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Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Category: culture (page 1 of 29)

The Return of Clandestine Marriage?

A version of this post was also posted at The Living Church’s Covenant Blog.

An initial “C” in a medieval manuscript discussing clandestine marriage. The British Library.

The seventeenth century Anglican Priest and historian Thomas Fuller once wrote, “It is the worst clandestine marriage when God is not invited to it. Wherefore, beforehand beg his gracious assistance“ (Fuller, The Holy State, 172 ). While Fuller called those marriages that are not undertaken before God to be the worst form of clandestine marriage, his comment may strike many modern readers as odd, given that we are so far removed from the question of clandestine marriages. But it was not always so.

Indeed, at various points in the medieval period, the Church and society struggled with the question of what constituted marriage. The two main schools of thought were consent—favored by many scholastic theologians—and consummation, favored by many laity. Because the Church emphasized consent, and—at least in the West—upheld the fact that the couple are themselves the ministers of the marriage, there arose a problem with what were called “clandestine” or secret marriages. Marriages that were not witnessed by anyone (other than a priest). Indeed, such marriages were so problematic, and continued to be performed in England up through the 1700s that they became known as “Fleet Marriages” because they were so often performed by unscrupulous priests serving time at Fleet Prison, who would perform a wedding for the right price.

While there were times when clandestine marriages were pursued for reasons that a conscientious observer might have found ethical, they were a source of abuse wherein people could be married secretly, have sex, and then one party—the man, let’s be honest—could then deny the marriage had ever taken place after having taken advantage of a woman, often of a lower social or economic class.

While the reading of the banns of marriage—not often done in the United States at all, but still, I understand, done occasionally in England—may seem no more than a quaint custom, and the charge in our wedding rite that “if any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, speak now; or else for ever hold your peace” (BCP 424) may be more confusing than not (mostly because clergy don’t explain it), they stem from the same concern that gives us our double consent formula: a desire to avoid abuse. In the case of the banns, the concern was to avoid bigamy. In the case of the double consent, it was to avoid forced marriages. In both cases, the desire was to avoid the strong imposing their will on those with less power or a lower social standing.

What does any of this have to do with us today, in our culture of falling marriage rates, widespread cohabitation, and changing sexual mores? I submit it may be of interest because we in the Episcopal Church may have an opportunity to at General Convention next year to approve a supplemental liturgy that enshrines something very much like Clandestine Marriage.

The Task Force for the Study of Marriage recently offered its report from its last meeting. In it, they discuss all hot button issues related to a gender neutral marriage rite, whether or not to amend the Book of Common Prayer’s wedding service prior to a full revision of the Prayer Book etc. In addition, however, they indicate they will be putting forward a resolution to authorize two supplemental liturgical blessing rites. One, The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant, is intended for use in dioceses and parishes of The Episcopal Church that exist in places where the legal jurisdiction does not have legal same-sex marriage. But it is the second of these proposed supplemental rites to which i want to turn our attention, “The Blessing of a Lifelong Relationship.” It is this rite that I believe entails a revival of Clandestine Marriage, and with it, possible abuses.

The Task force states in their report that The Blessing of a Lifelong Relationship is proposed for use under two circumstances:

  • By mature couples who seek to form and formalize a special relationship with one another that is unconditional and lifelong, but is nevertheless something different than a marriage in that it does not include the merging of property, finances, or other civil legal encumbrances, in order to protect against personal and familial hardship.
  • By couples for whom the requirement to furnish identification to obtain a marriage license could result in civil or criminal legal penalties, including deportation, because of their immigration status.

They state that the use of both supplemental rites will contain conditions for use that reflect the conditions for use of the marriage rites, by which I assume they mean that one party must be a baptized Christian. I don’t think they could mean that the couple would need to sign the Declaration of Intention, since the very design the second supplemental rite would negate what is intended by the declaration.

