8/12/2022

GAFCON and the Global South Fellowship wants to capture the flag. Let’s not play the game.


The Lambeth Conference is over with all its occasions to dance the two-step, each bishop moving laterally with alternate wringing hands of guilt and waving hands of praise, and thankfully having plenty of time to simply be with one another. In 10 years they can get together and do it again. I sense that the Lambeth Conference is a really good thing for a community of churches that come together because they want to, not because they have to. 


But now begins the Anglican version of Capture the Flag, in which contending parties vie for ownership of the Anglican Communion flag. 


The one party, the Lambeth Conference of Bishops in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury and mostly OK with one another, will continue to think that flying the flag of the Anglican Communion is about finding reasons to talk to one another, work together when possible, and give thanks for the treasure they have received from Anglican spiritual and liturgical life - gifts first received from the Church’s experience in England. These are churches that work to find ways to be a community of mutuality.


The other party desiring to capture the Flag consists of self proclaimed orthodox bishops who believe they should only get together with other bishops who share either the ancient faith, “once delivered of the Saints” or the faith as expressed as “biblical” faith, conforming to the Word of God given in the bible, plainly written. 


This second party is made up primarily of bishops from two organizations: The GAFCON bishops and the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches. In two separate statements, the Global South Fellowship and GAFCON have made it clear that they are out to capture the flag..to own the “real” rights to be the Anglican Communion. 


This crowd believes that Anglican Identity (for which they are glad to provide determining definition) is central to the question about what the Anglican Communion is and who is part of it.  


In this they are wrong. “Anglican identity” is about who thinks of themselves as Anglicans. “The Anglican Communion” is about particular churches who are in communion with the See of Canterbury and who gather from time to time for mutual support and encouragement and have an institutional structure for the sharing of this encouragement and support.


The second party wants capturing the flag to be about joining their proclamation about Anglican Identity to the rights to use the phrase “Anglican Communion.”  


To this end the GAFCON part of this party has begun speaking of the current (and they believe false) Anglican Communion as the “Canterbury Communion” rather than the Anglican Communion. They believe “The Anglican Establishment” has failed.  


GAFCON proposes that “Through the Global Anglian Future Conference (Gafcon) and the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans, led by the power of the Holy Spirit, new courageous leaders are filling this gap (in true leadership) with authentic community and communion, seeking to make up for the Gospel deficit and the Ecclesial deficit (Windsor Report).” (Archbishop Beach, August 9, Chairman’s Letter). 


What this second crowd contends is that the Lambeth Conference has no claim on being an “instrument” of communion and flying the “Anglican Communion” flag. Rather it is the gatherings growing out of the combination of energies from GAFCON and the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans, that should get the flag.  Their end is to replace an Anglican Communion, as a community of churches linked by way of communion with Canterbury, with a community of churches linked by shared doctrinal commitments to a peculiar way of engaging scripture and doctrinal purity.


They have the numbers… a number of the largest national/ regional churches (Nigeria and Uganda) in the Anglican Communion are part of this group.  But that doesn’t keep them from stacking the deck. Archbishop Beach includes in the list  of primates not attending Lambeth because of conscience, the primates of North America and Brazil - by which he means the Archbishops of the Anglican Church of North America and the breakaway Anglican Church of Brazil. Neither of which is a part of the Anglican Communion - that is, they are not in communion with Canterbury or recognized by the Anglican Consultative Council.  


All of this is about this second group making the case that it is IT that really represents the Anglican Churches in the world, and not the Anglican Communion as currently constituted. All of this is part of its effort to capture the flag.


I find myself thinking of Rhett Butler, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Apparently some provinces of the Anglican Communion and some other churches want to be a “real” multinational church, with its own peculiar doctrines. That is, a church like the Roman Catholic Church, or even perhaps the Orthodox Churches with a well formed hierarchy. Go for it. 


But I don’t believe there is any need for another world-wide church. The ones that exist are full of promise but are profoundly disappointing. If this gang wants to go for that, go for it.


I’m for the Anglican Communion that is Incarnational, lives as a provisional conciliar body, is a fellowship (koinonia) and not a power, is concerned for mutuality and is willing to die to itself, and united in prayer and action for the health of the world. 


