Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

An example of what a funeral can be

A few months ago I posted a blog about funerals which got some attention. This must be a subject of genuine interest, because the most mail I ever got concerning something I wrote was an article I wrote about the fiasco that was the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. The responses were overwhelmingly affirmative.

A friend in Scotland has written me about the funeral of his father. I was very moved by his account and I append it here. I have left in all the details because it makes the context come alive. (This is Western Scotland, centered on Glasgow, where there are a lot of Roman Catholics of Irish origin--quite different from the eastern part of the country centered on Edinburgh.)

Of course this is a very different sort of funeral than those we are seeing in Connecticut right now, and it should be obvious that this is suitable for an older person whose life was well lived. 

My dad was a very old 78. His job as an electric-arc welder in the Clydeside shipyardsaw him work for many years in confined and dingy spaces. This paid very slightly more money than the miserly base-rate shipyard welders earned, but it had a serious downside. This, of course, was in the days before health and safety regulations, protective equipment, and progressive employment law. His lungs were damaged early on and as he got older he suffered badly from other associated health problems - and, it has to be said, the cigarettes didn't help! But, it was the way of life at the time and it is perhaps testimony to his strength of character that he lasted as long as he did. He went peacefully in the end and that was a blessing. It did come as a shock though. We're keeping an eye on mum now. Her health is not great, but she seems to have the constitution of a horse. She's Clyde built, as we say!!
The funeral was a fabulous affair, if that doesn't sound daft! The priest knows the family and is familiar with my dad's dedication to the trade union and labour movement in and around Glasgow. He spoke about dad's lifelong commitment to old fashioned socialist principles (Socialism and the Christian faith, particularly the RC faith, are completely compatible here, as you probably know, and Irish Catholics across industrial Scotland have been particularly well represented in the socialist movement) and with the church packed with family and old comrades, he played my dad's tune by talking at great length about social justice, equality, and the continuing need to fight for a fair days pay, à-la Woody Guthrie! He referred to dad as a "man for others", which touched us all deeply. He used St Paul to ground his homily- not so common in the Catholic Church -  and this was really good given the man!
Afterwards, the family and some of dad's old friends gathered for a 'few drinks' to see him off in good traditional Irish fashion. We sent him off on his new journey with family stories, songs, shipyard anecdotes and fond memories in his portmanteau!. It was a great day!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Torture porn: Zero Dark Thirty

Readers will already be aware that the new movie Zero Dark Thirty, about the killing of Osama Bin Laden, has stirred up a firestorm of criticism and controversy. This link will take you to a reasonably balanced view of the matter (rather too balanced for my taste), as well as some exceedingly gruesome descriptions of what goes on in the film:

As a charter member of the National Religious Coalition Against Torture (NRCAT), I am almost literally sickened by what I have read and heard. I admired the Oscar-winning director's Hurt Locker, up to a point (I remember being glad it won out over Avatar)--but I wondered where her sympathies really lay. Now I really wonder.

I don't expect to see the movie, not so much from squeamishness as from the certainty that I will be even more heartsick than I am already. I trust the reactions of some of the others who have reported on it. It is bitterly discouraging to fight so hard for years to make headway on this issue, and to feel that perhaps some progress has been made, only to learn that a movie already being hailed as the best movie of the year has in one stroke undone it all. That's the way I see it. Dick Cheney is suddenly back in somebody's good graces, but the revelations about Abu Ghraib, and the "dark sites," "extraordinary rendition," and "enhanced interrogation techniques" set up by the US government after 9/11 were, and remain, the greatest stain on the American character ever.

In Jarhead, Anthony Swofford's acclaimed book about the Gulf War, Swofford writes that supposedly anti-war movies like Platoon were watched over and over by Marines who were both incited and excited by the violence. As I have written before, I am not against violence in films and have quite liked some films full of violence. It all depends on the moral stance and viewpoint (if any) of the filmmakers. I have read quite a lot about Zero Dark Thirty by some very intelligent people who have seen it, and I agree with David Edelstein of New York who thought it verged on being "borderline fascistic." John McCain is not a hero of mine but his strong statement on this subject recently was very impressive. We all have a sadistic streak buried away somewhere under the surface, and when we think that others approve of cruelty and believe in its efficacy, it has a powerful effect on us.  I hate to think of all the young unformed minds that will see this film and conclude that torture is justifiable.

