Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Christian Marriage: Part Three

It is astonishing to me that there has not been a single protest raised about the fact that Governor Cuomo of New York lives with a woman who is not his wife. (He is divorced--bitterly so, according to reports--from Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter and has two children, to whom he appears to be reasonably close.) What do Mario and Matilda Cuomo think about this? They always struck me as a couple who take their Catholic faith very seriously.

Among my own widely extended church-going acquaintances, the trend toward tolerating or approving cohabitation and even single parenthood seems almost total. There has been a fairly universal reaction of “They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.” I gratefully remember one occasion, twenty years after our daughter’s marriage, when I said (in a group gathering) that my husband and I were thankful to her for not moving in with her fiancé before the wedding day. She replied, to general laughter, “I figured you’d write me out of your will!” Lord knows, the assets in our will are nothing to brag about, but the point was well made; we had made our strong feelings known. We were fortunate and blessed that she cared what we thought.

My husband and I had a solemn and celebratory renewal of vows for our 50th anniversary, hoping that this would make a lasting impression. It remains to be seen. Among Dick’s and my circle of college classmates and friends, no more than 5% are divorced; among their children and grandchildren, that figure seems unimaginable.

These scattered observations are almost laughably far removed from the bizarre arrangements celebrated in articles about “modern love” (the title of a popular New York Times Magazine weekly feature). These day, it is easiest to withdraw into a posture of either resignation or acquiescence. That would be unfaithful, it seems to me. I am arguing for a strong counterattack in the form of a robust theological alternative by the Christian community. The concept of marriage as an image of the divine covenant between God and Israel, between Christ and the church, is what we have been withholding (see my two earlier posts on marriage). It seems to me that this is more important than the same-sex marriage dispute, yet we hear nothing about it.

Back in 1957 when I was in college, a great many people read a best-selling end-of-the-world novel called On the Beach, by a middlebrow novelist named Nevil Shute. Last week I pulled it down off the top shelf, blew off the dust, and, for reasons that I will explain, reread it in one sitting last week. The book is dated, and certainly no literary masterwork (though it is no worse in that regard than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo!), but I believe anyone today who can overlook its fifties style would find it haunting in the same way that many did 56 years ago. On the Beach depicts the end of human life after a brief, cataclysmic nuclear conflict in the Northern Hemisphere. Its central character, an American naval commander, finds himself and his submarine crew exiled to Australia, the last remnant of the U. S. Navy alive in the world. Melbourne will be the last major city to lose its entire population as the radiation drifts southward toward Tasmania and Antarctica. When the last person expires, it will be the end. No one will survive. The novel focuses on a group of upper-middle-class Anglo-Australians with whom the American finds friendship and support during the last months of the existence of the human race. He meets a woman, Moira, who falls in love with him and brings him solace.

There is no deus ex machina at the end. The suspense lies in how the doomed population will comport itself. The way it copes in Shute’s book can certainly be questioned or disbelieved, but it is food for thought. A young couple who dote on their new baby must face killing the infant “when the time comes” so that it will not suffer alone if they die first. It strains at credulity, perhaps, to imagine people planting gardens that they know they will not live to tend, and buying toys for children in the Northern Hemisphere who are already dead, but there is something about all this that is, as I said, haunting.

But it is the depiction of the American naval commander’s marriage that I remember more than anything else in the book, and that’s why I got it off the shelf. He is deeply in love with his wife, Sharon, back home in Mystic, Connecticut, and devoted to their two children. He accepts the love of Moira, and to some degree returns it, but as they begin to see more of each other he tells her that he has been faithful to Sharon all during the two years he has been away in the service, and he does not intend to break his vows to her. He keeps those vows, and the book ends as the radiation descends upon Melbourne and he, with his crew, departs with the submarine to die honorably at sea, the last vessel on earth…while Moira, on the shore, watches them go, knowing that her own death is very near.

The naval commander’s eschatological fidelity to his wife when the human race is about to be extinguished made a lasting impression on me in 1957 when I was 19. I never forgot it, and it strengthened my view of marriage. Like much else in Shute’s book, it seems naïve in these cynical times, and most people would find it preposterous if not comical in our age of irony. I am reminded of another movie of that era, a celebrated masterpiece—Shane. There is a scene near the end in which the gunfighter, Shane (Alan Ladd), says goodbye to the married woman whom he loves—and who loves him. They know they will not meet again, and that he may be killed. They do not even kiss, but solemnly shake hands. That, too, would be impossible in a movie today; it brings laughs from audiences now. For me in the mid-fifties, it was deeply impressive.

