Across Another River

The Lamb of God at the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Walsingham, Norfolk. Photo taken by the author.

Then, at last, when he had crossed the Old Road, and had gone by the Lightning-struck Land and the Fisherman’s Well, he found, between the forest and the mountain, a very ancient and little chapel; and now he heard the bell of the saint ringing clearly and so sweetly that it was as it were the singing of the angels. Within it was very dark and there was silence. He knelt and saw scarcely that the chapel was divided into two parts by a screen that rose up to the round roof. There was a glinting of shapes as if golden figures were painted on this screen, and through the joinings of its beams there streamed out thin needles of white splendour as if within there was a light greater than that of the sun at noonday. And the flesh began to tremble, for all the place was filled with the odours of Paradise, and he heard the ringing of the Holy Bell and the voices of the choir that out-sang the Fairy Birds of Rhiannon, crying and proclaiming:

Glory and praise to the Conqueror of Death: to the Fountain of Life Unending.

Nine times they sang this anthem, and then the whole place was filled with blinding light. For a door in the screen had been opened, and there came forth an old man, all in shining white, on whose head was a gold crown. Before him went one who rang the bell; on each side there were young men with torches; and in his hands he bore the Mystery of Mysteries wrapped about in veils of gold and of all colours, so that it might not be discerned; and so he passed before the screen, and the light of heaven burst forth from that which he held. Then he entered in again by a door that was on the other side, and the Holy Things were hidden.

Arthur Machen, The Secret Glory, Chapter II

Yesterday was a liturgical confluence of some personal importance for me: St. Philip Neri, St. Augustine of Canterbury, and the Ascension. The liturgical Providence of God thus epitomized my full life of faith on one day. St. Philip Neri, whom I love particularly among all the saints, stands as a good figure for my past. The Ascension points to my own future hope of salvation, when I might join the Ascended Christ, my King and High Priest, in Heaven. To quote a favorite hymn:

The great I AM hath sworn; I on His oath depend.
I shall, on eagle wings upborne, to heaven ascend.
I shall behold His face; I shall His power adore,
and sing the wonders of His grace forevermore.

That leaves St. Augustine of Canterbury, father of the English Church. He is the sign of my present.

On that triple feast, I made my confession in the Episcopal Church and was conditionally baptized under the patronage of the Blessed Patriarch Enoch, “who walked with God” (Gen. 5:24). I then took communion for the first time since Leap Day 2020. As Pascal put it, “Joie, joie, joie, pleurs de joie.”

A post-baptismal selfie.

I have long held some doubts about the validity of my Methodist baptism as an infant in 1995—for which I have no records beyond family photos, but which was for some reason acceptable to my parish and Archdiocese when I completed RCIA. I thus felt it was necessary to rectify that situation. I am now, without any doubt, baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

The reason I did this in the Episcopal Church and not a Roman Catholic one is that, for nearly a year, I have been attending my local Anglo-Catholic parish. St. John’s, Bellefonte, has been a tremendously edifying community. Indeed, it is the only parish where I have felt genuinely wanted, and not simply tolerated. I started attending last summer in the midst of a very deep spiritual crisis. This crisis, which had been percolating off and on since August of 2018, was one that, had I stayed a churchgoing Roman, would certainly have caused me to leave Christianity altogether. It was only by the grace of God that I found spiritual sustenance and safe harbor at St. John’s. It felt like escaping into fresh air from a very large building which is slowly filling with smoke, because an unchecked fire is raging in its wings. It felt like jumping into a lifeboat from a rather majestic cruise-ship that is sinking, even as people keep dancing and the band plays on. It felt like escaping to a beloved aunt from a bad mother who beats you mercilessly (even when you do what she says!) and denigrates you at every opportunity, taking every chance to remind you how much better your siblings are—all while claiming to love you. A mother who asks for tremendous sacrifices and gives no help to accomplish them. A mother who requires all until she forbids all, and forbids all until she requires all, and then demands you forget everything that came before. The Church is a bad mother, not just because of her many spiritual abuses, but precisely because she is inconsistent, all while claiming that such inconsistency is impossible! And who do we believe: the Church, or our lying eyes? 

I did not advertise my transition to regular worship in a TEC church because I wanted to see if I might find any reason to stay in Rome, both through my online interactions and when I went to Catholic Masses upon my visits home. But the hook that I was half-hoping would convince me to stay on the far side of the Tiber never appeared. If anything, I became even more convinced that I should leave. And then, as the day drew near and the details were finalized, I did not tell anyone because I did not want to risk losing my nerve in the face of the old psychological traps. But now that the deed is done, I can, like Ozymandias, explain my “master-stroke” a bit.