I will leave it to others to hash out those liturgies referred to in the report of the task force that have already received, and will doubtless continue to receive much attention. My purpose here is to sound what I believe to be a necessary alarm bell about this supplemental liturgy. I do so for a few reasons:

First, it would enshrine in our liturgy the blessing of a union that is not marriage, but which nevertheless intends what marriage intends, save for the condition that it is not marriage. If our debate about same-sex marriage in the Episcopal Church over the past few decades has taught us anything, it’s that the terms of the debate hinge on what marriage is, and whether it can and should rightly be expanded to include same-sex couples.1 Those who have argued for some other union for same-sex couples have always been a minority, and in the terms of the unfolding life of the Episcopal Church, I think even those who hold that position would have to admit that the debate has passed them by. In other words, if something looks like marriage, and functions like marriage, we are best off conceiving of it and discerning it in terms of whether or not it does in fact constitute marriage.

It is more than a little strange that at a time when the bulk of the Episcopal Church has accepted same-sex marriage, we would consider authorizing a rite that, even though it claims to be blessing a union that is “unconditional and lifelong” is precisely predicated on the condition that the couple avoid the obligations and duties of marriage, and likewise are deprived of the legal protections due them within their relationship. The very justification from the task force is self-refuting: claiming something as unconditional while starting the precise conditions. The authorization of such a rite is a revival of clandestine marriage precisely because it is a revival of a relationship that looks like marriage that is invisible to the community, embodied by the state, when the state is the only entity that can provide appropriate protection to the parties of the relationship.

It’s difficult to know precisely what sort of situation is envisioned by the Task Force when they write that about avoiding the “merging of property, finances, or other civil legal encumbrances, in order to protect against personal and familial hardship.” I recall a number of years ago that there were some bishops who sought permission to have their clergy officiate at marriages using the BCP rite, but without a civil marriage license. The stated reason then was so that couples would not be required to give up their Social Security upon marrying.

Honestly, discussing whether or not Social Security requirements might not actually be as burdensome as some think, or pointing out that adults can perfectly well protect their assets legally when they decide to wed without avoiding marriage, might be begging the question. Assumed in a discussion that does that direction is this: It must be ok for the church to salve peoples consciences as they seek to circumvent laws intended to apply to people living in particular relationships. In other words, I would question whether the prior assumptions that make such a rite conceivable are even ethical for Christians.

That question of ethics is one of communal or social ethics. On the side of personal ethics and morality: should the church bless something that is not marriage, but which all parties conceive on the personal level to be like marriage, avoiding only the social cost, which could therefore entail a sexual relationship outside the bounds of marriage.

Let’s be real: It’s not only the elderly who are discriminated against by our governmental policies when it comes to marriage. Look around your own family or community and I bet you can find examples of couples who have postponed marriage so that their children wouldn’t lose medicaid (or whatever local equivalent) coverage. I suppose it makes sense that we would be thinking about the elderly, given the makeup of The Episcopal Church, but this solution is not a solution at all. To use the meme inspired parlance of our day, this is weak sauce.

If you sense some sarcasm, it’s because this proposal does nothing to deal with the inequities of the system, and instead doing what comes easy to Episcopalians and crafting a liturgy to make us feel good in the midst of injustice. At least, we must think it’s an injustice, or else it really is completely unethical to offer such a liturgy.

Which brings me to the second scenario envisioned: that of undocumented immigrants who are uncomfortable—for obvious reasons—with applying for marriage licenses. These two scenarios really are an odd pairing. In the first, pains are taken to say that the couple does not want marriage. In the second scenario, I imagine the couples would say unequivocally  that they do. Unless one assumes, as I do, that they actually do want marriage in both cases, but are avoiding real or perceived penalties.

My pastoral response to the two situation would be quite different. In the one, I’d say something like “it’s a hard decision whether to marry, and whether to bear the cost of that. I’d be happy to talk with you through the process, and recommend attorneys who could help you arrange things so that your families are reassured.” But I would not offer them “marriage-lite.” Nor would I want to officiate at a service for them without a marriage license.

In the later case, I would like to see some provisional authority granted to priests to officiate at weddings—again, not marriage-lite—for couples where one party is at risk of deportation. But I think we really should only see this as provisional and it should chafe to the point that we actively work to see that undocumented immigrants can legally marry. Why would I say this?