Is there a way to find similar cultural reinforcements for marriage today? It’s hard to imagine. Therefore we must hold out for the power of personal example. Surely we do not have to take the line of least resistance. We have talked with our family about our hopes that the younger members will not break the family tradition by cohabiting. When our grandchildren visit us with members of the opposite sex, we will be putting them in separate spaces. I have at least two friends who have joined me in this project. We are not stupid; we know that they may sneak out during the night; but we will be securely asleep in the knowledge that at least we have made our witness! Perhaps this, also, seems laughable. I don’t think so. It’s better than simply giving in.


P.S. Only two years after On the Beach was published, later (1959), a movie was made of it by the director Stanley Kramer, starring Gregory Peck as the American and an unconvincing Ava Gardner as Moira (I hate to admit that she’s unconvincing, because for me she will always be the most perfectly beautiful movie star ever). It’s even more dated than the book, and more of the book has been changed than retained. Except for a very good performance by a non-dancing Fred Astaire as an auto-racing scientist, the acting is lackluster. The point of mentioning the movie in this context is that—leave it to Hollywood—the American naval officer goes to bed with the Australian woman, thereby nullifying the central moral conception of the book.

Although I did not like the movie at all, I must admit that the musical soundtrack still gets to me. It consists largely of mournful variations on the famous Australian song “Waltzing Matilda.” A quick click on On The Beach (black and white, 1959) will take you to the YouTube clips of the “Waltzing Matilda” sequences and I defy you not to be moved by the elegiac arrangements as the submarine makes its final and fatal way out to sea at the end. You’ll never hear that song in the same way again. And if you should by any chance read the book, the north-south geography of Australia will be permanently fixed in your mind.

I do not care to see the 2000 remake of On The Beach. I gather that it is the polar opposite of the original. Instead of portraying a stoical population determined to cling to its ingrained bourgeois habits to the end, the remake apparently shows civilization in total collapse. Human nature being what it is, the latter version may be more true to reality.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

More on Anglican meltdowns

My previous post on this subject has received a certain amount of attention. The most interesting responses came from Bishop Ed Little of Northern Indiana, whom I invoked in my first post. With his response, I am quoting part of what he said. Bishop Little is an exceptionally intelligent, measured, wise person and I always find his comments to be edifying and enlarging. Here is some of what he wrote:

These are indeed treacherous times for Anglicans, and the challenge gets more and more difficult as time goes on. You are absolutely right about the various iterations of breakaways. Thus, sadly, it shall always be. I have a theory that Anglicans don't do schism well because our ecclesiology is essentially catholic and thus, when we splinter, we're acting against our DNA. (Other Christians, without that catholic ecclesiology, actually grow by schism. When a large Baptist church splits, for example, the result is often two churches larger than the original.) The "continuing churches" of the 1970s are now divided into more than 50 competing and mutually excommunicating jurisdictions; and, I fear, the ACNA, AMiA, CANA, etc., are headed in the same direction. Like you I have many friends in the breakaway groups, particularly ACNA. (I imagine that some of these are mutual friends.) They remain beloved friends, and it breaks my heart that they're gone. Indeed, their departure has made my work - and yours - harder.

But I also believe that you and I have a vocation to stay, as hard as that is. I don't imagine that we will live to see the healing and re-direction of our church. That's not given to us. Our call is to follow Jesus on a road that often seems dark and hopeless.

I thought the observation about the Baptists versus the Episcopal DNA made a lot of sense. However, I didn't know what the "continuing churches" were, so I wrote back and asked. Here's his explanation:

The phrase "continuing churches" refers to the people who broke away from the Episcopal Church over the ordination of women in the 70s. Four bishops were (uncanonically) consecrated for this group in Denver in 1978, with the idea that they'd be the nucleus of the true ("continuing") Anglicans/Episcopalians. What happened, in fact, is that they quickly fell out with one another, split into four churches, and those churches have in turn split, and split, and split - more than 50 of them now, tiny groups with (so it seems) more bishops than members, all claiming apostolic lineage. A very sad tale indeed. And, sadly as well, that pattern seems to be repeating itself with this newer iteration of Anglican breakaways.

I am just so sad about this, not only because it is surely a result of the power of Sin which has such a grip on us all, but also because so many dear friends are involved. (And perhaps I am the one who is wrong.) The good news is that Sin will have no power over us in the End. The End belongs to God alone.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Meltdowns in the "Anglican" parallel world

After a very brief Internet search this morning, I have uncovered so many awful stories from my denomination that I can only feel semi-despairing (a Christian can never be ultimately despairing). Breaches within breaches and divisions within divisions give a sense of utter chaos and breakdown.

I have attempted to understand the differences between AMiA, ACNA, CANA, etc. but it all seems increasingly irrelevant as these mini-communions fight with one another and split from one another, with bishops in Rwanda 8000 miles away engaging in power struggles and accusations flying through cyberspace.

