31 May 2018

Anglican history, part III: Who founded Anglicanism?

The following completes my series on Anglican history. Part I can be found here, and Part II can be found here. The text of this was originally posted on Quora in answer to a question there.

As I alluded to in Part II of this series, the common misconception is that Henry VIII “founded” Anglicanism (or at least the Church of England). That is actually completely false. The true founder — if we discount St. Augustine of Canterbury founding the English Church in 597 — was not Henry, but his daughter, Elizabeth. This is something of a pet peeve of mine…

Elizabeth I was formally the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, technically the first to hold that title. (Her father, Henry VIII, and her brother, Edward VI, had been Supreme Head, but many loyal English Catholics were offended by it and Elizabeth changed the title to appease them.) All British monarchs ever since Elizabeth have held that title.

The pet peeve is that it is commonly (and wrongly) said that Henry VIII “founded” the Church of England. He did not. The existing English Church simply cut ties to Rome. These ties were restored by Mary I, and again cut under Elizabeth.

It is also commonly (and wrongly) assumed that Henry dramatically reformed the Church of England, and that he left a lasting mark on it. Actually, Henry stoutly resisted any attempts at reforms, and feuded with Luther and the Reformers on the Continent. Priests were still required to be celibate, the Mass was still usually in Latin (though an English Bible was published), belief in transubstantiation was required by law (see Six Articles), prayers for the dead were still said. And anyway what little he did change was restored by Mary. (She was unable to reverse the Dissolution of the Monasteries for political reasons, but otherwise wiped out the few small changes Henry did allow.)

The Church of England — and with it the Anglican Communion as a whole — was reformed not by Henry, but by Elizabeth. The hallmarks of Anglicanism are not to be found in Henry’s church, but in Elizabeth’s, and broadly speaking, the essentials of the Elizabethan Settlement are still what makes Anglicanism unique in uniting Catholicism and Protestantism in a single body.

So if anyone could be said to have founded Anglicanism (besides Jesus Christ and St. Augustine of Canterbury), it would be Elizabeth — not Henry VIII. Her vision of a single church uniting all Christians regardless of denomination is what makes Anglicanism what it is today.

Hence I would argue that the only real service Henry VIII did for Anglicanism is fathering Elizabeth. She is the true central figure in Anglican history, and really should get a lot more credit for it.

15 November 2017

What is liturgy and why is it necessary?

The following was originally posted on Quora as an answer to the question at hand.

I literally just did a workshop on liturgy for my parish last weekend. Liturgy is a big passion of mine. The word liturgy comes from Greek and literally means “public service”. In other words, by doing the liturgy, we are rendering a service unto God and our community.

In general, liturgy refers to the structure and ritual elements of a church service, be it a Mass/Eucharist or daily prayer.

Liturgy and ritual or rites are often (mistakenly) used as synonyms. Actually, liturgy specifically means ritual with a purpose.

The purpose of liturgy is to lead people to God and one another. That’s it. Which sounds simple, but it is actually not. Liturgy should (in a Christian context) take disparate people, with different tastes and beliefs and ideas and backgrounds, and join them together as one mystical Body of Christ.

That is a tall order. And anyone trying to claim that one particular liturgy works for everyone — one size fits all — is horribly mistaken.

Liturgy also seldom “just works”. It requires constant education and catechism of the parish to help them understand the meaning and purpose of the liturgy. The parish ideally should also be active participants in the liturgy, not just passive spectators. By involving the parish directly in the liturgy, they are joined more effectively with one another and with the living God made truly present on the altar in the Mass.

But liturgy does not stop there. All of this is utterly pointless if the people who consume the transformed Body and Blood are not themselves transformed. If the parish members do not take heed of it and go forth into the world to make it a better place and care for God’s gift of creation, then the liturgy has singularly failed to fulfill its purpose.

The liturgy thus should help us to see and hear and feel and touch and taste Christ, not just in the Body and Blood, but in our fellow human beings. “God became man so that man might become like God.” That is the basic sentiment and mission of the liturgy.1 Everything else is just gravy.

1 See Wikipedia’s article on Divinization.

15 September 2016

The simplest explanation for the difference between nominative, accusative, dative and genitive articles in German

The following was original written in answer to a question on the topic on Quora.