I understand that it has become popular in some circles to argue that marriage in the church and marriage in the eyes of the state should be divorced from one another. Often this is accompanied with a criticism of the clergy “acting as agents of the state.” But I think this understanding has things exactly backwards.

The state doesn’t recognize a marriage I officiate because I’m an agent of the state (arguably, they recognize it because a license fee was paid, but let’s put that to the side for the moment). They recognize it because the State recognizes that marriage is an institution prior to and independent of the state, but which must nevertheless be managed by the state because the law is nothing if not the way our community has provided for us to work together.

Because marriage is therefore prior to the state (as is the family unit), the state recognizes that the traditional marriages as envisioned and contracted in numerous religious communities, regardless of their particularity, fits the minimum definition of what the state considers marriage to be, and it therefore recognizes them. It’s not that priests and rabbis or imams or brahmans thereby become agents of the state, it’s that the state recognizes these communities as constituent bodies within a broader society, and marriage as a constitutive element of society as a whole. This is why I am thankful that I have never said, and will never say “by the power invested in me by the state of _____, I now pronounce you man and wife.” I will instead say, with the Book of Common Prayer “No that N. and N. have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of a ring, I pronounce that they are husband and wife, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder” (BCP 428).

All of that said, the role of the state is important and significant: the state ensures the rights of all parties in the marriage, both each member of the couple, and any children they have. Blessing marriages without civil marriage licenses, and thereby creating legally invisible unions, means that the state doesn’t easily know how to adjudicate between the couple when their union dissolves, when one party abandons the other, etc. This is especially true when there is common property. Marriage—civil, legal marriage—is a protection against the abuse of the less powerful by the more powerful. In heterosexual marriage, the less powerful are often women and children. Unless we are going to revive ecclesiastical courts, I don’t see how we can responsibly bless unions without the legal element.

If we had common law marriage in the United States, perhaps it could work.2 If we were a sectarian tradition that claimed unfettered loyalty from our membership, maybe it wold have a shot (but who among us would really want that?). But neither of those is a reality. The states are all too diverse in their marriage laws and less than a handful have anything like Common Law marriage. And if we have some people entering these relationships with the express desire not to be married, then even the laws in places like North Carolina that provide for marriage by reputation wouldn’t be a protection.

We are a church that has worked in and through culture. We cannot so easily shirk our responsibilities now. Rather than crafting liturgies for these situations, perhaps we should be crafting legislation that calls out the injustice to which we really ought to respond, and put the Episcopal Public Policy office to work lobbying for specific legislation.

Maybe, even more importantly, we should teach about these issues in our parishes, and get Episcopalians and other Christians involved in challenging systemic injustices that harm people in our society, that militate against the formation of stable families, and that prevent people from getting the support they need, whatever their age, stage of life, economic or immigration status.

I think that’s a much better idea than reviving legally clandestine unions. If we really believe these to be issues of injustice, we are obligated to challenge the status quo. If it’s just a matter of being inconvenienced, then perhaps what we really want is a marriage of convenience, even if we call it a “Blessing of a Lifelong Relationship.”


  1. There was a good back and forth about this in The Living Church before General Convention 2015, between my former Professor Dr. Bill Carroll, and my bishop, John Bauerschmidt. I haven’t been able to find the exchange online, but if and when I do, I will link to it here. []
  2. I’m actually in favor of restoring a form of Common Law Marriage, much like I read described several years ago in a reform of marriage law in British Columbia. The one thing–considered radical by some, I’m sure–that I would add, would be to include same-sex couples if there were children present. Since part of the point is to encourage stability and to protect the less-powerful parties in relationships/families, it makes sense to include them, regardless of one’s theological perspective on same-sex marriage. See: goo.gl/3mTBa5 []

A different kind of Monument

There has been a lot of talk about the rights and wrongs of various Civil War monuments in recent weeks. Most of the ones garnering attention were erected or have become artifacts and idols of what historians sometimes refer to as “The Religion of the Lost Cause.” The thing about this religion is that it has as one of its primary functions the sanitizing of the brutality inherent in the slave system of the South, the centrality that slavery had as an impetus for war, and even–oddly since it glorifies the suffering of the South on the one hand–the sanitization of the suffering endured during and after the war. Even as it lifts up the idea of the suffering south, the Lost Cause mythos has a tendency to knock off the rough edges, and make everything seem soft around the edges like the scenery of Gone with the Wind.

