 1) the Julian solstice occurs 13 days after the Gregorian solstice, and 2) the Julian full moon occurs 3 to 5 days after the Gregorian full moon. (Both calendars use virtual solstices and full moons based on computation, rather than on actual astronomical observation. In practice, the Gregorian computations are usually closer to physical reality.) By my calculations, based on these two facts, Orthodox Easter should coincide with Western Easter about 20% of the time; it should fall one week later 50% of the time; it should fall four weeks later 10% of the time; and it should fall five weeks later 20% of the time. I think that is pretty close to the actual pattern of variation in recent history.

The Julian calendar, however, continues to drift away from physical reality. After the present century, the two Easters will never again occur four weeks apart. Beginning in 2437, they will sometimes come six weeks apart. And after 2698, the two Easters will never again coincide.

I have referred numerous times to the "rule-based" reformed Jewish calendar. Lest I give an incorrect impression, let me reiterate that, since at least the 5th century, Christians have also used rule-based calendars. Currently, no church determines the date of Easter through direct astronomical observation. In the early first millennium, when these calculated calendars were being devised, communication was not what it is today. Determining the date of Easter by rules, rather than by astronomical observation, was the most practical way to ensure that all Christians celebrated Easter together. But it also embodied a bit of humanistic hubris – a pride in the growing power of human reason to model the mechanics of the universe through its own ingenuity, without further reference to God's physical creation. It would seem to me that a religion based on the Incarnation should hesitate to separate itself from physical reality.

And, indeed, the men who devised the Church's calendar had no such intention; rather, they intended for their calculations to anticipate the physical reality that would eventually obtain. In reforming the Roman calendar, Julius Caesar had been attempting to implement a calendar that would conform to astronomical reality. While the Julian calendar was a vast improvement over its predecessor, it did not quite succeed in matching the movements of the heavens over the long term. The Fathers who argued for various lunar cycles (e.g., 19-year, 84-year, 532-year) did so on the basis of how closely they would conform to reality. If they were here today to see the outcome of their work, I'm sure they would want to have another go at it, to see if they could improve their methods.

And what of those who insist that the Church must retain the Julian calendar? I will never be persuaded that the measurement errors of a pagan Roman emperor constitute an irreformable element of Holy Tradition.

In the centuries following the Council of Nicea, the Church converged on a consensus of using the Julian calendar with a 19-year lunar cycle. Its leaders saw this method as the best way to implement the decision of Nicene Fathers regarding the date of Easter, given the options available at the time. And it worked pretty well for a while. Now it is not working so well, and we see that rigid adherence to these unadjusted formulae results in a growing divergence from the ruling of Nicea.

Together with the Orthodox Theological Society in America, I support the Aleppo Agreement, under which churches would abandon their virtual calendars and extrapolations, and instead base the date of Easter on actual astronomical observation. The OTSA clearly states the Orthodox rationale for Aleppo: "We endorse this proposal on the basis that it reflects most faithfully the norms for calculating the date of Pascha as set out by the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council." You can't get more Orthodox than that.

For those who want to know more, here are some suggestions for further reading:

Archbishop Peter:
Concerning the Date of Pascha and the 1st Ecumenical Council

Wikipedia: Computus

This Easter/Passover Calculator allows you to plug in a year, and it gives you the dates of Julian Easter, Gregorian Easter, and Passover.

I decided to add a list of actual dates for 2008, which might clarify things for those who think concretely, rather than abstractly.

Ancient Jewish (Astronomical) Calendar
7 March – New Moon / New Year / 1 Nisan
20 March – Vernal Equinox
21 March – Full Moon / Passover / 15 Nisan

Reformed Jewish Calendar
Year 5768 – 11th year of 19-year cycle
6 April – New Moon / 1 Nisan
20 April – Full Moon / Passover / 15 Nisan

Julian Calendar (with Gregorian dates)
3 April – Vernal Equinox
25 April – Paschal Full Moon
27 April – Easter / Pascha

Gregorian Calendar
14th year of 19-year cycle
21 March – Vernal Equinox
22 March – Paschal Full Moon
23 March – Easter

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Charitable Solicitations

I get a lot of charitable solicitations in the mail. In fact, they account for about two-thirds of all the mail I receive. In 2001 I decided to track my communications from charities. That year I received 862 communications from 240 different charitable organizations. Of these, 264 arrived in the first quarter, and 116 in March. Two different Catholic-related charities sent me 22 solicitations each.

This year, I am repeating that exercise. In the first three months of 2008 I received 233 communications from 106 different charities – 186 solicitations, 24 newsletters, and 23 receipts or thank-you letters. One organization has already sent me 8 solicitations. This is about a 3% decrease from 2001.