I don’t give a damn about starting another worldwide church with a peculiar and unchanging doctrine. But let’s be clear:


They have no right to the name “Anglican Communion” and we are under no obligation to play this Capture the Flag game.  


Let’s tell them to go, do what they want, but they don’t get to take the family silver, or claim the family name









For some reason, owning that flag, and the rights to speak of your particular party as the “real” Anglican Communion has become an important objective.  

8/06/2022

The Sound of Silence: Haiti and the Episcopal Church.

 


THE SOUND OF SILENCE: HAITI AND THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH.


The Episcopal Church of Haiti, the Episcopal Church diocese in Haiti, has, by some counting, the largest number of baptized members of any diocese in the Episcopal Church. Often this is mentioned in the same paragraph that observes that the Episcopal Church is present in 16 countries.  There is considerable pride by some in the fact that the Diocese of Haiti is both a sign of mission action that worked, and a sign of the international character of The Episcopal Church.


With all that pride, it is damning that the budget for support of the Diocese of Haiti has not changed for at least 20 years, that interest in funding for rebuilding the Church in Haiti following the earthquake of 2010 has dwindled, that the Cathedral project has stalled, and that not a peep is heard about the governance of the Church in Haiti. 


There is no Diocesan bishop in Haiti as the process for moving forward to the election of a bishop seems to have ground to a halt. A convention in Haiti elected a bishop, but the US dioceses did not consent to the election. So now the diocese is beginning again to do the work towards election, guided by its Standing Committee with pastoral oversight from other Bishops in The Episcopal Church. But we hear nothing of any concern of, or interest by,The Episcopal Church.


The 2022 General Convention of The Episcopal Church made almost no mention of Haiti at all. At the Lambeth Conference there is no Diocesan bishop from Haiti. And, as far as I can tell, no recognition of any sort of that absence.  


But more importantly, there is nothing being heard from Church leaders in either The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion  about the chaos in Haitian political and social life, nothing about prayer for Haiti, for the church of Haiti, nothing about prayer for the people and country.


Nothing.


But maybe I missed it.


Here is the thing: Haiti as a country is on the verge of major collapse. Some of the leaders of the movement to restart elections and reestablish a fully functioning government are beginning to speak of the need for revolution. They recognize that it is increasingly impossible for a corrupt system to rein in the gangs, the kidnappings, and the brutal violence in the streets. But what will happens if Haiti as a state simply implodes? By who and how will there be any movement beyond the chaos of gang rule?  


And in that context, what will is the work and ministry of the Episocpal Church of Haiti and of the Episcopal Church as a whole?


Regularly on Sunday morning I check in on FaceBook with Epiphany parish in Port-au-Prince. The video stream of the Eucharist is a reminder to me that the Church in Haiti is alive and functioning and that the essential work is continuing. That service reminds me that brave and tenacious faithful people gather, even in increasingly difficult circumstances. 


The Episcopal Church ought to have a real interest in, and support of, the Church in Haiti so that it can choose and validate Haitian leadership of the Church. But it seems silent and inattentive.


The Episcopal Church ought to have a real interest in, and support of changes in Haiti’s civil society that would foster a more just, less chaotic, community. But there seems to be silence there as well.


As it stands The Episcopal Church seems in a reactive mode rather than a reflective or proactive mode. Are there any conversations with Haitian church leaders about how TEC can be supportive either of the Church of Haiti or the people of Haiti?  If there are, why do we hear little. If there are not, why not?

8/02/2022

The Lambeth Conference thread 2022

(The Lambeth Conference 2022 thread from Facebook. These days commentary seems to happen more on Facebook, but here is a compilation of the postings on Lambeth 2022. It turns out a blog is a better place to collect them as a group.)



(7/25) Dancing the Lambeth Two Step:

This is a post for those interested in the Anglican Communion. 

The Lambeth Conference apparently will replace resolution making with a more congenial dance where no one says NO, but politely accepts the call to dance to a given proposition or simply sits out the dance by suggesting further conversation over tea.  

The 2022 Lambeth Conference program to consider several “Calls” - statements for consideration by the bishops gathered is profoundly flawed:  in the generation of statements, in the process being manipulative, and the the questionable proposals about how they might be voted on.  It raises questions about the value of the whole event.  This thing is engineered to promote a myth, that the Anglican Communion is a “church” as opposed to a gathering of Churches, and that therefore it has a “mind” such that you could talk about the “mind” of the communion. 