This is a reflection on a different sort of monument, the sort that highlight the rough edges and brutality of that suffering.

In 1996, when we buried my maternal grandma in the cemetery at North Fork Baptist Church in Big Pine, Madison County NC, I went looking through the grave stones. One stood out to me as having a deeper story:

The epitaph on the grave stone of Emeline McFeatures Bucker reads “Wife of Chrys & Ephram Buckner: Gone but not forgotten”

How, I wondered, had Emeline been married to two different men? I thought it was likely that she had been widowed, but it still seemed noteworthy that she had married two men with the same family name. Later, as I was doing genealogy research, I learned a bit more of the history.

Christopher S. and Ephraim H. Buckner were both sons of Absalom Buckner, who was something of a patriarch of the Buckner family in the mountains. Born in 1800, it seems that he was the first Buckner to make his home and raise his family in this part of the mountains. He and his wife Elizabeth had eight children:

Rebecca (1830-1872)
Joseph Hardy (1834-1864)
Caroline (1835-unknown)
Christopher S. (1841-1864)
Noah (1842-1864)
Lydia (184?-1932)
Ephraim H. (1846-unknown)
Nancy (1851-unknown)

You might notice a common death year among several of the sons: 1864. Absalom–even though he was in his 60s by the time the war came–along with Joseph Hardy, Christopher S, and Noah enlisted in the Confederate Army. Joseph Hardy and Noah were captured at the Cumberland Gap and both died at Camp Douglas in Chicago Il. Their names are memorialized in another monument, marking a mass grave at Chicago’s Oak Wood Cemetery where the remains of the more than 4,000 Confederate soldiers who died at Camp Douglas–sometimes called the “North’s Andersonville,”–were removed to after the war.

The monument at Oak Wood Cemetery

Though I’ve not yet been able to visit Oak Wood Cemetery, I’m thankful for the ability to see the plaques up close. Because of that, as well as register of deaths from Camp Douglas available at Archive.org, I was able to confirm that Joseph Hardy Buckner and Noah Buckner rest here:

Noah, 14th from the bottom on the second column, Joseph Hardy (J.H.) 17th.

But this doesn’t explain what happened to Christopher. Unfortunately, this may not be an answerable question. His name isn’t on the death records at Camp Douglas, and there’s no death record anywhere that I have yet found. An old family bible simply has a note next to his name: “Never came home from war.” A few years after the war Emeline married his younger brother Ephraim.

I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like for those words to be someone’s epitaph: never came home from war. What did his wife, mother, brother, and father think? I once read an article about another family that had lost a son in the war–the mother set a place at the table for him every night until she died.

Since Joseph Hardy and Noah didn’t have similar notations, I assume the place of their deaths were known, if not their final resting place (I’m not sure if anyone would’ve had the responsibility of letting the family know, especially once the bodies were moved after the war).

These monuments show a deeper truth of the war: the suffering and loss it brought. The most recent figures, released in 2012, revise the number of combined war dead upward to approximately 750,000, or the equivalent of about 7 million (a little over 2% of the population) today.  But war dead tell only a partial story. The National Park service estimates that the Union sustained a total of 642,427 casualties have been divided accordingly:

  • 110,100 killed in battle
  • 224,580 diseases
  • 275,174 wounded in action
  • 30,192 prisoners of war

The Confederacy is estimated to have sustained 483,026 total casualties, including:

  • 94,000 killed in battle
  • 164,000 diseases
  • 194,026 wounded in action
  • 31,000 prisoners of war

That’s a whopping 1,125,453 total combined casualties of the war–when the total population is only estimated to have been about 25 Million–at about 4.5%.