In determining which organizations to contribute to, my first filter is to drop any organization that sent me more than 12 solicitations in the past year. Actually, any more than 2 a year is excessive and wasteful, as far as I'm concerned. The extra letters not only waste their money on printing and postage, but they waste my time opening, sorting, and recycling them. They actually slow down my charitable giving, since the time that I could spend writing checks must instead be spent sorting excess mail.

My second filter is to check their ratings on Charity Navigator, which evaluates most American charities. It gives every charity it rates two ratings, one for efficiency and one for capacity. Each rating is on a scale of 0 to 4 stars, with sub-components rated on more detailed numerical scales. I find it especially useful when a number of organizations with the same mission want my money. I can determine which of them will use my contribution most efficiently and direct my dollars accordingly.

I'll report back again at the end of the year with the 2008 totals.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Soldier’s Bible

I recently lost another friend from my old Episcopal parish. John went home to Rhode Island nearly two years ago to look after his stepmother during her recovery from an illness or surgery or something. While he was there, he was diagnosed with cancer of the bone marrow. He went through three rounds of chemotherapy and was optimistic about his chances for recovery, but he didn’t make it. He never returned to DC.

A few months before John departed for Rhode Island, his roommate had a stroke, which left the right side of his body paralyzed. He now lives in a nursing home not far from their old apartment, which has been unoccupied for some time now. On Saturday he took me to the apartment to begin looking through John’s things. I returned on Monday and spent the whole afternoon in John’s room. At his roommate’s urging, I claimed some books, graphic novels, CDs, videotapes, and DVDs for myself (John and I had a lot of overlapping interests and tastes). I also set aside a few liturgical books for his roommate (some of them were probably his anyway). And I filled three boxes with the rest of his Bibles, books about scripture, prayerbooks, hymnals, books on liturgy, and miscellaneous books of theology and devotion. There are lots of other books, including several shelves of science fiction paperbacks, that are still there waiting to be dealt with.

One of the books I found was a 1942 Gideons’ edition of the New Testament and Psalms (KJV, naturally). It was apparently intended for soldiers. In the front, on a page facing a color image of the U.S. flag (48 stars), was this letter:


January 25, 1941

To the Armed Forces:

As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration. It is a fountain of strength and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest aspirations of the human soul.

Very sincerely yours,

Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On the following pages were the Lord’s Prayer, five pages of “Well-Loved Hymns” (Onward, Christian Soldiers; Jesus! Lover of My Soul; Lead, Kindly Light; Abide with Me; Rock of Ages; How Firm a Foundation; Nearer, My God to Thee; Now the Day Is Over; and the Doxology - “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow”), and two “National Anthems” (America - “My country, ’tis of three” - and The Star-Spangled Banner). At the back of the Bible was a page with this message:

Your Chaplain
Look up your chaplain at the first opportunity. Your welfare is his first concern, and you will find him friendly and helpful at all times. His counsel and advice will guide you in avoiding or overcoming difficulties. In many ways you can help him in his services for others. A close friendship between and chaplain and his men preserves and promotes a fine spirit in any service unit.

I wonder if such straightforward Presidential commendation of Bible reading would still be permitted by the courts today. Would the Gideons even be allowed to give soldiers a copy of the New Testament? When I was in fifth grade, the Gideons gave everyone in my school a copy of the New Testament and Psalms (and maybe Proverbs too). I’m pretty sure that is no longer allowed.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A River Runs Through Lent

Last week was the first week of Lent. (Those of us who follow the Julian Calendar are running five weeks behind the rest of the world this year.) All week, wherever I turned, I kept running into river imagery.

On the weekdays of Lent, the Byzantine lectionary gives us Genesis and Proverbs. On the first day of Lent, we begin with the first chapter of each, and we work our way through both over the next six weeks. I read Proverbs last year, so this year I’m reading Genesis. Once again I came upon Genesis 2:10: “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.” I lingered over the image, and it remained with me in the following days.

Last week’s tothesource column was a critique of Richard Dawkins’ condemnation of the politically incorrect God of the Old Testament. (Bottom line: Dawkins elsewhere describes the world as indifferent to good and evil; this leaves him no basis for condemning God or anything else.) The article cited Dawkins’ 1996 book, River Out of Eden, whose title is an obvious reference to the Old Testament he now so despises.