The discernment of “calls” is a supposed alternative to more contentious resolution making. Resolutions are replaced by calls to commitment and action, Give that bishops will discuss and vote (with only a yes commitment or a commitment to further discussion possible) it’s hard to see the difference between this and resolutions. 

But there is one. In a meeting with resolutions one can vote against as well as for. Here the bishops can only commit to action or to continued discernment.  There is no NO there. 

This revision smacks of the kind of autocracy where you can vote yes now or yest to being convinced later, but you can’t vote no.  So at the front end the Lambeth Conference is clouding the issue of its role as a deliberative body. Robust minority opinion against any of the “calls” is simply not allowed.

The most difficult of these “calls” is the one on Human Dignity, which includes a proposal to reaffirm Lambeth 1998:1.10.  This needs to be explicitly rejected rather than either approved or kicked down the road for further consideration  (the only two choices offered.)  

But I believe it is not only this “call” that needs to be rejected, as if the constrained process for considering the others was somehow OK.  It is not the content of these statements alone that is the problem. It is the process itself. The design of the Conference is at its core the problem.

The bishops are asked to take one of two positions. The Lambeth Call document states it this way:

“For each decision there will be two choices for each bishop to make:

• This Call speaks for me. I add my voice to it and commit myself to take the action I can to implement it.

• This Call requires further discernment. I commit my voice to the ongoing process.”

But the Lambeth process even confuses this choicemaking:

The second of these: “This Call requires further discernment. I commit my voice to the ongoing process.”  is stated in a significantly different way later, “There will be opportunities during the conference to share your answers to these questions before the conference decides on whether to adopt or adapt the Call.”

Is the Conference affirming a Call, which “speaks to me” or is it “adopting” the statement?  Is the alternative to decide that “it requires further discernment” or is it “to adapt (that is to change) the statement?  

Of the two, I believe it is the first that is the guiding notion: The choices are between affirming the call, or kicking it down the road for further discernment.

What would happen if sufficient bishops were to refuse to vote so that a majority could not be reached either to adopt or further consider a call?  If less that, say, fifty percent of the bishops were to step back and refuse to consider a call as it is written at all, what would happen to that call?

Is boycotting a vote the only way to say NO?


II.

 (7/25) The Lambeth Dance just got a bit more civil. This announcement came clarifying that there would be a revision of the Call concerning Human Dignity and a third possibility of voting. Now, the question remains, where did that Lambeth 1998, 1.10 re-affirmation thing come from?


III. (7/27) The second revision of the working document for the Lambeth Conference, the  “Lambeth Calls” document, contains  the striking and immediately useful correction to the Section on Human Dignity, in which Lambeth Conference 1998 1.10 is no longer part of the call, but rather is a reference point for positions held by some, but not all, of the churches in the Communion. 

There are other small corrections to be made

The one  I noticed:  In “Mission and Evangelism,” 1.1 removed a reference to the Anglican church, and made it Anglican churches. This is important because the Anglican Communion is not a church, but a fellowship of churches.

There is at least one other tweak that needs to happen. Perhaps just an editorial footnote. 

In “Interfaith Relations,” 2.4 mentions the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer, but not whose BCP.  It is not in the CofE official 1662 BCP.  Whose churches have this in their service for baptism?  It would be instructive to know.

I’m sure there are more. 

I would hope that without getting into the weeds of “perfecting” the calls, there might be a simple process of making small tweaks as necessary to clean up the edges.

With a bumpy start it still would appear that the Bishops are ready to settle in to real time together to pray and work.  I hope it goes well.

There is still the concern that these documents, good, bad or indifferent, made their way to the table either by design or by accident from material woven together by a small group responsible to the Archbishop directly, or perhaps the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion.  So who got Lambeth 1998, 1.10 into the document in the first place?


IV (7/29)


A read on what ever is going on re resolutions at the Lambeth Conference. Obviously a read from outside the circle and therefore no doubt limited in value.

The Lambeth Conference is a wonderful gift to most of the bishops, a time to reflect, pray, discuss, and yes, even resolve, all in a context where it is hard to forget that odd reality of being part of a Church informed by Catholic, national, and reformed perspectives. 

