The Christian Church and The Titanic

This is going to take awhile: I suggest, if you are up to the task of reading this tome, that you pour yourself a triple dram of your favourite Friday night single malt first. I’ll take mine neat, thank you.
Given the recent round of discussion, for me, this must be how Sister Wendy would feel if she were handed the keys to the Louvre: what thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion! Thank you, fellow catacombites for an abundance of food for thought. My head is spinning with the stimulation:

Leader vs. intermediary;
altar of worship vs. common table;
God in our midst vs. God in the East ;
Jenny Geddes alleged cry;
and deck chairs on the Titanic with poetry by Yeats:
this is a feast of serious thinking!
There are enough separate discussion threads to keep us going for a year.

The ‘deck chairs on the Titanic’ metaphor is the one that keeps popping up the most in my head. Obviously, the Church as ship is an ancient symbol; the word nave points this out. The last twenty-five years in the Church has felt like we’ve missed the signal about the approaching iceberg. Moving around altars and renaming them does seem quite akin to the aforementioned metaphor. But when I think about it more, it is not just the last twenty-five that have triggered the impending doom: I vote for the last two thousand years.
For me, it is quite confusing and has had me questioning how we worship God (modern or traditional approach, you choose). The Christian liturgy is the public worship of God by the people that has emerged through two millennia of political, social and theological evolution. If I wait until Sunday to have the presence of God symbolically represented to me by an altar position or priest position, I fear that I have lost much in my daily struggle to have a relationship with God. My private worship and relationship with God is an everyday responsibility.
The sacrament of the Eucharist is not God-worship, but Jesus-remembrance for me. Jesus went into the garden to work on his relationship with God; he went into the synagogue to study, teach and worship God. Not for one minute or a great bottle of single malt could you convince me that the position of the altar or the like would matter to Jesus or God.
So, before I look for a life boat or ask for the last dance on the Titanic or the altar to be moved or renamed, this question keeps nagging away in my head: can we save the ship?
Put that question on hold for just a minute though; let me tell you about chapel this Wednesday.
At the heart of St. James’ is the Lady Chapel. It is for me a little and barely-noticed jewel through which life at St. James’ flows. Every Sunday, the community passes through it; rarely pausing to breathe in the special quality that pervades the room. During the week, it is used as the short-cut to sanctuary. People tramp through it; every so often, someone will make a quick nod at the altar as they scurry along. It is on Wednesday morning that this room glows. 10 a.m., to be exact.
The paint is peeling off the walls in certain areas; the carpet is worn. Usually, the chapel chairs are helter-skelter. Many times, tired floral arrangements from the previous Sunday service quietly count their days in the corners. The altar is planted against the north wall.
A small, fairly consistent group of us gather each Wednesday. We wait quietly for the officiant to arrive; rarely is there chatter of any sort. We always start at page 67 in the BCP. There is always the epistle and the gospel; there is never a homily. We always kneel at the same points in the service. Very rarely does the presiding priest stray from the course that is hundreds of years old. Each week, we are reminded of the essential elements of the Christian life.
Because the service is always the same, I don’t really use the book. For extended passages of recitation, it is open for reference. I can focus on the why’s instead of the how’s of worship. Stopping my mid-week life to do so is not very easy for me. It would be far simpler to recite a prayer at home at 10 o’clock on Wednesday morning and get on with the have-to’s. But having observed mid-week chapel now for two years, I find it disturbing to miss it. Rather, my soul finds it disturbing to miss it.
In its quiet, contemplative way, Wednesday chapel dusts of my worries, sets me up straight and sends me back out into the world with a gentle nudge, ready to start all over again.
This Wednesday, Malcolm Wilson presided. We weren’t sure who to expect as it was not printed in the bulletin. Malcolm opens the sacristry doors and enters the chapel. He stops and lovingly looks at each one of us and greets us with a warm “Good Morning, everyone”.
Malcolm does not really preside. He speaks for us, not at us. He kneels when we kneel, he faces the altar as we do. He offers the words of absolution to us as though they were being offered to him. He invites us to read passages along with him that normally we are excluded from. He is amongst us, not above us. He does so not from a physical position; he does it in spirit. Malcolm’s authenticity, reverence and humility elevates the service to the most meaningful level. When the service is finished, we all sit in silence. There is no urgency to speak, to move, to get on with life. It is as though we have had a small slice of the peace that passes understanding; we don’t really want it to end.
Not many Wednesday chapel services feel this powerful, but when it does happen it is the most amazing tonic for the spirit and soul. Back to my question: can we save the ship?
The Titanic metaphor comes back to mind. The Christian church is very comparable to this famous ship: a huge vessel that seems unsinkable, carrying confident but oblivious passengers. A vehicle so large that it cannot react quickly enough to change its course to avoid destruction. The comparisons seems to go on. Let us not forget E.J. Pratt’s poem Titanic and its epic portrayal of hubris. There was nothing structurally wrong with the Titanic. The hubris of the people sank it. In the Christian church’s case, it has been sinking for nearly 2000 years.
Got that bottle of exquisite single malt handy: I would wager that Jesus never intended that there be a Vatican or a Canterbury, a pope, an archbishop, a diocesan appropriation that is sinking small parishs, an altar of worship or a common table/altar. He pointed out the slavery of the 613 Mosaic laws; he came that we might have life more abundantly. And, we, his disciples, took the 613 Jewish laws (this spreadsheet is available online and is a helpful outline ) and created an equivalent number for Christian liturgy and denominational dogma. Jesus pointed the way to God; not to himself. He taught that life is about paradox: The Beatitudes; he taught that love had to be radical ; he lived with authenticity, reverence and humility.
It has taken 2000 years but I wonder if the ultimate Christian metaphor may be unfolding. The Church will have to die before it can live again. No amount of shuffling of furniture, or glitzy signage, or dumbing down of the language, or sparkles of vibrant liturgy is going to get this ship out of the way of the iceberg of reality.
I can’t save the ship alone. My generation could maybe save her; I’m not sure what it would take to light a fire under the adherents. It is mind-boggling to imagine what it would take to usurp the political armour that her leadership have built around them and their systems. Perhaps miraculous radical love and action? Reminds a bit of this ancient story of a young rabbi…
I’m ready for a refill; are you?
Nicola Adair