All of this demonstrates the depth of the effect the war had to have had on local communities. one story that demonstrates this has stuck in my mind for years.

I came across one story during my college career that highlights the brutality and deep woundedness of many communities following the war. It struck me then because it concerns the very county my ancestors above were from, Madison County NC. Madison county went by the nickname “bloody Madison” for a while after the war, a name it unfortunately earned. In his book “Victims: A True Story of the Civil War” Phillip Shaw Paludan retells this story (I first read it in Welman’s The Kingdom of Madison, but the testimony of the mother concerned was enough to bring it up in this newer book in a Google book search):

This personal sense of righteousness spanned the Civil War era and frequently overwhelmed whatever regular due process might have required. During the war a group of soldiers moved into Shelton Laurel and surrounded Nance “Granny” Franklin’s home. The widowed mother of four sons, she had to watch as the troops opened fire and killed three of her boys. She tried to stop the killings but only succeeded in just missing death herself when a bullet clipped off a lock of her hair. The soldiers left, but revenge lurked awaiting its chance.

After the war it came. A few miles away from Shelton Laurel, men were trying to rebuild Mars Hill College, and masons and carpenters from the region came to help. One day one of the bricklayers got to telling war stories to some students. He told of being in on the Franklin killings and recalled something sort of amusing: “Usually I can knock a squirrel out of a tree at seventy-five yards, but I took aim at that woman, almost close enough to touch her, and all I did was shoot off a piece of her hair.”

One of the students took this story with him when he went back home that weekend to Shelton Laurel. He told it to James Norton, who was Nance Franklin’s brother, and Norton offered the student a five-dollar gold piece if he would point out the bricklayer. The student identified the unsuspecting veteran, who retold his story. When he finished, Norton announced, “That was my sister you shot the hair off of, and one of her boys you murdered was named James after me.” He pulled a revolver from under his coat, shot the bricklayer in the stomach, and ran away. He was soon arrested, and trial was held in the neighboring county.

Nance Franklin rode through the mountains to testify on behalf of her brother. her descendants remember the testimony vividly, and the jury and spectators at the time were moved, too. Especially memorable was her answer when the judge asked, “Madam, you tell us that you sent your young sons out to fight and kill and be killed. Did you bring them up for that sort of thing?”

“I brought them up as Christians,” she answered. “I told them always be good boys, tell the truth, and be honest. But I told them something else. If you’ve got to die, die like a damned dog with your teeth in a throat.” The jury decided that the victim deserved killing. James Norton went free (Paludan, 21-22).

The Home Guard had killed her sons, her brother killed a veteran of the Home Guard after the war. Blood paid for blood. And so it went after the war to such an extent that it shaped the politics of the county for decades after. My mother can remember when people carried guns with them to vote because tensions were so thick. The short hand I was once told is that, generally, the old Republican families in the mountains had been Unionist, while the old Democratic families had been Confederates. And yet, it can’t be that simple. My mother’s family were Republicans from a long way back, but there were four men in one family who fought for the South and three didn’t make it back home.

Two of those men are my direct ancestors. My great grandfather Elbert was the grandson of Christopher S. Buckner, who never came home from the war, and his wife Julina, was the granddaughter of Joseph Hardy Buckner, who died at Camp Douglas.

At any rate, when I think about monuments that speak some truth about the Civil War, I think about that monument at Camp Douglas, with those names inscribed on it, and that grave stone, with the names of two husbands: one who never came home, and one who picked up and raised his brother’s children as well as his own.

To those monuments, we would be well served to add monuments to the experience of the Black Americans who endured slavery and nonetheless made this nation their home–out of necessity yes, and with great burdens–but to the benefit and enrichment of us all. As I read recently, we Southerners are a big mixed up family, with white and black cousins and neighbors afraid to see themselves in each other because of a shared history that too often has divided and continues to divide us. It’s time to put up some new monuments that help to highlight those truths, and that help to bring us together rather than glorifying the things that separate us. As Michael Twitty writes:

“I dare to believe all Southerners are a family. We are not merely Native, European, and African. We are Middle Eastern and South Asian and East Asian and Latin American, now. We are a dysfunctional family but we are a family. We are unwilling inheritors of a story with many sins that bears the fruit of the possibility of ten times the redemption” (The Cooking Gene, xvii).

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His Holiness Pope Francis: Why the only future worth building includes everyone | TED Talk | TED.com

My Mother Wasnt Trash | | This Appalachia Life

This is one of the most powerful personal reflections I’ve read in a long time. Have your tissue ready.

My mother died the day she turned 55.

This Sunday will be my first Mother’s Day without her, but nearly a year after she died, I still find it impossible to be heartbroken over her passing. As I wrote in her obituary, she suffered from both mental and physical illness for much of her life. However, despite her struggles, she selflessly loved and supported those who meant the most to her. In so many ways, she loved those who society deemed outcast and unloveable, and through her relentless love of others, her relationship with God was readily apparent. While I miss her dearly, it would be selfish of me to wish that she were still alive and suffering rather than at peace.

I suppose that my mother is the single biggest reason that I have devoted much of my career to studying poverty. My mother was what some folks call white trash, and by extension, that made me white trash growing up too. Truth is, she never stood much of a chance of climbing out of the poverty in which she became mired the minute she was born. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother was (and still is) about as wicked a human as I have ever met. Mom and her sister mostly raised themselves, so it’s no wonder they got married and left their abusive home first chance they got. At 16, Mom married an alcoholic who beat her most every day until the night he came home drunk and she rolled him up in the bedsheets and beat the hell out of him with a baseball bat. Not long after, she got pregnant. Her firstborn child died before he was a week old. She named him Dustin David, and his loss laid heavy on her heart for the rest of her life. It was just one piece of a lifetime of heartbreaking burden that took a toll on her mental health.

Not long after Dusty died, she met my father and my conception hastened the bells of Mom’s second wedding. My father is a good man, but they divorced by the time I was out of diapers. After my father, she married a total of five more times, twice to the same man. She had the biggest heart of anyone I have ever known, but picking men was not among her gifts. She told me more than once that she didn’t think she deserved a good man. I was never able to convince her that she deserved a partner who treated her well.

Source: My Mother Wasnt Trash | | This Appalachia Life

Evangelism of the weird – Covenant

Good thoughts on the necessary weirdness of the Christian faith by Father Jonathan Mitchican:

This past Epiphany, I blessed chalk during the Mass. It was the first time our parish had engaged in this particular practice. Each person who attended was given a piece of chalk to take home with them, along with a set of instructions for scrawling the formula for a blessing over the doors of their homes: “20+C+M+B+17.” It was a strange thing to do. People in the neighborhood would later stare at our doors and wonder. It made no sense to the world. Many people thought it was weird.To that I say, good. It is good that Christians are weird. The weirder we can be, the better.We in the West live in a culture in which Christianity is increasingly alien. Despite the fact that much of our cultural understanding of things like human rights and social responsibility is still loosely based on a Judeo-Christian ethic, our societies in America and Europe have become increasingly secular and hostile to Christian faith. Our culture’s priests today are celebrities and scientists (and the celebrity scientist is the most prized figure of all — witness the recent controversy over Bill Nye’s new show). Our houses of worship are football stadiums. Our creeds are sound-bite versions of political platforms delivered over social media and cable news.

Source: Evangelism of the weird – Covenant

The God that most Christians worship is evil

David Bentley Hart (left) receives the Michael Ramsey Prize from Archbishop Rowan Williams.

David Bentley Hart lowers the boom  in this wide-ranging podcast interview. From a discussion of the way an understanding of salvation that consists in being saved from God rather than from sin and death makes God into a capricious and wicked idol, the reasons Process Theology is philosophically incoherent (basically it makes God into a god or demiurge rather than the ground of all being in perfect plenitude). Also discussed are the reasons the idea of inherited guilt is based on a mis-translation of Romans 5, the fact that it is fundamentalists and not the hellenistic influenced Christian (and Jewish) intellectual tradition who are thinking like pagans, and worshipping a Zeus-like figure. Great stuff. As always, Hart is erudite and to the point. Enjoy.