But because it does try to parse out what counts as an Anglican perspective on issues, concerns and theological groundings, it is sometimes a place of contention leading to potential fist-fights.  So it is this time. But there is a difference, one due to a now 25 year old rupture. 

In 1997 a meeting of Global South bishops, at a conference underwritten in part by the Anglican Communion Office, published a report that critiqued the movement in the West towards inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in ordained ministry and considerably widened the role of women in the ordained ministry.  But it was more. It was a first flexing of the muscles of those who were colonized into the Christian Faith against the double standards of their colonizers.  The West brought what seemed to be the sure truth, it was adopted by the receivers, and they were appalled when the West began to change its tune.  

More, they were aided in being appalled by some in the West who were glad to fuel the suspicion that the West was walking away from the very truths they had brought.  Bishops in the Global South could then voice their resentment of the colonialism of the past by both rejecting that, and what they now saw as revisionist thinking by the West.

Within a year that gave rĂ­se to the takeover of the agenda on the report on Human Sexuality at Lambeth 1998. The report of the committee was scrapped and instead Lambeth resolutio 1.10, a substitute, was put forward and passed. 

That was then, and now is now. And a group of Global South bishops will again try to push a substitute for the “Call” on Human Dignity, in which Lambeth 1998 1.10 will be reaffirmed and the call will be for punitive actions to be taken against churches who don’t conform to the proposition that marriage is only between “one man and one woman.” 

Good luck with that. 

Still, depending on how these days play out, the possibilities seem to be:

1. The possibility of a resolution will be squelched.  Some bishops may walk out not to return.  The Global South / GAFCON crowd will have all the more reasons to initiate an entirely separate  world-wide church structure. 

2. The resolution will go forward only to be voted down.  This is less a reason for bishops to leave, but still gives ammunition to the GAFCON crowd to be encouraged by, and helpful to those sympathetic to them in the West (Including particularly ACNA - the Anglican Church in North America). 

3. The resolution will go forward, be approved, and more or less ignored by everybody except the Global South gang, and life of the Anglican Communion will stumble alone. Progressives will move to cease funding anything involving the Global South bishops and , or the Anglican Communion offices.

4. The resolution will be approved and the Archbishop of Canterbury will with caution none the less affirm that this is the “mind of the Church” and remove or sanction those churches who have ordained gay or lesbian persons to the episcopate.  Those churches who do ordain gay and lesbian persons will feel betrayed. 

But in any of these cases, NO ONE will really address the skunk on the table, namely that the moral distinctions drawn in every culture regarding right action are to a large extent culturally determined and that Christian evangelists have always brought those sensibilities with the message of salvation and confused the two: proper moral behavior and salvatioin.

The skunk is that the receiver always resents being dragged into the moral universe determined by the messengers own culture, and that the communities of the messengers seldom deal with that resentment.

Sadly, bishops are not making that resentment clear. Instead, they have allowed their resentment to be used by those in the West whose agenda is about cultural infighting in the West and gaining allies for those battles.  ACNA has everyting to gain by the growth of an alternative to the Anglican Communion as it now stands, where they have no standing.  And, in the good ol’ Church of England, where all the bishops revel in the beauty of really old and very English cathedrals, the evangelical party will find themselves aligned with the “Majority of the Anglican Communion.”

It would be nice to think that if it was simply passed it would be done with. (option 3) but my strong sense is that that is not going to happen.  

Meanwhile, I hope most bishops have a restful time and that none of all this takes place.  This is because I respect and honor what we do when we make people bishops. It’s a hard job and deserving of some supportive networking. And I believe the Anglican Communion is a real gift to us all, for we need friends in Christ throughout the world.  Lambeth can be a context for supporting both deserved time together and building friendships.

This resolution mess is less helpful, filled with unintended consequences, and serves forces outside the community of bishops and their churches.


V. (8/1) Lambeth two-step dance revisited.

In an earlier post I spoke of the “skunk on the table,” - the resentments about colonialism in the mission work of the West. Having sold 19th Century western moral and civil structures along with the Gospel, as a single package, with the approval of the colonial powers, the receivers took it all in stride. Now they see the West changing its moral and civil stance, separate from the Gospel, and resent that they had to give up their own cultures and civil society in order to take on the Gospel, only to be further jerked around by Western churches who claim the moral high ground and who want to change the rules once again. 