Evolution and the Ideomorph

What better forum than the Catacombs of St. James to discuss the niceties of Darwinian theory. Margaret Wente seemed to stir up a more potent than usual wasps’ nest this past week with her commentary on evolutionary psychology and the ongoing debate of whether we’ve pretty much arrived (the ‘as good as it gets’ view) – or are still not only continuing to evolve, but at an accelerated rate. Responses, mostly rather unflattering (but then her skin has also ‘evolved’ to lizarderm status, as it were), populated the op-ed pages of the Globe this weekend. Briefly, evolutionary psychology applies C.D.’s main thesis – that, pairing of stronger, more viable, and hence sustainable matches, over time produce a more dominant genetic line that will survive and thrive, while weaker, more ‘flawed’ pairs will gradually drop out of the mix – to social selection. Smart, accomplished folk who pair up with others of similar endowment and drive are in effect propagating that ‘line’; and you can fill in the other half of the equation.

This exchange of view was perched atop an equally ‘stimulating’ piece citing this same theory as an element underpinning the gender-wage gap in our culture. Feminists are fond of pointing rather exclusively to the ‘glass ceiling’ that exists for women. The ‘enlightened’, young (female) psychologist / columnist was suggesting that accomplished women actually select themselves out of the wage market (taking with them their significant incomes and abilities, thereby dragging down not only the ‘female average earnings’ but also removing a particularly promising group of employed and employable folk) by choosing as partners, males like unto themselves: bright, upwardly mobile, high achieving, etc., etc… In short, this process of modified ‘natural selection’ (to attach the usual Darwinian terminology) skews the number of top female candidates, leaving the males in play.