[Edit: I thought I’d include this great quote. Hart and his interviewer and discussing their struggles with illness, and how this is reflected in a sensitivity and moral outrage in the suffering in the world, Hart says:

“…I think there is a real problem that we have to deal with in the way that most of us have become accustomed to thinking about God. We preach the gospel of the love of God in Christ as a solution to the gospel of the wrath of God in the Father, for instance. It is, at the end of the day, the way it’s construed, the way it’s spoken, the way it’s preached, fundamentally contradictory. And I don’t blame those who reject it. I think that if the choice is between say, a principled atheism and many forms of Christian belief, that the atheism is closer to a true picture of the Christian God because at least it’s a belief in a reality that doesn’t include the petty despot who predestines some to eternal perdition. But the other thing is just a critical and scholarly concern too… that’s sort of a trivial thing, but I just translated the New Testament for Yale… in translating the New Testament I became somewhat indignant actually at the history of translation that one’s fighting against. In part I mean just the traditional translations which with the best will in the world followed theological orthodoxy in their time and place. And many people who are considered authorities on what, say, Paul taught, learned some Greek in seminary and they learned to translate certain words according to the dogmatic tradition which has determined a lot of translations for 500 years, and more than that actually, even the translations into Latin in earlier centuries. But then there are the modern translations like the New International Version which go out of their way to impose readings on the texts that clearly aren’t there in the Greek in order to make them conform say to certain Evangelical understanding… The New International Version for instance imposes readings that are clearly false.”]

Crackers & Grape Juice Episode 34–David Bentley Hart: All Creation Afire as a Burning Bush.

The other wall…

I’m seeing a lot about the case of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the case about to go before the SCOTUS. The background of the case regards grants given to non-profit tax-exempt schools to improve the safety of their playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran School applied and, I read, their application ranked 5 out of the thirty-something received, with 14 grants available. They were rejected because Missouri, like 38 other states, has a Blaine amendment in its constitution that forbids the direct funding of religious institutions. These amendments are a relic of an attempt to add such an amendment to the US constitution. Part (though not all) of the motivation for these amendments was anti-Catholic and anti-Immigrant sentiment at a time when public schools across the country were basically Protestant parochial schools and often centers of “Americanization.”

The case is interesting for a number of reasons, and touches on several issues I’ve been reflecting on for some time.

First the main issues that people are writing about:

  • Can a state constitution go beyond the United States Constitution in restricting something, in this case, can a state constitution more narrowly define what constitutes establishment. I don’t know if it will have direct bearing on the case, but this reminds me that the Tennessee constitution had a provision that forbade clergy from holding elected office, which was found unconstitutional in 1978 (the last state to have one).
  • Related to the first, is it religious discrimination or does it burden free exercise to exclude some tax-exempt/non-profit organizations from such grants because of their religious identity.

I think these questions are worth asking. The list of Amicus Curiae over at the SCOTUS blog  is very interesting. Most of the briefs seem to have been filed in favor of Trinity Lutheran, but it is interesting that some of the religious ones where not. Reading the briefs on both sides is informative.

I’ve always had some ambivalent feelings about religious organizations taking tax money. I was nervous about President George W. Bush’s office of Faith Based Initiatives because of the reality that accepting money always gives a person or organization a real or percieved degree of control. As one of my friends used to put it “you take the man’s money, you play by the man’s rules.” I’ve heard enough about the mixed bag having a church on the national register of historic places, for example, to say nothing of more contentious issues.