The New York Times has an article on the front page on Dec. 13. It shilly-shallies around with various opinions on whether or not torture was key to finding Bin Laden (it wasn't, and even the movie seems to acknowledge that, though most people turned on by torture won't care). At the very end of the article, however, the key points are made (by the reporter Scott Shane), as follows:

"The portrayal of torture in television shows like 24 — which makes no pretense of reflecting real events — may already have contributed to a notable shift in American public opinion toward the idea that brutal interrogations are necessary and effective, said Amy B. Zegart, who studies intelligence at Stanford University.
"She commissioned a study in August that showed a switch since 2005 in views on the torture of terrorists who might know about new plots. There was a sharp a decline, for instance, in disapproval of waterboarding and of chaining naked prisoners in uncomfortable positions in the cold. The more spy shows people have watched, she said, the more enthusiastic they are about torture. 'I think the evidence is that television is shifting views,' said Ms. Zegart. 'Entertainment has an alarming impact.'"        

Sunday, December 02, 2012

The First Sunday of Advent: with apologies to Presbyterian and Lutheran friends

Today was another perfect Sunday in New York, with St. Thomas Fifth Avenue at 11, a three-hour walk in Central Park, and Bach Vespers at 5 at Holy Trinity Lutheran on Central Park West.

The first Sunday of Advent, I would argue, is the most important Sunday of the year if you bracket Palm Sunday and Easter Day. The Episcopal Church, as far as I can judge, continues to do Advent better than any other tradition. The theme of Advent I is  the Second Coming of Christ in majesty on the Last Day to judge the world. The horizon is cosmic; the imagery is all-encompassing; the promise is unconditional. Charles Wesley's magnificent hymn, "Lo, he comes with clouds descending," presents a picture of the entire human race faced with the reality of the Redeemer. "Those who set at naught and sold him" are the subject of the second verse, and "His ransomed worshippers" are the ones who, in the third verse, gaze with exultation upon his "glorious scars." But the secret of the hymn is that these two differentiated groups are actually one and the same. Which of us ransomed worshippers did not set at naught and sell him? Christ died to redeem us precisely from the sin of rejecting God. And so in the fourth verse each one of us and all of us together, ransomed sinners, join in the chorus, "Yea, amen, let all adore him." In that sense, it is truly an "inclusive" hymn--one of the greatest of all. "Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess..."

The service at St Thomas never strayed from its theme. The church was entirely undecorated except for the vestments and hangings of Sarum blue. There was no whiff of Christmas merriment. Everything was designed that we should "hear in Holy Scripture and Sacred Song the message of salvation wrought by [Christ], and be put in remembrance of the great day of Judgment." The second hymn, "Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding" contains this verse by Charles Wesley:

So when next he comes in glory,
 And the world is wrapped in fear,
 May he with his mercy shield us,
 And with words of love draw near.
Wesley (again) gives us powerful doctrine in the third hymn:
By thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to thy glorious throne.
In these days as the church is becoming more and more "semi-Pelagian," introducing elements of human spiritual achievement into the work of salvation, it is good to hear that phrase about Christ's "all-sufficient merit."

The fourth hymn of the morning, interspersed of course with choir anthems (notably by Palestrina), is a translation of a hymn by St Ambrose (340-397). (I heard it again at Bach Vespers in a different translation derived from Luther's German rendering. I don't know the original Latin [or German], but the John Mason Neale translation used at St Thomas is better in English than the Lutheran one.) It is a history of salvation in miniature. In the fifth verse we sing, "His course he runs to death and hell, returning to God's throne to dwell." Ambrose's hymn teaches that the blessed Trinity arranged from within the Godhead that the Son would take upon himself the judgment that we deserved, in order to deliver us and the entire kosmos from the power of death and hell.

The service was an hour and twenty minutes and I think many of the full congregation wished it could have gone on much longer. It was stunning musically, biblically, liturgically, theologically.

So I emerged from the church into the maelstrom of Christmas commercialism on Fifth Avenue, which is always a bit of a shock, and headed for the tranquillity of Central Park. Before I could get there, though, I had a much bigger shock. On the front steps of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, a building in which I have heard many fine sermons (and have preached myself a couple of times), an assembled group of about 25 volunteers, presumably Presbyterians, wearing Santa Claus hats, regaled the crowds with Christmas carols.

Am I a liturgical snob? Yeah...The Presbyterian Church has been my home away from home for many years, but we Episcopalians have one thing that we do better than anyone else, and that's Advent!

"Let us cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light..."

Addendum: the next day or so after I posted this, I got a call from a friend saying that he had preached on the text of "Lo he comes" and had made the same point. Those who wail and those who rejoice are not two different groups of people, but one and the same. I also got an email from the rector of St Thomas Fifth Avenue who said that he thought "Lo he comes" was the greatest of all hymns, 18th century tune and Charles Wesley words taken together. I agree entirely.

(With regard to words, though, I have two or three more to propose, in due course.)