Nominative: Subject case. The thing performing the action. Marked below in bold.
Accusative: Direct object case. The thing being acted upon by the action. Marked below in italics.
Dative: Indirect object case. The thing receiving the action. Marked below in bold italics.
Genitive: Posessive case. Marked below with ALL CAPS.

Consider these nouns, all masculine (der in nominative):

Der Junge (the boy)
Der Knochen (the bone)
Der Hund (the dog)
Der Nachbar (the neighbor)

Consider this sentence:

Der Junge gab dem Hund DES NACHBARN einen Knochen
(The boy gave the NEIGHBOR’S dog a bone)

Because of these inflections, German is able to reverse word order while maintaining the same meaning, but creating subtle changes in emphasis:

Dem Hund DES NACHBARN gab der Junge einen Knochen
Einen Knochen gab der Junge dem Hund DES NACHBARN

In each case, the noun that comes first gets added emphasis. This sort of highly flexible sentence structure is virtually impossible in modern English without resorting to prepositions or other constructions.

There are other ways case is affected, particularly by prepositions. The dative prepositions always cause nouns that directly follow to be dative:

Aus, außer, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, gegenüber

The accusative prepositions always cause nouns that directly follow to be accusative:

Bis, durch, entlang, für, gegen, ohne, um

Finally, these flexible prepositions can be either dative (if static) or accusative (if implying motion or change) depending on the situation:

An, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor, zwischen

In dem Zimmer is dative and therefore means in the room, whereas in das Zimmer is accusative and thus means into the room.

There is more to it than that, but that’s it in a nutshell.

17 August 2016

Gender in German: Time to abolish it (or change its name)

After a long hiatus, there was a topic that came up in an online conversation that has inspired me to write about a topic near and dear to me: German grammatical gender. Mind you, I have mastered German pretty well — in fact I can write paragraph after paragraph of flawless German (though for some reason every four or five paragraphs I have one that goes completely all to hell). I also actually think I do get why German has gender — and (hopefully) can show you how it works so that you can appreciate it.

What bugs me is the way grammatical gender is perceived, both inside and outside the German-speaking realm. This is what Mark Twain, in a fit of frustration, wrote about the subject:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. [...] A tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female -- tomcats included, of course; a person's mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it -- for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person's nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven't any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.


In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib) is not -- which is unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither. To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description; that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse. A German speaks of an Englishman as the Engländer; to change the sex, he adds -in, and that stands for Englishwoman -- Engländerin. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: "die Engländerin," -- which means "the she-Englishwoman." I consider that that person is over-described.

So it is easy to make fun of — if you don’t understand what gender is for and what it really is.

Grammatical gender in German actually has nothing — I mean nothing — to do with “gender” in the sexual sense. Zero. De nada. Twain’s observation above that a girl (das Mädchen) and a female (das Weib) are both “neuter”, while a cat is female regardless of its real gender (die Katze), should clue you in on this, but Twain definitely missed the point.

After some 20+ years of speaking the language on a daily basis, I think there is another explanation for the origin and purpose of grammatical gender. If you look at how plurals are formed, they are fairly consistent across each of the three genders. Usually this is taught as “if it is masculine, then it forms the plural like this”. I think that that is actually backwards. It is “masculine” because the plural is formed a certain way, not the other way around.

If a word’s plural adds an umlaut and an -e, like Topf -> Töpfe, then it almost certainly is masculine. Or if it remains unchanged in the plural, then it is also most likely masculine, like der Knochen -> die Knochen or der Knoten -> die Knoten.

If a word’s plural adds an -en or -n, like die Frau -> Frauen or Lampe -> Lampen, then it is almost certainly feminine.

If a word ends in a diminutive (-chen or -lein, such as Mädchen), or adds -er to form the plural, then it is almost certainly neuter. Hence das Mädchen becomes die Mädchen in the plural, or das Kind becomes die Kinder.

In the end, the “gender” is thus a tool for marking words for forming plurals in certain ways. It is nothing to do with sexual gender.

Granted, there are exceptions to these rule above, and Germans reading this will no doubt start posting them in response. The thing is, no language is 100% consistent — English is a particularly sloppy and irregular language. While German is indeed far more regular and systematic than English, that does not mean it is completely consistent. I submit that the plural is the real basis for the so-called “gender”.

