The Bishops' letter does not reveal that they had any discussions or concern at their meeting about the fact that the Church's budget proposed for General Convention 2009 at Anaheim this summer is seriously out of kilter. As Mr. Livingston has documented in his admirable "Primer for Those in the Pews", the Church's own treasurer is telling it that a crisis in finances looms---the like of which has not been experienced "since the Great Depression of the 1930s." The Church is facing an anticipated loss of $7.5 million in revenues, but at the same time its Executive Council has approved an increase of 1,560% in the line item for lawsuits. One would think that such a development was worthy of note, or of at least an acknowledgment. Yet while the Bishops' letter duly takes note of these perilous economic times for the country, there is not one word about the questionable priorities currently being pursued by the Church's leadership.
I shall quote portions of the letter below, to show you what I mean. However, in order best to emphasize my point, I want to draw on an ancient literary device exploited to great advantage by the Greek comedic playwright Aristophanes, in the late fifth century B.C. There is a passage in his satiric play The Frogs in which Aristophanes brings on the venerable and classic figure of Aeschylus, one of Greece's foremost tragedians (who had died shortly after Aristophanes was born), in order to ridicule a younger (and more adventuresome) tragedian, Euripides (the author, for example, of The Bacchae and Medea). Aristophanes has Aeschylus complain that all of Euripides' prologues are metrically identical and boring, and to make his point, Aeschylus has Euripides recite lines from the openings of his plays---which Aeschylus each time interrupts and fills out with the annoying (but exactly metrical) phrase "lost his bottle of oil". Here is an example from the play:
Nonsense; I say my prologues are firstrate.
Nay then, by Zeus, no longer line by line
I'll maul your phrases: but with heaven to aid
I'll smash your prologues with a bottle of oil.
You mine with a bottle of oil?
With only one.
You frame your prologues so that each and all
Fit in with a "bottle of oil," or "coverlet-skin,"
Or "reticule-bag." I'll prove it here, and now.
You'll prove it? You?
Well then, begin.
"Aegyptus, sailing with his fifty sons,
As ancient legends mostly tell the tale,
Touching at Argos"
Lost his bottle of oil.
Hang it, what's that? Confound that bottle of oil!
Give him another: let him try again.
. . .
Pooh, pooh, that's nothing. I've a prologue
He'll never tack his bottle of oil to this:
"No man is blest in every single thing.
One is of noble birth, but lacking means.
Lost his bottle of oil.
Lower your sails, my boy;
This bottle of oil is going to blow a gale.
O, by Demeter, I care one bit;
Now from his hands I'll strike that bottle of oil.
Go on then, go: but ware the bottle of oil.
"Once Cadmus, quitting the Sidonian town, Agenor's offspring"
Lost his bottle of oil.
O pray, my man, buy off that bottle of oil,
Or else he'll smash our prologues all to bits.
Aristophanes milks the moment even longer, but you get the point. So now, with that introduction, allow me to play Aristophanes with the Bishops' pastoral letter, mutatis mutandis:
BISHOPSAs the House of Bishops gather at the Kanuga Camp and Conference Center for our annual Spring Retreat, we are mindful of the worsening financial crisis around us. We recognize there are no easy solutions for the problems we now face. In the United States there is a 30% reduction of overall wealth, a 26% reduction in home values and a budget deficit of unprecedented proportions. Unemployment currently hovers at over 8% and is estimated to top 10% by the end of the year. There are over 8 million homes in America that are in foreclosure. Consumer confidence is at a 50 year low---CURMUDGEONBut the lawsuits shall go on.BISHOPSUnparalleled corporate greed and irresponsibility, predatory lending practices, and rampant consumerism have amplified domestic and global economic injustice. The global impact is difficult to calculate, except that the poor will become poorer and our commitment to continue our work toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 is at great risk---CURMUDGEONBut the lawsuits shall go on.BISHOPSA specter of fear creeps not only across the United States, but also across the world, sometimes causing us as a people to ignore the Gospel imperative of self-sacrifice and generosity, as we scramble for self-preservation in a culture of scarcity---CURMUDGEONBut the lawsuits shall go on.BISHOPS
The crisis is both economic and environmental. The drought that grips Texas, parts of the American South, California, Africa and Australia, the force of hurricanes that have wreaked so much havoc in the Caribbean, Central America and the Gulf Coast, the ice storm in Kentucky—these and other natural disasters related to climate change—result in massive joblessness, driving agricultural production costs up, and worsening global hunger. The wars nations wage over diminishing natural resources kill and debilitate not only those who fight in them, but also civilians, weakening families, and destroying the land. We as a people have failed to see this connection, compartmentalizing concerns so as to minimize them and continue to live without regard to the care of God’s creation and the stewardship of the earth’s resources that usher in a more just and peaceful world---CURMUDGEONBut the lawsuits shall go on.
In this season of Lent, God calls us to repentance. We have too often been preoccupied as a Church with internal affairs and a narrow focus that has absorbed both our energy and interest and that of our Communion – to the exclusion of concern for the crisis of suffering both at home and abroad. We have often failed to speak a compelling word of commitment to economic justice. We have often failed to speak truth to power, to name the greed and consumerism that has pervaded our culture, and we have too often allowed the culture to define us instead of being formed by Gospel values---CURMUDGEONBut the lawsuits shall go on.BISHOPS
. . . Everyone is affected by the shrinking of the global economy. For some, this is a time of great loss—loss of employment, of homes, of a way of life. And for the most vulnerable, this “downturn” represents an emergency of catastrophic proportions. Like the Prodigal who comes to his senses and returns home, we as the people of God seek a new life. We recognize in this crisis an invitation into a deeper simplicity, a tightening of the belt, an expanded Lenten fast, and a broader generosity. God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness meet and embrace us, waiting to empower us through the Holy Spirit to face the coming days---CURMUDGEONBut the lawsuits shall go on.BISHOPS
In a time of anxiety and fear the Holy Spirit invites us to hope. Anxiety, when voiced in community can be heard, blessed and transformed into energy and hope, but if ignored, swallowed or hidden, fear and anxiety can be corrosive and lead to despair. We Christians claim that joy and hope emerge for those who have the courage to endure suffering. . . . Our current crisis presents us with opportunities to learn from our brothers and sisters of faith in other parts of the world who have long been bearers of hope in the midst of even greater economic calamity---CURMUDGEONBut the lawsuits shall go on.BISHOPS
We can also learn from our spiritual ancestors, who found themselves in an economic and existential crisis that endured for forty years – on their journey from Egypt to Israel . . . As we go through our own wilderness, these spiritual ancestors also point the way to a deep and abiding hope. We can rediscover our uniqueness – which emerges from the conviction that our wealth is determined by what we give rather than what we own. . .CURMUDGEONBut the lawsuits must go on.
(Emphases added at the end.) My Lenten prayer for the Bishops is the collect for the feast of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), whose feast we celebrate today (H/T: Father N. J. A. Humphrey at Covenant):
Strengthen, O Lord, the bishops of your Church in their special calling to be teachers and ministers of the Sacraments, so that they, like your servant Cyril of Jerusalem, may effectively instruct your people in Christian faith and practice; and that we, taught by them, may enter more fully into the celebration of the Paschal mystery; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
—Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006, page 199