AT a hearing conducted earlier this year under the auspices of the Episcopal Church in the matter of Bishop Walter Righter -- Righter, it will be recalled, was charged with heresy for ordaining a noncelibate gay man into holy orders -- the subject of the Ten Commandments came up more or less in passing. In response to a question from the prelates sitting in judgment, the lawyer arguing on Bishop Righter's behalf (successfully, as it turned out) made the point that "not everything we're going to find in Holy Scripture" constitutes an intrinsic element of formal Episcopal doctrine. Among the things that do not constitute doctrine, in the lawyer's view, are the Ten Commandments.
The idea that the Ten Commandments might be regarded as something about which the devout can reasonably disagree represents one more front in a battle that has been waged across sectarian lines for millennia. As everyone is aware, an enduring characteristic of institutional religion has been the tension between the stern forces of authority, rigor, and theological punctilio on the one hand, and the entropic tendency toward decentralization, squishy standards, and theological laissez-faire on the other. Whether this tension is greater today than it was in the past I cannot say, but the two camps -- the hard-liners and the accommodationists, as one might label them -- have during the past few years provided some memorable illustrations of their points of view.
The hard-line impulse makes itself apparent in ways great and small. A 1993 study prepared by an office of the Southern Baptist Convention indicated that a formula had been devised to predict what percentage of a given population was bound for hell; newspaper reports offered county-by-county estimates for Alabama along with a ranking of the top hot spots by county nationwide (Los Angeles County led the list with 6.9 million lost souls). In Israel the practice of posthumous circumcision arose a few years ago; the procedure had never been performed on many of the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jewish men who emigrated to the country. The Mormons continue to be assiduous in baptizing into their faith famous people who have died: George Washington, Joseph Stalin, and Elvis Presley are now officially Mormons in good standing. In England a chancellor of the Church of England has upheld a Lancashire vicar's decision to prohibit the use of nicknames on tombstones in Church-consecrated burying grounds. Such are the lengths to which the hard-liners will go.
Evidence of a countertrend comes from those who would take the easy route or would seek the succor of Mammon. In New England it has been discovered that some Protestant pastors have been delivering plagiarized sermons -- or, more precisely, sermons obtained from a homily mill called Pulpit Resources. (The author of the sermons observed in defense of this practice, "One definition of heresy is originality.") Jews visiting Jerusalem have long been leaving written prayers in the crevices of the Western Wall; now they can send prayers by fax to Jerusalem and someone else will put them in the crevices. The Vatican Library has decided to license its imprimatur for commercial purposes (museum knickknacks, T-shirts, greeting cards), and it has also revised some of the ascetic procedures for electing a Pope, forsaking the spartan cot-and-chamber-pot facilities traditionally provided for cardinals in the Apostolic Palace in favor of hotel-like rooms with private baths. Church discipline is also at somewhat of a remove from the time when the Emperor Henry IV was made to stand in the snow for three days outside the Pope's castle at Canossa, awaiting forgiveness. A French bishop, Jacques Gaillot, because of his ultra-liberal views was recently transferred from his position at Evreux, in Normandy, and given charge instead of the defunct diocese of Partenia, in southern Algeria, which has been covered by sand since the Middle Ages. Gaillot has retaliated by creating a virtual diocese on the Internet, which can be reached at http://www.partenia.fr/.
In a world where such things are possible, it is perhaps not surprising that some people gave credence to the report posted on the Internet two years ago that the Microsoft Corporation was acquiring the Roman Catholic Church. Under the terms of the agreement, according to what was said to be an Associated Press account, Pope John Paul II was to become a senior vice-president of Microsoft's religious-software division, and two Microsoft vice-presidents would be consecrated as cardinals. "If the deal goes through," the report said, "it will be the first time a computer software company has acquired a major world religion."
It is against this contentious and freewheeling background that I confess to some degree of worry about the Ten Commandments -- a worry prompted by more than just the comments of Bishop Righter's lawyer. As individual strictures, the Ten Commandments have, of course, always been beleaguered, and as often as not honored in the breach. "Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst," Rudyard Kipling wrote, "Where there aren't no Ten Commandments, an' a man can raise a thirst." No doubt even those who manage most of the time to obey the commandments have inserted private "except for . . ." clauses after at least one or two of them. But amid the wrongdoing all around, the Ten Commandments have stood intact as a cultural and moral totem for nearly 3,000 years.