To illustrate her point, she cites the case of Michelle and Barack Obama. A mere three years before his election, Michelle was reportedly earning in the $300,000 (USD) range annually. Expected 2009 income: $0. The implication of course is that the Obama’s are representative of a significant group of similar couples, all studiously engaged in the process of pulling the female earning potential out of the market, leaving their male counterparts to boost the average male numbers. Maybe yes; maybe no. Unfortunately the theory is, how shall I put this, yet to be tested. While not a devil’s ‘advocate’ per se, I’m at least a promising protégé.

An occurrence that old Charles D seemed to struggle to account for was not only the appearance of but the apparent thriving of anomalies – those quirky right turns in the methodical, relentless march of evolution from which sprang, quite suddenly, spontaneously, and without apparent genetic forebears, completely new (and sometimes desirable) directions, homo erectus being a prime example. The fossil record, after several millennia of plod along one, well worn trail, seemed to lurch (in evolutionary terms) rather abruptly along a new path. I would maintain that the Obama ‘match’ might better be viewed as one of those desirable hiccups and far from sufficiently representative to account for anything as far reaching and ubiquitous as the wage gap across genders. I’d put Mr. Obama himself (perhaps prematurely – hopefully not) in the category of the Winston Churchill’s, the Lester B. Pearson’s, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s, the JFK’s – politicians to be sure; but certainly not leaders born out of the existing genetic political pool, nor the ‘expected’ progeny of the existing ‘political parentage’. I’m not sure if the term in the title is original (I highly doubt it) – but it certainly works in just these situations. The aforementioned are ideomorphs, one-offs as it were, unique forms (to consider the etymology of my makey-uppy term) that pop out of centre field (if the metaphors may be mixed) and not from the predominant, primordial ooze of the political landscape.

Nicola and I got to discussing, at the same breakfast time ‘round table’, just such anomalies in the slightly lowered profiles of our own families; triggered in no small measure by content of an extended family history, provided Nicola some ten years ago and detailing three centuries of paternal genealogy and more particularly some of the extended writings of a grandfather. Her mother is fond of saying: “just where did you come from?” – reference the values, style, integrity, attention to detail, and so on that not only characterize her daughter (and make her, I believe in mother’s view, something of a rebellious handful) , but set her at some considerable distance from the value systems detailed in a family history of high-achieving, but decidedly ethically challenged progenitors.

I, like most borne out of a scientific training, subscribe quite heartily to Darwinian ideas. Creationist science is not only deemed bunkum, but is positively oxymoronic – with the emphasis on the final three syllables. I am left, nonetheless, in some awe of individuals that strike a unique path, that eschew the proscribed direction – whether it be swinging from trees with a penchant for walking on one’s knuckles or simply donning the party (be it political or familial) colours and espousing the expected and predictable rhetoric. In a tradition within our household, certain festivals and other ‘Hallmark days’ are marked with homage paid each other, most often in form of a haiku. Following is a variation on just such an acknowledgment of the ‘ideomorph’ I am honoured to be partnered with:

Culvert cultivar;
One’s weed, one’s wonder –
Uncommonly principled.


Captain Karma Comes A Callin’

A wise friend (and, for all I know, avid Jim Croce fan) once paraphrased those words to live by: “ya don’t tug on Superman’s cape, ya don’t spit into the wind, ya don’t tug the mask off that ol’ Lone Ranger, and . . .” with his own caution. “Always answer the door when Captain Karma comes a callin’.” Easier said than done. What’s this guy look like? How do I know it’s not just another JW in a fancy cape. If I open the door to another bag of stale chips or almond chocolate bars, I think I’ll explode. If I had a swimming pool that needed cleaning, I’ll sure call you first. Sorry, no tax receipt, no ticky. In short, we’re pretty much conditioned to slam that door in the face of just about anybody that rings the bell.

