December 22, 2014

How Should We Refer to God?

Yesterday’s sermon at my church referred to God a lot. Although the word “God” was frequently mentioned, no masculine pronoun was used to refer to the Christian deity. This was frankly annoying. A sentence like “God loves God’s people” sounds foreign to a native speaker of English. Moreover, the construction suggests to a “normal” person that two distinct entities, not one, are being talked about.

No masculine pronouns
The reluctance to use masculine pronouns to refer to God is feminist political correctness run amuck. It is part of a program to eliminate “sexist” language, not only in sermons and theological discussion, but even in the prayer book liturgy. Doubtless, many avoid the use of masculine pronouns for God with self-righteous satisfaction, but one does have to wonder if they’ve thought this affectation through.

The most obvious reason to use pronouns idiomatically, rather than repeating forms of “God,” is that the latter practice sounds very odd. A major innovation of the Reformation was the recitation of the liturgy in the vernacular. Avoiding pronouns where they would normally be expected runs counter to the objective of making liturgy accessible. Instead, it just sounds goofy. Linguistic conventions do change over time, and even liturgy must adapt to change, but using language that no one uses in ordinary speech isn’t helpful or welcoming.

For Episcopalians, there is a more significant matter at issue. Our prayer book is supposed to be a book of common prayer. When large numbers of people in a congregation regularly make a substitution like “God’s” for “his” (as in “And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever,” on p. 355), it can be jarring to others. Some, particularly visitors, may feel like they didn’t get the secret memo. Others may feel that the congregation is violating the social contract that fixes the liturgy until such time as the church’s General Convention, through its laborious revision process, decides to change it. We have a set liturgy to avoid unnecessary fights between prayer book revisions. We should take advantage of the fact.

It is bad enough when individual members of a congregation substitute “God’s” for “his.” It is a more serious offense when, in a printed service, the church itself makes such a substitution, as my own church is wont to do.

One of the joys of The Episcopal Church is the ability to visit any congregation and feel at home with the familiar liturgy. Unexpected and unauthorized variation can be exceedingly off-putting. An experience is burned in my memory of visiting what was clearly a conservative, evangelical Episcopal church. The sermon was not to my liking, but I felt comfortable with the overall service. Then came the dismissal, to which the congregation responded with one voice (though without mine) “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” What followed “God” is hardly objectionable in the abstract—it comes from 1 Corinthians 15:57—but, not being in the prayer book, it was supremely alienating. I suddenly felt like an unwelcome intruder in the congregation. I can hardly complain about evangelical Episcopalians straying from the reservation, however, if liberals engage in similar practices.

Of course, the feminists would be right in arguing that God has no sex, in the human sense. And they even have a point in arguing that the portrayal of God as masculine is part and parcel of society’s patriarchal bias that regularly slights half the human species. The notion of God as father is deeply ingrained in the Bible, though, and it is difficult to ignore Jesus’ use of “my father.” The feminists are bucking a very strong trend.

The substitution of, say, “God’s” for “his,” hardly achieves gender neutrality. “God” naturally seems masculine, since there exists another word for a feminine analogue, namely “goddess.” A bit of modern theological education might lead one to think of God as sexless, but the reality is that the English language does not contain a specific word for a sexless deity. If “God” suggests masculinity in one’s mind, eschewing masculine pronouns and repeating forms of “God” really doesn’t accomplish much.

I’m not an anthropologist, but, for what it’s worth, my impression is that nearly all cultures attribute gender to their deities. That, too, seems deeply ingrained.

I really don’t see much of a solution to the feminist “problem.” If God is neither male nor female (or even male and female) and we want to acknowledge that in our speech, three not-completely-satisfactory approaches come to mind. It does seem to be true that masculine pronouns used with the word “God” tend to emphasize the maleness of the deity. One alternative would be to use feminine pronouns (“And blessed be her kingdom, now and for ever.”) This, perhaps, bends over backward a bit too far and seems slightly schizophrenic.

A second alternative would be use grammatically grating plural pronouns (“And blessed be their kingdom, now and for ever.”) This is akin to the use of the plural in cases where sex cannot be determined, as in “A pilot is in charge of their plane.” (Personally, I don’t like this construction, but saying “his or her” or “him or her” all the time is tiresome.) The doctrine of the Trinity both justifies this locution and operates against it. If we want to refer only to the first person of the Trinity, use of a plural pronoun is confusing.

Finally, there is the logical solution—use neuter pronouns (“And blessed be its kingdom, now and for ever.”) This makes sense at one level, but people—and not just feminists—will argue that it depersonalizes God. The point is well taken.

As I said earlier, I don’t see a fully satisfactory solution to the feminist “problem.” It may be a matter best left to the theologians and liturgists, however.

December 18, 2014

Episcopal Café Performance Improves

Episcopal Café logo
“Sluggish” was hardly adequate to characterize the abysmal performance of Episcopal Café when the new site was rolled out nearly three weeks ago. More than one friend expressed the view that continued reading of the blog was more trouble than it was worth. When I complained to editor Jon White about the interminable waits for stories to appear, he indicated that neither he nor members of the Episcopal Café team were encountering the same problem. I was concerned that the blog would never be as useful as it had been in its former incarnation.

Lately, however, performance has greatly improved. I again wrote to Jon and asked what had  changed, but I received no reply.

Anyway, because I complained so much about the poor performance of Episcopal Café, I thought it necessary to acknowledge the improvement, even if the Episcopal Café team never admitted that there was a problem to be solved.

Anyone who has given up on the blog, should give it another try. The user experience, though flashier than strictly necessary, is reasonably satisfying. And The Lead continues to provide news of the Episcopal/Anglican world that is not otherwise available in one place. My previous posts about Episcopal Café (here and here) can be helpful in learning how to navigate the new site.

Happy reading! It’s good to have a serviceable Episcopal Café back.

December 13, 2014

Curve-stitch Experiment 2

I posted a curve-stitch design a few days ago that I thought had interesting properties. A slight modification of the design yields the image below. I cannot decide which is more satisfying.

Click on image for a larger view.

December 8, 2014

Curve-stitch Experiment

New Curve-stitch design;

Click on image for a larger view.

Update, 12/15/2014: I posted a related design on 12/13/2014. You can view it here.

December 6, 2014

More Episcopal Café Mysteries

Episcopal Café logo
Although I have not been trying systematically to discover everything odd or simply wrong with the re-designed Episcopal Café, I do keep running into quirks. (See my last post “Probing the Mysteries of Episcopal Café” and my comments on the site’s welcome post.)

First, I should note that a couple of my early complaints have been addressed. The original background image, a purple field of a repeated geometric pattern, about which I was not the only person to complain, has been changed to a solid color. At first, it became a garish purple, but it has now been transformed to a demure, Episcopalian purple. Thanks for that. I do wonder if the new background is permanent or whether it is the background color of the Café for Advent.

Also, the Café logo now has the proper accent on the “e” of “Café.” (See image above.) I would have separated the two words in the logo with a bit more vertical space, but at least the spelling is correct now. The accent is missing in other places, however, most noticeably in the categories list and in the heading “Please support the Cafe” in the sidebar, and on the Support the Cafe page.

Now for some features I have not mentioned heretofore. As best as I can remember, all posts on the old site indicated who had posted it. The poster was not necessary the author, but it was useful to know who had thought the post worthy of attention. The new site is inconsistent in this regard. For example, “Church of England to push BP & Shell towards a low-carbon economy” carries no indication of authorship. “The Magazine: Not the Secret Gnosis—An interview with the leadership of St [sic] Gregory’s of Nyssa, San Francisco” indicates an author below the title, though it isn’t clear whether the author is the poster. “Formalizing a bad idea” shows both the poster and subsequent updater at the bottom of the post. It would be good if the new site consistently indicated who posted an item.

Another missing feature, sort of, is the ability to link to a particular comment. Well, one can do that, but how is something of a mystery. On many sites, the time stamp on a post or comment is a link to that item. This works on Facebook, for example, and on my own blog. Comments on Episcopal Café carry a date but not a time, and the date is not a link. “Reply” under the date is a link. It takes the reader to the desired comment, but with a reply form below it. This isn’t terrible—one can still see the comment in its original context—but it is odd. If, on a particular comment, the “Reply” button is a link to, the proper link to the comment in context but without the reply form is I doubt such a link will be used very often because it isn’t at all obvious what the proper form is.

It is oddly annoying that, on the home page of the site, the sidebar does not appear. One has to load a particular post for the sidebar to be shown.

Finally, as one commenter noted, the Subscribe to RSS Feed button works differently in Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer, and, in Chrome, it is virtually unusable.