So why bother with grammatical gender? Well, it actually helps make the language far more supple and subtle in phrasing and word order. German is able to play with word order in sentences in ways English can not remotely compete with. Consider the following three sentences:

Der Junge gibt dem Hund den Knochen.
Den Knochen gibt der Junge dem Hund.
Dem Hund gibt der Junge den Knochen.

All three nouns in this are “masculine” — der Junge (the boy), der Hund (the dog), and der Knochen (the bone). All three sentences thus mean almost exactly the same thing: The boy gives the dog the bone. The only subtle difference is one of emphasis. Where the first version matter-of-factly says the boy gives the dog the bone, the second emphasizes that the THE BONE was given, and the third emphasizes that THE DOG was given a bone. All this just by swapping word order — something which is impossible in English without adding prepositions. The bone gives the dog the boy means something completely different and only makes sense when we add those prepositions or use passive voice: The bone was given by the boy to the dog.

English had this same system once upon a time, when it was still Anglo-Saxon, before the Norman invasion of 1066. The genders, along with nearly all traces of the cases (dative and accusative), were lost over time as English became the language of simple peasants, while the elite spoke Norman French for some 300 years. We get by without it in English, but I think the language is actually somewhat poorer without it. Yes, it is easier to learn for new speakers, but it is also far less flexible and efficient in expressing complex thoughts.

Seen that way, the “gender” could really just as well have been called the “flavor”, with “der” words being sour words, “die” words being sweet words, and “das” words being salty words. The masculine, feminine, and neuter labels have caused all sorts of misunderstandings — and not just by non-native speakers.

To illustrate this misunderstanding: German and English have diverged dramatically in the way they try to become “gender neutral”. Where English tries to abolish all traces of gender from daily language, such as avoiding the -ess ending and preferring neutral terms instead — flight attendant instead of stewardess, chair instead of chairman, etc. — German has gone the polar opposite way.

German feminists get really offended if you forget the -in feminine ending for a woman’s job position, for example, or forget to use it in the plural. So instead of forming the plural for der Lehrer as die Lehrer to encompass all teachers, whether male or female, they insist on using the plural feminine form of -innenLehrer und Lehrerinnen — or sometimes resorting to the rather clumsy short form of LehrerInnen with a capital I.

This results is some really tortured and clumsy grammar. Where politicians, for example, would address others as a group as liebe Bürger (“dear citizens”), now they resort to liebe Bürgerinnen und Bürger (“dear female and male citizens”).

In our church, this had an even more strange effect — one that I tried to point out at our synod in a debate on the subject, but which unfortunately got nowhere. You see, our church — the Old Catholic Church in Germany — is quite vocal about supporting women’s ordination. Which is fine, I support it, too. But part of the point of women’s ordination, I think, is the notion that a person’s gender should not matter in performing their function as clergy. Otherwise, if there is a difference between the genders, that unwittingly opens up a hole for arguments as to why women should not be ordained.

Either gender matters for the priesthood, or it doesn’t. I happen to think it does not. But if it does…then what? And if it does not, then why insist on it being mentioned?

So ironically, by insisting on saying die Priesterinnen und Priester (“female and male priests”) instead of just die Priester to mean “priests”, the feminists among us are in effect forcing us to note the gender where gender isn’t supposed to be relevant.

This on top of the fact that science is showing us how gender is far more complex than a mere binary of male and female. It just is not the case that a person is solely male or solely female. The two blend into each other, like a continuum. Some people are well on the male side of that continuum, some are well to the female side, but in the middle there is a grey area. What about intersexed or transsexual people in Germany? How are feminists going to label them? Would an intersexed priest — not outside the realm of possibility! — be a Priesterin or a Priester? Would a transsexual teacher be a Lehrer or Lehrerin?

If we simply dump the whole idea of grammatical gender having anything to do with biological or sociological gender, then the whole problem disappears — while maintaining the grammatical flourishes and subtlety that grammatical gender provide.

For those Germans reading this (and I would be happy to translate this into German to make it easier for them to read!), think about it. If you really want German to be an inclusive language, and I hope you do, then let’s stop using “masculine/feminine/neuter” to describe grammatical gender. Or at least stop mixing grammatical gender with gender politics. Because it just makes no sense to do it.