And so as I fired up the snow blower on what, to all appearances was not a particularly auspicious, winter morning, I was not really prepared to entertain such a guest. Two, three inches at most; should be able to blast through this in top gear and get in before the coffee cools. Driveway, done. City walkway – all the way to the corner (self-absorbed slugs who drop their citizenly duty, take note), done. A little polish off of our own sidewalk . . . Oops, just about dropped the ball on that one! Toss the newspaper safely out of the way onto the front porch; mark that extension cord, frozen in place ‘til Spring – and WHANG!

Blue smoke, usually the exclusive province of the machine itself, redoubled as its owner added to the column. Nothing stops a blower in its tracks like a good, hefty, mid-week edition of the Globe & Mail. Momentarily at a loss, I poke my head around to the business end and confirm that, yep, a little tattered and twisted but otherwise wedged in tact was Wednesday’s best (bearing out my fear that I’d carefully rescued yesterday’s paper) mid-maw as it were.

Years of anger management (teaching, not taking – thank you very much!) reminded me to belly breathe, hit the ‘pause button’ (as if that would get the *&%@! Globe out of the blower!), put an optimistic construction on events (‘could have been the extension cord’ seemed a bit limp at this point). And thus, as the mailman (and it was a man) strode up the driveway with his sunny greeting of how much he appreciated a clean path, I responded in kind with an “it’s the least I can do” – and went back to work with the sledge, crow bar, and sotto voce curses. It was some time before my mind (and the smoke) cleared sufficient to register that just maybe that wasn’t the mail man after all. Maybe that was CK in a mad bomber hat (the guy is a master of disguise).

Now the parallel tale, of course, is the Lenten theme at St. James this year. Let me get this right: something about consumerism, loving the planet, caring for our non-renewable resources. For some time, heeding the refrain that the church website is such a wonderful tool for communicating with the parish, for sharing life at St. James with those that can’t attend on a regular basis (Hmmm?), for keeping folks current with bulletin and community news, coming events and music lists (well, those will come, I just know it), the scribe and faithful sidekick have connived and plotted, pushed and (digitally) published this little vehicle in every way possible to save a tree here and a pinch of Xerox powder there. But alas, the drafts of drafts, the photocopies of photocopies, the pink, purple, and puce ‘eye catching inserts’, the printed reminders to check the website for details – just keep a rollin’ off the press. The direct emails, weekly updates, the attempts at ‘reverse marketing’ (“if you want to receive a hard copy of . . .”) have fallen on deaf ears. Ah, but Captain Karma hears!

Feeling ever the hypocrite, I recall my rants about inserts, flyers, ad mail, and unsolicited newsprint – dropped disdainfully into the recycle bin between the mail box and the house, unread, unwanted, resented; as I pull a shred of “Leafs lose another one” out of the blower’s rotors. As I untwist the plastic wrapper from the drive shaft, I cast mind back to the (now hollow) advocacy to ‘read online’; the barely controlled telephone exchanges with the London Free Press, censuring them for delivering ‘complimentary copies’ of their ‘illiterate rag’ to our house. Tentatively tweaking the clutch to expel the final few remnants of Rex’s column onto my neighbour’s snow bank, I shudder to remember the carefully lettered warnings taped to mail box cautioning anyone who might challenge to “save a tree – leave no junk mail here!”. How many times does the message need to be delivered? How much clearer can CK be? P-R-A-C-T-I-C-E W-H-A-T Y-O-U P-R-E-A-C-H. Come to think of it, that’s kinda catchy – even has that kind of churchy feel to it. Hmm. Wonder if there’s an application of that up on the hill. Or do we have to wait for a visit from CK? Wonder what the liturgical equivalent is of a Globe stuffed up your rotor?

David Howard