The Service of the Word

Brother Causticus notes with one eyebrow arched – yes, he can do that and so can you with a modicum of disciplined effort – a communication from the Diocese of Southwest Florida announcing its annual convention’s adjustment of its apportionment to The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America “in order in to bring the amount in line with the Biblical concept of the tithe.”

The press release helpfully adds the parenthetical expression “10 percent” to assist the Episcopalian possessed of the average denominational Biblical literacy in understanding what exactly is meant by the term. The statement tactfully refrains from mentioning that not only Holy Writ, but General Convention itself defines the tithe also as the minimum standard of giving by individual Christians, thereby forestalling a panicked rush toward the fire exits.

Brother Causticus observes that this bold commitment to scriptural truth has already yielded righteous fruit as it reduces the current diocesan allotment to the national church by roughly half, thus freeing over $200,000 for the Diocese of Southwest Florida's far-flung mission outreach to – praise God from whom all blessings flow! – the Diocese of Southwest Florida. This is entirely resonant with the general tenor of other recent outbreaks of orthodoxy within the Church.

It should be stated that the diocesan ordinary remarked he was “somewhat disappointed” with the decision of his convention. Brother Causticus’ Baptist readers – both of you – should note that this is roughly equivalent to a minister of your own denomination hollering “Repent or you’re going burn in hell for eternity, sinners!”

BC’s own home parish of St. Euphemesius-By-The-Freeway has been beset in recent weeks with similar eisegetical antics. An Alpha course swept through the area leaving our unchurched neighbors largely untouched, but knocking out two of the three legs from the via media stool upon which a number of our congregants had heretofore steadily perched.

Senior warden Augustus Seabury “Buzz” Lancaster was particularly caught up with zeal for Bible study. “You know,” he confided to BC, “It’s amazing how much of it comes from the Prayer Book.” An evangelical friend steered him away from the New Revised Standard Version -- which promulgates the apparent heresy that the text might have been addressing those of both genders when it employs the masculine normative -- toward a New International Version without those problematic deuterocanonical books.

When his next round as lector came up, Buzz read from this rendering, rather than the NRSV on the service bulletin’s lectionary insert, thereby befuddling many parishioners with the variance between what was coming from the lectern and that which was on the paper before them. A further portion were doubly astonished that the passage Buzz was declaiming apparently came from a sizeable book, rather than the aforementioned single sheet. Observing it was somewhat like the Gospel volume the deacon carried in procession, they heartily sang out “Praise to you, Lord Christ” when Buzz finished the epistle.

Despite several mild reproaches from our rector, Buzz persisted in this practice until All Saints Sunday, when he frantically fumbled through Ecclesiastes for several awkward moments looking for a forty-fourth chapter before an alert acolyte sidled up and handed him the lectionary insert containing the appointed reading from the forty-fourth chapter of Ecclesiasticus.

Though chastened, Buzz continued his commitment to rightly dividing the word of truth, though not in circumstances where personal embarrassment might ensue. It became common knowledge that the chances of a favorable outcome for any item brought before the vestry increased greatly when the senior warden could be convinced of its scriptural warrant, though he was stonily overruled by the distaff members when he suggested that they be silent in the meetings and ask their husbands to explain to them the nature of the proceedings later.

Armed with this foreknowledge, Ms. Laeticia York of St. Euphemesius’ Peace and Social Justice Committee approached the vestry bearing her latest modest proposal with a certain sly confidence. Laeticia who, it should be noted, constituted the entirety of the Peace and Social Justice Committee, was fresh from the twin triumphs of convincing the Altar Guild to use sacramental wine made from organic grapes picked by union farm workers and the ECW to fill the post-service coffee hour pots with beans grown by a Guatemalan women’s cooperative, and had now turned her attention to the upcoming local elections.

Buzz, who had extended discussion of a faulty water heater in the Sunday School wing to a remarkable length in hopes that the lone visitor to the vestry meeting might grow discouraged and leave, at last heaved a sigh and called for new business. He saw with some surprise Laeticia had with her a Bible and wondered what in the world Laeticia was doing with it, since she had heretofore evinced only an interest in equity for the poor, peace between nations, stewardship of the earth, and other non-scriptural themes.

Laeticia began by noting that the Bible mentions donkeys 130 times and read several passages describing the general high regard the inhabitants of ancient Israel had for this estimable beast of burden. She expounded on the implications of “Speak, ye that ride upon white donkeys, ye that sit in judgment” from the tenth verse of the fifth chapter of Judges and distinguished this rather rarer manifestation from what was called “in the original Hebrew” the hamor or common reddish-brown donkey. She wove a compelling argument through the Prophets (major and minor) and nimbly lept to the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, noting that the King of Kings, the Lord of Glory Himself rode to the Passion by which all the world would come to redemption on, yes, a donkey and therefore the vestry of St. Euphemesius should pass a resolution endorsing the candidacy of a local worthy contending for Congress under the auspices of the Democratic Party.

The assembled vestry sat stunned, bludgeoned into stupefied silence by the erudition of the exegesis, though nagged with the suspicion that it was faulty in ways they could not fully articulate without revealing the paucity of their own Biblical insight. Buzz desperately tried to recall a passage mentioning elephants and could not. As in a dream, one member proposed the resolution and another seconded it.

It seemed there was nothing to do but call the question, when, from the end of the table, Mr. Walter Joiner -- a high school biology teacher whose primary perceived value to the church community was that of a “man of science who was also a man of faith” and thereby useful as a counterpoint in discussions with rude agnostics -- mildly remarked that the species populating the Holy Land under discussion was technically not a donkey, but a member of the ass family.

The ancient and venerable Mr. Ludlow Harms, whose date of election no one could recall and whose term apparently had not yet expired, snapped his chin up from its repose on his chest and chortled phlegmily, “That’s what they called ‘em in the King James Version,” and began a recollection that involved a long-departed childhood friend, a pew copy of the Bible, and an unfortunate breach of decorum during Morning Prayer, but which he did not complete due to his lapse midstream back into slumber.

Seeing his opening, Buzz proposed that the resolution be amended to state that the vestry of St. Euphemesius-By-The-Freeway encouraged all faithful Christians to do their civic duty in the upcoming plebiscite and be it further resolved that the Democratic candidate for Congress was an ass.

Brother Causticus was not present that evening, having long since perfected the execution of a deft sidestep at the approach of a representative from the vestry nominating committee, but he heard reports of infelicitous statements rendered with intemperate language during the ensuing discussion.

Over the next several weeks, BC noticed a realignment in the customary seating of parishioners at Divine Services, one cluster forming on the left side of the nave around Ms. York and another across the aisle around Mr. Lancaster, who sat most decidedly on the right, each claque commencing just audible murmurings of affirmation during the Service of the Word at the passages of which they particularly approved. Both parties kept silent only at the Gospel, manifesting no reaction observable by most of their fellow Christians or anyone at all in the wide world beyond our sanctuary doors.