Which brings me to the underlying issue that I think is at play in our society: the proper role of Churches and other non-profits. Whenever issues like this come up on line (another hot button is the clergy housing allowance exclusion) there are always people who ask why churches shouldn’t be treated like businesses. The short answer is that churches are not businesses. Most churches are small. They were granted tax-exempt status not because they were religious, but for the same reason other non-profits were: they are intermediate institutions in society that are cooperative in nature and that, ostensibly at least, work for the common good. Because of this, our society determined that it would be wrong to burden voluntary associations made up of tax payers, whose missions and goals benefit society, with another layer of taxation.

The long and short of it is that, as a Christian, I would almost rather churches paid taxes, to rid ourselves of as much of any sense of beholden-ness to the state as we can. On the other hand, as a citizen, I actually do think these intermediate/mediating institutions are extremely important, especially in a society which is polarizing along too many lines to count (geography, generationally, racially, and certain economically).

 

For Trinity Sunday–John Donne, Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God

Trinity Woodcut

Trinity Woodcut

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Speak yet again

My latest post on Covenant concerns the Right to Die movement. It was split into two parts:

Speak yet again: on euthanasia, part 1

“I don’t think that there are many folks around arguing in favor of the over-medicalized approach to death as a good thing. We need better ways to die, but euthanasia will not provide them.”

Speak yet again: on euthanasia, part 2

“Part of recognizing the gifted nature of our lives entails recognizing the limits of our own control. This is not an argument for oppression or control by others, but rather a call for a recognition of actual and legitimate limits. While it’s true that we have been expanding the horizons of those limits with our technology for millennia, some elements of those limits are not to be thrown off, else we risk losing the very definition of our humanity.”

If you love me

A while ago, I heard a powerful lecture on the Prophet Jeremiah by Professor Ellen Davis. In it, she said something that is also found in her book Biblical Prophecy: Perspective for Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry. She writes: “The prophet speaks for God in language that is literally visceral: ‘My guts, my guts; I writhe!’ (Jer. 4:19); ‘My guts yearn for [Ephraim/Israel]” (31:20). Although the visceral character of Jeremiah’s words is (regrettably) obscured by most translations, this feature of his poetry is an important indicator of his distinctive place within the prophetic canon. For Jeremiah is a witness to horror who never looks away, and thus he may teach us something of what it is to speak and act on God’s behalf in the most grievous situations” (Davis, 144).

These words, particularly the portion in bold, rushed back to mind yesterday when I saw the photograph that has caused so much controversy, of the Syrian refugees who drowned while attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece and enter Europe. The picture that is ingrained in my mind, along with images of my little boys, is the picture of three year old Aylan Kurdi who drowned with his older brother and mother, and washed up on the beach, leaving his grieving father with no desire to go on to Europe, but to instead return home, alone.

People have argued that these photos should not have been published. In certain respects, in magazines that are known for making their way without ethics, and only for financial gain, I can see why this would be controversial. But taken on its own merits, publication of these photos only brings home the reality of what is facing so many people fleeing from violence, war, and instability in their home countries. Politicians and analysts are right to say that the only long term solution is to encourage stability and peace in the homelands from which these folks are fleeing. But that is just that–a long term solution. In the mean time, we can’t look away from the tragedy of little Aylan’s death, nor from the broader tragedy of which it is a particular example. Something must be done now to aid and welcome those who flee in fear of their lives. And so, the following poem came to me, and I thought I’d share it with you.

If you love me
do not look away
use your gifted eyes
to welcome the world
through tears
In beauty. In pain.

If you love me
do not hide your face
from need. from pain.
from me.
use your face to know
and be known

If you love me
do not close your lips
but use your mouth and
loose your tongue
to encourage
to shape love loudly

If you love me
do not remain with folded hands
but apply your hands to work
that heals
that lifts
the one who has fallen,
Pull the listing boat ashore

If you love me
do not walk away
but plant your feet and
stand
against injustice
and walk
to where you’re needed

If you love me
you will meet me
when you do these things
and loving your neighbor
you love me

Do not look away
If you love me

-JBH, 2015

Learn more from Episcopal Migration Ministries & Jesuit Refugee Service

Episcopal Migration Ministries also conducted a webinar on the Syrian refugee crisis 8 months ago:

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