Some readers may think this a stretch, but read this from the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches- from their “resolution” they are putting forward to the Lambeth Conference: 

“For too long the Anglican Communion has been driven by the views of the West. We often feel that our voice is not listened to, or respected. We invite each primate and bishop to sign up to our resolution, and then with the majority of the Communion in favour, for the Instruments of the Anglican Communion to find ways to put faith and order back at the heart of what the Archbishop of Canterbury describes as ‘walking together’”

They are going to get a lot of bishops to sign a document saying that “our voices are not listened to or respected.” 

At the end of all this, the Lambeth Conference may be considerably changed, and no longer an instrument of unity   - a stretch these last three Lambeth Conferences.  But it can be a place for honest discussion and cooperation. In order to be that there needs to be respect and friendship among the bishops.  I believe there is lots of room for that. When the angers and resentments subside, there is often lots to talk about, share, pray for, contemplate, give thanks for.  

It will mean eating at the table and at the altar without using invitation or exclusion as a tool. It will in fact mean respect and listening. It will not mean agreeing. 

I hope the Conference can move on from this difficult day.

VI (8/2)

The Global South Anglican Churches has reintroduced the text of Lambeth 1998, 1.10 and sent around copies to be signed and agreed to by as many bishops as they could muster.  However the text is different from the original.  That text ended with these two points:

“Notes the significance of the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality and the concerns expressed in resolutions IV.26, V.1, V.10, V.23 and V.35 on the authority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality and asks the Primates and the ACC to include them in their monitoring process.”  

The text given to the bishops ends differently: 

“e. notes the significance of the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality and

 the concerns expressed in resolutions IV.26, V.1, V.10, V.23 and V.35 on the authority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality.

ii. Urges that renewed steps be taken to ensure that all Provinces abide by this doctrine in their faith, order & practice.”

(from the Global South Anglican Churches page.)

That last bit, “urgent that renewed steps be taken to ensure that all provinces abide by this doctrine in their faith, order & practice,” is given the heading (ii). There is no indication about what this means in the document. It is under section 5 of the press release, and is presented as part of the resolution Lambeth 1998 1.10.  It is not.

But it is telling: What was wanted then was indeed punitive action against those who did not abide by this doctrine.  First they gave this resolution “doctrinal” status. Then they were, and remain, committed to punitive action until such time as there is repentence.  It was not part of the original Lambeth resolution, but never mind.  Just a little photoshopping or editorial work and, voila! The doctrine you always wanted for the next great round of punishments.

Shame on GSAC messing with the text of the past resolution and encouraging bishops to sign on to this bit of subterfuge. 

I think the Archbishop of Canterbury did a ]good job threading the needle and stitching things together so that conversations can continue. 

Sometime it  might be good for the bishops assembled in some sort of gathering, to talk about times when they were recipients of oppression or were oppressors. The conversation then might turn to what would count as repair, rather than what would count as retribution.  But we will not know at Lambeth, except one hopes, on the sidelines when bishop to bishop the walls start falling.






6/06/2022

My Take on “The Statement on Baptism and Eucharist in the Episcopal Church.”.




(I’ve been writing mostly on Facebook, but am beginning to want to return to the Blog to put “on record” some of my writing.)

My take on the “Statement on Baptism and Eucharist in the Episcopal Church.”

A group of 22 theologians have written “A Statement on Baptism and Eucharist in The Episcopal Church.” It urges the Episcopal Church General Convention to make it clear that “Holy Eucharist is not intended for “all people” without exception, but is rather for “God’s people.”

I believe It is profoundly misguided on many levels:

The notion that Baptism “is the sacramental foundation of our common life with God and one another” and “is the fountain from which all other sacraments flow” may make for good theological fluid mechanics, but it is terrible sacramental theology.

Sacraments are, as we remember, outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. There is no suggestion in that simple definition of any sort of hierarchy of sacraments. The sense in which Baptism and Eucharist were “instituted by Christ” does not tell us anything about having to be baptized first, and only then being able to participate in the Eucharist. All of that is part of the discipline of the Church, not the result of limitations on the workings of Grace.

The writers say, “Baptism is what makes the Church the Church and therefore what enables us to participate in all the other Christian sacraments or sacramental rites, such as the Eucharist.” This is the “ticket to ride” theory, and it does not bear up very well under biblical scrutiny. Participation in Christ, taking the body and being the body, can be initiated by any means the Spirit determines.