I have many cherished and dearly beloved friends in these various iterations of flight from The Episcopal Church and I hate to say anything negative about their serious and prayerful decision to "walk apart." To me, however, the whole scene makes The Episcopal Church seem positively sane, even though its theological drift and dictatorial management style drives me to distraction. The consortium of seven churches in Northern Virginia, including historic Truro and Falls Church, has just lost its long legal battle to keep its buildings. Now those huge, vibrant, and youthful congregations will undoubtedly spend more millions to build new buildings and the body of Christ will be further torn apart. It all seems heartbreaking to me.

Even though I have felt more or less homeless in The Episcopal Church for a long time, I cannot and will not leave. I am profoundly grateful for the (few) bishops with evangelical (and catholic) convictions who remain, like Ed Little of Northern Indiana. It should be noted, however, that Bishop Little has written persuasively of the perils awaiting evangelical Episcopalians down the line, and there is little question that these perils exist. There has been one sign of real hope recently, and that is the way that the Bishop of the "upper Diocese" of South Carolina came to the defense of the much more conservative Bishop of the "lower" Diocese of SC as he faced the possibility of action from the national church. This unexpected move from Bishop Waldo was truly a breath of the Spirit, and Bishop Lawrence of the "lower" Diocese is now free, at least for the time being, from being persecuted.

These reflections are very limited in nature. I have not been involved in making any decisions about congregations or clergy who have decided to go or stay. I am certainly a long way out of the loop. But reading even a small amount of what's available from responsible Internet sources depresses me beyond words. One split leads to another, and another, and another...

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

What makes a powerful Christian witness?

A fraternity brother (University of Virginia) of my husband's, John T. Fisher, has just died in Memphis. Those of who have spent our lives at some distance from Memphis knew that he had been a noteworthy citizen, but we had no idea of the depth and breadth of his example until we read his obituary.

Here is an excerpt:

Under a leaden sky in Crump Stadium the Sunday after Dr. Martin Luther King's Jr.'s assassination, a young, white car dealer stood with civil rights leaders of both races.
"This is a time to stand up and be counted," he said.
John T. Fisher, who died Friday, has long been counted in the history of this community, not only by virtue of his quote in the Memphis Press-Scimitar that historic April day, but also through his devotion to church, family and, for more than a half-century, to Memphis.
After a yearlong battle with lymphoma, Mr. Fisher died at his home, surrounded by family and friends. He was 77.
As one of the few white businessmen to side with black civil rights leaders during the sanitation worker's strike, Mr. Fisher was perhaps best known for his organizing role of a large rally following King's death, called "Memphis Cares." More than 6,000 people flooded the stadium, and Methodist Rev. Jim Lawson, who also spoke to the crowd during the event, said the racial tension in Memphis began that day to slowly calm.
Lawson, who will deliver the sermon at the funeral service, remembered Mr. Fisher as a brave man. "He was a genuine person of genuine faith, which meant also compassion and love, which also meant a sense of justice," he said. "You do not have very much character if you do not have courage to stand in the midst of conflict, and character also required a nobility of vision. ... John T. had all of those qualities, in my judgment."
Mr. Fisher's daughter, Kelly, the oldest of his three children, recalled how her father's willingness to serve black customers at his family's car dealership and vocalize his seemingly radical thoughts on racial equality earned him isolation from former friends, such as the mayor of the time, Henry Loeb. "They grew up next door to each other and had shared background," she said. "Dad thought maybe he would listen. But that didn't work."
Mr. Fisher's convictions traveled with him throughout his life. In the '70s, he decided his family needed to see life beyond Memphis, and with the help of Lawson relocated to Geneva, Switzerland, for a year as part of the World Council of Churches. There, he took a stand against apartheid in South Africa with leaders worldwide.
Yet his time in Geneva wasn't his only break from Memphis. Mr. Fisher attended boarding school in Virginia and was further educated there, at the University of Virginia. He joined the Marines after college and was stationed from 1956-1958 in Okinawa, Japan.
While overseas, he spotted a picture of the "Maid of Cotton" in the Stars and Stripes military newspaper, and the image stuck. When he returned home an eligible bachelor, 6-foot-2 with curly black hair, clear blue eyes and an easy smile, he asked the pageant queen, Jean Carter of Atlanta, on a date. It was then that Mr. Fisher told Lewis Donelson, a man who had become a father figure after his own passed when he was 14, that he found the girl he would marry. And a year later, he did.
Mr. Fisher, a longtime member of St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral and former vice president of development of the Regional Medical Center at Memphis, is survived by his wife, three children, five grandchildren, sister and close mentor.
John T. Fisher's funeral service is open to the public and will be held at St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral Tuesday.

A lot of the rest of us who were young adults at that time must hang our heads to think of all that we could have done in those days that we did not do. We can only give thanks and praise to God that John T. Fisher represented us, and pray that it is not too late for us to give our own witness to the justice and mercy of God in some way before we also are called home.

Here is a link to the obituary, with a striking photograph of John T. Fisher on that historic day in Memphis: