December 30, 2019

Isn’t She Still Dead?

Terry Gross’s Fresh Air has been broadcasting reruns of notable interviews during the holidays. At the end of today’s program, Gross announced a forthcoming interview “with the late Joan Rivers.”

Really? I doubt the late Joan Rivers is giving many interviews these days, having died in 2014.

Gross’s intent was to inform listeners of the upcoming interview and to indicate, for anyone who may not know or remember, that Joan Rivers is no longer with us. It turns out to be difficult to concisely communicate these two ideas clearly and precisely.

Some would be inclined to speak of an interview “with Joan Rivers before she died.” But surely—assuming you know something about Rivers—the interview was not done after she died.

I think the only simple way of saying what needed to be said without insulting anyone’s intelligence would require a bit more information and would be something like “an interview with Joan Rivers conducted two years [or whatever time period is appropriate] before her death.

How about it, Terry?

December 17, 2019

Thoughts on the Coming Impeachment

Tomorrow, the House of Representatives will almost certainly approve two articles of impeachment against President Donald J. Trump. Now is a good time to update my thoughts about this development. (See my earlier essays “Don’t Impeach Trump,” 7/25/2019; “Slow Order for the Impeachment Train,” 9/27/2019; and “Further Thoughts on Impeachment,” 10/9/2019.)

It is highly unlikely that the Senate will convict the president. Indeed, the Senate appears as though it will be a kangaroo court. (We tend to think of a kangaroo court as a court that unfairly convicts, but the term applies to any purported judicial body that deliberately perverts justice. No one seems to know where the term came from.)

The jurors in any fair court are expected to be impartial, but the Senate Republican majority is clearly not that. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declared that he will act as chief defense attorney for the accused. He also pretty much gets to make the rules of the court, a power any defense attorney would covet.

Nearly all GOP senators have supported President Trump through thick and thin and without reservation. We can hardly expect much impartiality from that crew. Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, has made it quite clear that his mind is made up, and he will not vote for conviction however the trial goes. It is unclear whether Chief Justice John Roberts, whom the Constitution specifies should preside over the trial, will have any real ability (or inclination, for that matter) to promote justice.

It is to be hoped that whatever happens in the Senate causes public opinion to move away from support of the president. But Trump’s approval rating during his entire presidency has been around 40% and has varied little around that figure. I have been tracking his approval on FiveThirtyEight and am distressed that the figure has recently been increasing. As I write this, his approval rating stands at 42.5%. (FiveThirtyEight aggregates poll results weighted for poll quality, recency, sample size, and so forth, updating results frequently.)

I fear that Democrats have miscalculated. They have sought impeachment on narrow grounds rather than charging Trump with a multitude of constitutional infractions, beginning with violation of the Emoluments Clause. Although Democrats see the president’s attempt to enlist the help of Ukraine in his re-election campaign as a smoking gun, the act appears less clear to low-information voters who are the core of Trump’s supporters and who are likely not paying close attention. Such citizens may not understand a quality allegation when they see one but might be more moved by the quantity of charges.

House Democrats chose not to pursue testimony from clearly relevant witnesses such as National Security Adviser John Bolton, witnesses Trump would surely have encouraged to testify before House committees had he thought their evidence would be exculpatory. Did Democratic leaders really think that Mitch McConnell would force these folks to testify at a Senate trial?

I can only assume Democrats believe that the charges against Trump plus a conspicuously unfair Senate trial will move public opinion. I hope they are right. I doubt that they are.

Today’s letter from President Trump to speaker Pelosi should convince any rational, educated person that (1) Trump knows nothing about the Constitution, and (2) the president is losing all semblance of composure. (Of course, Trump probably didn’t write the letter, though he surely influenced its tone. The letter contains too many long words to have been crafted by Trump all by himself.)

Doubtless, the Trump letter will mean nothing to his cultist supporters. Historians will make much of it.

Freedom Around the World

If you have never done so, you should take a look at the Freedom House Web site. It rates countries (and some territories) on how free they are. Rankings run from 0 (not at all free) to 100 (completely free). One can quibble about Freedom House’s methodology, including the meaning of the ends of its scale, but rankings seem intuitively realistic.

The Freedom House site contains a page that lets the visitor explore freedom ratings via an interactive map. More information is available in a country-by-country list. Current information is for 2019, and, presumably, it will be updated to keep the information timely.

Some observations: Only Syria achieves a rating of 0, an evaluation I can understand having just watched the documentation For Sama. Other notable low ratings include South Sudan (2), North Korea (3), and Saudi Arabia (7). China rates only slightly higher (11). Canada achieves a 99, but the United States only gets an 86. (That sounds about right, though the U.S. perhaps deserves an even lower rating as we complete the third year of the Trump administration.) The only countries to achieve perfect 100 scores are Norway, Sweden, and Finland. (Denmark only rates a 97.) The United Kingdom rates a 93. (Will this decrease under Prime Minister Bris Johnson.) The Republic of Ireland, on the other hand, shows up at 97.

Sadly, Freedom House’s 2019 report is titled “Democracy in Retreat.”

December 12, 2019

Why General Convention Resolution A063 is Problematic

At the recent annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, I noticed that, although proposed amendments to the Episcopal Church constitution were distributed to deputies, no time was allotted by the agenda to discuss them. Their distribution to the convention arose as a result of Article XII of the Episcopal Church constitution, which reads in part:
No alteration or amendment of this Constitution shall be made unless the same shall be first proposed at one regular meeting of the General Convention and be sent to the Secretary of the Convention of every Diocese, to be made known to the Diocesan Convention at its next meeting, and be adopted by the General Convention at its next succeeding regular meeting by a majority of all Bishops, excluding retired Bishops not present, of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by an affirmative vote by orders in the House of Deputies in accordance with Article I, Section 5, except that concurrence by the orders shall require the affirmative vote in each order by a majority of the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies.
(Sorry for this outrageously long citation; I did not want to quote only part of a sentence.)

The constitution is silent on why proposed amendments are to be sent to dioceses, but, presumably, this is to inform the wider church of significant impending actions by the General Convention and to provide an opportunity for individual dioceses to offer opinions concerning the same. There is no special mechanism to take notice of such opinions, but local conventions may try, through resolutions, to influence their own General Convention deputies or General Convention deputies broadly. Without discussion, of course, diocesan conventions can neither elicit concerns nor articulate them.

As I was a deputy from my parish to the 154th convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh this year, I was able to raise my concern about the lack of opportunity to discuss the proposed constitutional amendments. I did so because of concerns for one particular proposal. Although I was ready to discuss the matter, it was apparent that, through no fault of their own, no one else was. Moreover, since the next meeting of the General Convention occurs in 2021, discussion at our 155th convention could still be timely. Realizing this, I was able to extract a commitment from Bishop Dorsey McConnell that the agenda for our next convention would indeed include consideration of the resolutions sent to the diocese from the General Convention.

My concern was for Resolution A063, which would amend Article X: The Book of Common Prayer. Changes to our fundamental liturgical resource are handled in a manner similar to constitutional amendments, in that they must be passed by successive General Conventions and be sent to dioceses after being first proposed. In practice, revising the BCP is considerably more complicated and time-consuming. (The most recent Book of Common Prayer (BCP) was approved 51 years after the previous version.)

Article X allows some liturgically-related innovations to be approved by a single General Convention and without special notice to the dioceses:
But notwithstanding anything herein above contained, the General Convention may at any one meeting, by a majority of the whole number of the Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by a majority of the Clerical and Lay Deputies of all the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies, voting by orders as previously set forth in this Article:
  1. Amend the Table of Lessons and all Tables and Rubrics relating to the Psalms.
  2. Authorize for trial use throughout this Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof, a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof, duly undertaken by the General Convention.
Resolution A063 proposes to add an item c to this list:
  1. Authorize for use throughout this Church, as provided by Canon, alternative and additional liturgies to supplement those provided in the Book of Common Prayer.
Ostensibly, Resolution A063 is about the legitimacy of collections such as Lesser Feasts and Fasts and The Book of Occasional Services. General Convention has been creating such material without unambiguous authority to do so. Presumably, such material is of lesser authority (or of no authority at all) with respect to establishing church doctrine, though this is perhaps unclear as well. (The official rationale for Resolution A063 can be read here. This explanation was not distributed to Pittsburgh convention deputies.)

My problem with Resolution A063 involves the inclusion of the words “alternative and.” The phrase “additional liturgies” adequately provides legitimacy for the likes of The Book of Occasional Services, which contain liturgies lacking a counterpart in the BCP. The looser requirements for establishing such liturgies arguably signifies their subordinate status relative to the prayer book. One may quibble about whether allowing the looser approval process is a good idea, but Resolution A063 at least makes what the General Convention has been doing completely above board.

The business of “alternative” liturgies is different. Alternatives to what are already “additional liturgies” are, of course, simply additional liturgies. But “alternative liturgies” can mean—and the phrase is certainly intended to include—alternatives to liturgies already included in the BCP. This presents a problem. If the amended Article X is used to authorize an alternative to a liturgy already in the BCP, one has to ask why it is not being proposed for trial use as potential replacement text in a revised prayer book, an option afforded by the existing item b in Article X. (See text above.) The reason a provision for alternative liturgies is being added is almost certainly to allow approval of liturgies having a counterpart in the prayer book for which there is insufficient support for its superseding existing prayer book text. In other words, the matter of alternative liturgies is a backdoor scheme to avoid the laborious prayer book revision mechanism. Moreover, whereas item b of Article X implicitly suggests an end process for a proposed liturgy—it is decided to replace prayer book text or not—the proffered item c implies no such sunset provision.

The proposed addition to Article X raises the prospect of supplanting the prayer book with more easily established (and revised) liturgies. As the Church of England has done with its prayer book of 1662, the Episcopal Church could freeze its 1979 book and widely ignore it in favor of newer liturgies approved without the cumbersome mechanisms attendant to actual prayer book revision. Individual parishes could pick and choose which liturgy to use. The ultimate result could be the effective destruction of common prayer as a unifying aspect of Episcopal Church worship.

It would be easy for an Episcopalian to assume that liturgical collections such as The Book of Occasional Services are a kind of appendix to The Book of Common Prayer, but this is not currently the case. (We could adopt such a view, of course, but our “appendices” would presumably need to be subjected to the same rigorous procedures used in prayer book revision. This does not seem to be direction in which the church wants to go.) As long as additional liturgies are primarily intended for occasional use in special circumstances, they pose no serious threat to the church’s commitment to common prayer. Adoption of resolution A063 with its changes to Article X that would allow alternatives to existing prayer book liturgies, however, do indeed challenge our tradition of common prayer.

Finally, I need to mention one other issue. Suppose the General Convention wants to propose a liturgy intended to be part of a revised prayer book but which is not designed to replace an existing liturgy prayer book liturgy. For example, a gender-neutral marriage ceremony could be proposed as an addition to the prayer book without eliminating the existing Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage (p. 423). Curiously, at least as I read item b of Article X, such a liturgy could not be proposed for trial use. This problem could be resolved by modifying item b, For example, after “or of any portion thereof,” could be added “or any proposed addition.” This would result in item b reading
  1. Authorize for trial use throughout this Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof, a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof or any proposed addition, duly undertaken by the General Convention.
General Convention should perhaps make this amendment and drop consideration of Resolution A063.