After a small bow to the Book of Common Prayer (and only the most recent version of that), the writers refer to the “Commentary on Eucharistic Sharing,” that has as its authority that as a commentary it was approved by General Convention and is part of the Handbook for Ecumenism. Commentaries are just that - commentaries. Not canon or common prayer or direct extensions of biblical materials. Commentaries. The description given says nothing about exclusion from Eucharist if not baptized, but rather that being baptized, Eucharist is the “special offering of thanksgiving” and “serves to bind into a common body those whose differences He has reconciled.” That is, those baptized are enjoined to celebrate Eucharist. Nothing is said about those not baptized.

The writers then conclude, “Unlike Baptism, Holy Eucharist is therefore not intended for “all people” without exception, but is rather for “God’s people” understood above as a common body united by a common faith.” The “therefore” just does not follow.

And, who, pray tell, are “God’s people.” Best we not reject someone because we defined just who God’s people are, and it didn’t include that person, only to find it was a messenger of God disguised.

Furthermore “all people, without exception” is a lead into the issue of “moral and theological commitments” that the writers assume are part of restrictions. The objection seems to be that open invitation means that “just anybody” could come and receive, but that “just anybody” already includes me, “I am unworthy to come to thy table…” and includes me I suppose because I don’t share in the theological subtleties that seem to drive the writers.

The writers contend that, “There are thus specific moral and theological commitments both expected in and expressed by the act of reception.” Indeed that is true. But it is mostly true for those of us who receive as committed Christians. We are expected to bring our understandings and faith commitments to the table. But that does not necessarily exclude those whose faith has not been formed.

The writers introduce a quite amazing close: “Finally, in liturgical terms, the Eucharist is understood to be the repeatable culmination of the baptismal rite of initiation, in which those who receive the elements publicly reaffirm their baptism, as the post-communion prayers clearly indicate.”

OK. Take a look at the first post-communion prayer for Rite II. It reads, “Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and you have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.” This is a prayer said by the whole congregation. Not every member of which gets it, that we are “members” of the body of Christ by baptism (not mentioned by name in this prayer), and certainly not every member will get the notion that this is “a repeatable culmination of the baptismal rite of initiation.”

Baptism can, and often is, and was apparently at the very beginning, a rite of its own, a sacrament sufficient in itself as a carrier of the Grace with which it was endowed. Its culmination is in the pentecostal fire. The notion that the Eucharist is a ‘repeatable culmination of the baptismal rite of initiation’ is a long stretch and smacks of invention.

The writers then sign off with a really fantastic bit of theological bludgeoning: “These are the basic sacramental convictions of The Episcopal Church, and however the canons express them they need to be acknowledged as such.” I suggest they are not the “basic sacramental convictions of The Episcopal Church,” but rather the convictions of some theologians about the way The Episcopal Church ought to view the sacraments.

All of which is to say, these writers have some really interesting things to say about Baptism and Eucharist, but about the linking of the two and therefore the forbidding of persons to receive communion, they fall short of decent argument.

On a practical level, my sense is the invitation to the table (and not compelling but inviting) is mostly an issue for those occasions when a good number of people who are not baptized Christians are likely to be in attendance - namely weddings, funerals and large Church occasions. Some sort of guidance seems in order, maybe something like, “We gather at this Altar Table as Our Lord Jesus Christ desired, becoming one with Himself, and of his Body in the world. Those who are prepared to be and become one with The Lord Jesus in his death and resurrection are encouraged to receive Communion. Those who wish to bless and be blessed in their presence with us, please come forward to be blessed at the altar, and to bless us by being with us.” (This is a rough cut…but you get the idea.)

These writers will carry a lot of wight, with their titles and degrees. That’s the way it goes. But this piece will do the church no good. It is a mess.

5/25/2021

Touching the Dead, a way of Remembering.

In the Days of Covid I have been trying to call to mind the reality of the deaths we as a country have absorbed. How can we envision what half a million looks like, or 600 thousand? The numbers keep rising.  When the New York Times listed 1000 of the first 100,000 deaths it termed the losses “incalculable.” That number seemed so large back in May of 2020. Since then we have multiplied that number by six. And with the passing of time we have reimaged and recalculated again and again. When we reach 670,000, as we surely will,  one out of every 500 people in the US will have died from Covid. 