December 4, 2014

Probing the Mysteries of Episcopal Café

Episcopal Café logo
As many readers surely know, Episcopal Café has been redesigned. There were several reasons for updating the collection of Episcopal blogs, but the most pressing was probably that the software underlying the site was no longer being supported.

The new site is more attractive than the old, but, like any newly designed Web site, it has its teething problems that will take some time to work out. The first problem that I noticed, for example, was that “Café” had lost the acute accent on the “e.” (See logo above. I am told this problem is being fixed.) Other issues are more problematic. Additionally, the site is organized differently, and that organization can be confusing if you don’t understand it.

The most serious problem is one of performance. It can take a long time for a story to appear. This may be related to the animation that serves up one story at a time. This animation is cute, but the price paid for it may be too high. Anyway, when one clicks on a link—on a Continue link, say—to see a complete story, it may take a long time for the story to appear. I did this on a story last night, and, by morning, the story had still not shown up. Sometimes the story seems to appear and disappear in an instant. Sometimes a mouse click can reproduce this behavior. I tried viewing “Right Now Jesus Can’t Breathe” and clicked my mouse in a space that should have contained the story. To my amazement, a picture showed up. It was a picture in the (invisible) story, suggesting that the story was there but not there. (Can you say Schrödinger’s cat?) Anyway, I discovered that, if you are waiting for a story to appear, scrolling down a few lines can make it visible. This behavior is a serious bug, but knowing the workaround makes the site at least usable.

The old Episcopal Café presented as a collection of blogs. To the casual observer, the new site seems to have the same organization, with several blogs having been collected in something called “The Magazine.” If you were to think the new organization a minor variation of the old, however, you would be wrong. The old blogs have actually disappeared. All stories are now organized into categories (e.g., The Lead) and further characterized with tags (e.g., News reports or legal).

Even if you understand the use of categories and tags, navigation can be confusing. Clicking on “The Lead” in the banner or the sidebar (under “Categories”) will bring up only stories in that category. Scrolling down makes more and more stories appear until, at the bottom of the page, you can select the next page of older stories or go to the last page. The good news here is that all the stories from the old site are still available. (But see below.)

What is confusing is this: At the bottom of each story are arrows to take the reader to the previous or next story. What is not immediately obvious, however, is that clicking on one of these arrows may take you to a story in a different category. What would be helpful would be up and down arrows to take you to the next and previous stories in the same category.

Finally, there is the problem of finding a story if you only know the title or the old URL. There is no search function provided for the site, so searching by title is impossible. Eventually, Google will, no doubt, fully index the site, but this is unhelpful now. A Google search may yield an old URL, but, alas, the new page addresses are different. If you know the title (or something close to the title) but can’t remember whether it was in The Lead or Daily Episcopalian, good luck! Actually, if you can find the old URL through Google, you can narrow your search.

I am the principal editor of the news blog Pittsburgh Update, which summaries Anglican news of particular interest to people of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Update has frequently linked to stories at the Café, usually stories in The Lead. Many of these links are now broken.

What I have discovered is that, if you have a link to the old site, it may actually work, or you may be able to figure out what the new link is. For example, here is an old link:

The title of the story is “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” On the new site, the blog name and the tag (in this case, “lead/anglican_communion/” are dropped. Also, the “.html” at the end gets stripped off. This actual URL is

but the old one works, too! I don’t know why some pages are redirected but others are not. In any case, the part of the old URL that derives from the story title is usually pretty similar, but often not identical, to the corresponding part of the new URL. Consider the story “Clergy call out Ft. Lauderdale mayor on false feeding site claims,” whose old URL is

Both this URL and the URL found by removing the blog, tag, and HTML suffix give a page-not-found error. The proper new URL is

Go figure.

One strategy that can be used to find a page is to filter by tag. From the old URL, we know that our Fort Lauderdale story has the tag “news reports.” This tag can be found under “Tags” in the sidebar, where individual tags are links. Clicking on “News reports” takes the reader to

which displays stories with that tag. Without a date, however, the reader may have to embark on a long linear search.Good luck with that.

Most of the problems of finding old stories could be solved by including a search box on the site. This would not be the most convenient way to find an old story from a title or URL, but it would work in a pinch.

I hope this has helped people navigate the new Episcopal Café. Stay tuned; I’m sure things will get better.