While doing some number crunching, I listened to The Turning, the 1987 album by Leslie Phillips (who later re-christened herself Sam Phillips). This album was her first collaboration with producer (and later husband) T Bone Burnett. The first song on the album is Burnett’s “River of Love,” which begins with the line, “There's a river of love that runs through all times.” The line itself winds through the song like a river, repeated before each verse and again at the end of the song. The song’s three verses are about different sorts of rivers – rivers of grief, tears, and fire, respectively. Each of these rivers is evoked in detail, unlike the river of love. Yet, when each verse ends, the river of love is still flowing. As if to reinforce the song in my mind, I heard it again the next day on Burnett’s own self-titled album of 1986.

The boom box on which I listened to these CDs at work is showing its age. Before I can play a CD, I need to hit the play button repeatedly for a minute or two. Recently, while waiting for a CD to start playing, I have been working my way through Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. Chapter 34, which I read last week, begins with the image of the Tao as a flooding river. It flows everywhere, nourishing all, yet without exalting its own role.

Upon creating man, God placed him in Paradise, which was watered by the river. After our first ancestors’ expulsion from Paradise, their descendants clung to the river, eventually spreading south into Mesopotamia along two of the river’s branches. Though they were deprived of Paradise itself, they still had the river that had sustained their life in Eden. Though fallen, they were not deprived entirely of God’s love for them. Likewise, as we work our way through Lent, continually reminded of our fallen state, we are nourished by signs of God’s love, flowing through it all.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Archbishop Rowan and Sharia

Yesterday, Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, delivered the first lecture in a series of discussions, "Islam in English Law," as part of the 2008 Temple Festival, at the Royal Courts of Justice. Entitled, "Civil and Religious Law in England: A Religious Perspective," it was a long, academic think piece of the sort Abp. Rowan is known for. His topic was how and whether the legal system should accommodate the religious identities and motivations of its citizens. In keeping with the theme of day, he focused primarily on the example of Islamic sharia law, but in this increasingly secular age the topic is obviously of as much interest to Christians as to Muslims. The Anglican Communion News Service summarizes his lecture here, followed by the full text. Here is Abp. Rowan's own statement of the problem he is addressing:

There is a recognition that our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging – even if one of those sets is regarded as relating to the most fundamental and non-negotiable level of reality, as established by a 'covenant' between the divine and the human (as in Jewish and Christian thinking; once again, we are not talking about an exclusively Muslim problem). The danger arises not only when there is an assumption on the religious side that membership of the community (belonging to the umma or the Church or whatever) is the only significant category, so that participation in other kinds of socio-political arrangement is a kind of betrayal. It also occurs when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity.

Abp. Rowan's overarching concern in this lecture is how traditional religious identity and morality might be accommodated in the face of a post-Enlightenment secular legal system that often regards religious loyalties as irrelevant or alien. He certainly realizes the difficulties and dangers that might be entailed by accommodating sharia, and his thoughtful discussion of these difficulties accounts for much of the lecture's length. His examples of legal accommodation of religion went beyond Islam, with references to Orthodox Judaism and Catholicism.

Before the lecture, he was interviewed by BBC Radio 4. In that interview he said, "It seems unavoidable and indeed is a matter of fact that certain provisions of sharia are already recognized in our society and under our law." The news site thisislondon twisted this one sentence, taken out of context, into the misleading headline, "Adoption of Islamic Sharia law in Britain is 'unavoidable'," and trumped up the dire implications of sharia while burying his caveats several paragraphs into the article. (I have not included a link to the original article because it is no longer available. Thisislondon continually revises and updates its articles to keep them current – and perhaps to bury their tracks. Here is the BBC version.) This sensationalism elicited the predictable Pavlovian response from the populace, and within a day the archbishop's enemies and detractors on both the left and the right, in both the church and the government, were calling for his resignation. It is clear from their intemperate, uninformed responses that they had neither read the lecture nor heard the interview, and probably had not even read the on-line articles beneath the sensationalistic headlines. Ignorance, unfortunately, is not a bar against political and religious posturing.

Abp. Rowan's statement that sharia is already present in Britain is hard to dispute. This article from the Evening Standard tells of an instance where a group of Somali youths who stabbed another teenager was released by the police to face justice in a sharia law court. (Their families ended up having to compensate the victim.) The article also mentioned that sharia courts in Britain already hear thousands of divorce cases every year.

What is really going on here? Rowan Williams is being borked. All of his enemies see a weakness that they hope they can exploit if they are quick enough and loud enough. They assume – probably correctly – that like Robert Bork before him, Abp. Rowan's thoughts are too lengthy and too complex to interest the average citizen, and that he can therefore easily be mischaracterized in the media without penalty.

O LORD, watch over us and save us from this generation for ever. (Psalm 12:7)