The exercise of numbering is important, but in the end these are just numbers. It is the senses, the empirical senses, that bring the reality of so many deaths home. The medical personnel dealing one on one with the dying know this.The numbers are grounded in experienced death. Families desperate for help and not finding it know this and they become companions in the death watch with hundreds of thousands around the world similarly ground down by the harsh realities of health systems ground down by the flood of cases. They have been touched by close encounters with Covid. For them extrapolation to the big numbers is experiential. For the rest of us it is an exercise mostly of the mind - using signs and symbols to represent people who have died.


For all my efforts to engaged the immensity of these numbers, I have been very conscious of the distance between the art objects made to hint to the numbers and the visceral reality of immense numbers of dead. 


My first effort - a bound book containing 230,000 “1’s” - made it possible to hold in my hands an object that contained this big number, the number of US dead by November 1, 2020.  I called this “Book of Numbers.”  I could hold the book and turn the pages and reflect on the same dreadful news… one on one on one.  



My second effort was a larger visual experience- a large set of panels with half a million dots, which themselves formed a picture of shapes, spirits, hovering over the background of many thousands and thousands of dots. I believe the viewer can take in the whole field and know in some sense what that number “looks like.”  And still it was too easy to take the numbers and weave them into a story…dots that meant something to the perceiving mind.





The New York Times also tried to envision half a million in a wonderful front page graphic in which a column of dots were arranged on a time line with a density determined by the daily death tolls.  This was published a few days after I had completed the panels. Like the panels it was a graphic representation of an even more incalculable number. 


These efforts mostly involved visual art, in which persons are represented by marks, and the marks located temporally and spatially to give us a sense of the whole. The book attempted to place the numbers in a capturing device, a net, made up of bound book pages, so that there could be a tactile experience. It worked, but the effect was still primarily visual, because or most immediate reaction to a book is to see it as a visual tool for information exchange. Book lovers may love holding a book, but book users read. Some who opened the Book of Numbers saw only pages filled with 1’s, they never got the sense that they were holding in their hands these lives.  The tactile sense was lost in the habits of book use.


This past week I created a very different way of marking the now almost 600,000 U.S. deaths from Covid-19.  In a large wooden bowl, carved by my wood sculpture friend Roy Fitzgerald, I put roughly 600,000 brown and black mustard seeds.  In our exhibit, “Remembering and Naming,” the bowl is on a stand with a votive candle behind it. Visitors are invited to run their hands through the seeds, to let the seeds flow through their fingers, to smell the light pungency of the mustard, and to feel the presence of the souls represented by the seeds.  This is not an artful use of vision, but of touch and smell, and the evocation is not of a visual story, but a sensual one.  





Because we are so un-used to this sort of presentation, I wrote a poem / meditation to accompany the tactile engagement. It was posted on the wall beside the bowl. It reads:


EVERY SOUL HAS WORTH


So small, my soul,

so wide the gulf of death.

Standing on this shore

I gaze across to where 

the waters meet the sky

and wonder

why some are taken

others stay.


Why, if my faith is that

even of a mustard seed,

does my heart grow cold

and my mind shut down?


Why is it so hard for me 

to comprehend that death

is all around, and near,

and has no shame?


Six

Hundred

Thousand.


The mustard seeds

slip through my fingers

in this lavabo bowl.

I wash my hands in the souls

of all who have died,

And at last I see and feel:


Every soul has worth,

small fragrant markers

of the spirit that permeates

the whole and makes

the spirit of the one,

and the spirit of the many,

and the Spirit of the all together,

ONE.


Whatever else these effort mean, they tell me this:  Our hands are closer to the truth of things than we sometimes realize. Our senses are immensely more powerful than we give them credit for. In an information age we sometimes limit information to the signs and symbols that our visual field can encompass. But the world of experience is filled with empirical realities, things touched, tasted, smelled, and heard, as well as seen. And perhaps a sense of what the incalculable deaths from Covid will come to us by touch as well as sight.  Perhaps we can feel the deaths slipping through our fingers, smooth small seed stones held for a moment in our hands before gravity pulls them down. Perhaps we can smell the pungent earth from which they came and to which they go.  And as we do these things we will remember, with all our senses.