I have never written the story of my conversion to Roman Catholicism; somehow, describing my loss of faith is even harder. I am not going to do that here. This is not my Apologia Pro Vita Sua. And I am not here to write a Chick Tract; I remain grateful for much of what I received in the Church of Rome in happier days. I know that no matter what I say, it will not be adequate to describe my own sense of disillusionment, of loss, of bitterness. And I know that, even were I to express at great length, with reason and evidence, all of my historical and theological misgivings about the post-Vatican I Papal Church, or my serious doubts engendered by the still-unresolved Silverstream scandal and similar cases, it would still not matter; many of you will attribute everything to my personal life. So be it.

The chapel of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, on the very first morning I set foot there nearly five years ago. I will, happily, be able to receive communion there upon my next visit.

I don’t feel that I need to justify myself. But I will state my position, briefly.

I have done what I needed to do for the very survival of my faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I repudiate nothing of Catholic Tradition that is true, and good and beautiful; I reject everything that causes scandal, disedification, and injury to the Kingdom of God. I embrace the traditional, episcopal, conciliar constitution of the Church which still exists, however imperfectly, in the Anglican Communion (itself in communion with the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht). And, with all my heart, I abjure the Pope.

I emphatically don’t wish to burn any bridges with my many Roman acquaintances by this disagreement with their theology and separation from their communion. Mostly, I am leaving behind friends. That is my only sadness. I have countless fond memories—Easter Vigils in Charlottesville celebrated with friends, stirring moments of devotion and worship next to friends at the various British Oratories of St. Philip Neri, giving the eulogy at my own grandmother’s Catholic funeral in Aiken, and everywhere engaging in edifying conversations with friends who genuinely believe in Christ and will reach Heaven before me. I wish them well. As long as I could focus on orthopraxy beside such wonderful people, I could ignore the tremendous unpleasantness and the doublethink that being a Roman Catholic actually entailed for me personally.

But I can’t do it anymore. I have no regrets about my decision. God will draw us all together in the last day. I have no doubt that I have not left the one eternal Church of Christ. I have simply moved to a different (healthier?) part of it, one where God in His mercy has deigned to meet me in my terrible distress. To quote a man holier than me, “A mark of the Christian Church is that it is catholic, embracing all the angels of heaven, all the elect and the just on earth, and of all times.” And again: “There is nothing more spacious than the Church of God; because all the elect and the just of all ages comprise it.”

I have come to realize that all I can do to persevere in that Church is trust in the grace of God, focus on the local, and work out my salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). I am under no illusions that my new home will be perfect, that it is free of divisive error, or that I will always be happy here. But neither is Rome: it was full of rather shocking evil, various divisive errors, and keen, mounting unhappiness for me personally.

Our Lady of Walsingham, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bellefonte, PA. Photo by author.

Anglicanism is not perfect. Even as someone convinced of the historical validity of Anglican orders, I recognize this. It is wracked with schism. There are rather atrocious liturgical abuses from time to time. People like John Shelby Spong, James Pike, and John A.T. Robinson exist in their episcopate. Most seriously, there are sexual abuse scandals here, too.  

But Anglicans’ focus on Christ and the Scriptures, their minimalist approach to doctrine, their “inclusive orthodoxy,” their localism, their seemly forms of vernacular worship, their quiet and decorous approach to personal holiness, their epistemic humility, their irenic stance towards Christians beyond their communion, their welcome to LGBT people, their poetic and moderate devotions, their customary aversion to dogmatism and legalism and enthusiasm, their respect for conscience, their aestheticism, even their sense of humor—all of it is vastly superior to what I have found to be the modus operandi in the Roman Church, whether in the typical Novus Ordo parish or in one of the Traditionalist ghettos. But above all, I am attracted to Anglicanism because I find the faith, hope, and charity of Christ there.

And so, “I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord” (Ps. 122:1 BCP). Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, once wrote,

For while the Anglican church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to Gospel and Church and sound learning, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and the travail in its souls. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as “the best type of Christianity,” but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died. Hence its story can never differ from the story of the Corinth to which the Apostle wrote. Like Corinth, it has those of Paul, of Peter, or Apollos; like Corinth, it has nothing that it has not received; like Corinth, it learns of unity through its nothingness before the Cross of Christ; and, like Corinth, it sees in the Apostolate its dependence upon the one people of God, and the death by which every member and every Church bears witness to the Body which is one.

Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, pg, 188; emphasis my own

This ecclesiological vision rather perfectly captures my own view of the Church, a view I have tried to express elsewhere.

Illustration from All Glory: Brush Drawing Meditations on the Prayer of Consecration, by Allan Rohan Crite (Cambridge, Mass: Society of Saint John the Evangelist, 1947). My priest was kind enough to give me his copy of this absolutely extraordinary work as a baptismal gift, from which this photo is taken.

And to be quite honest, becoming an Anglican feels a bit like coming home. And not just because, during the Evensong which immediately preceded my baptism, we happened to recite Psalm 24, my old school Psalm. During my first conversion, family friends in the Anglican Continuum were very kind to me and nurtured my fledgling faith. My first copy of the Book of Common Prayer was given to me by another dear family friend, who has since departed this mortal life. Her funeral in Virginia was, I think, one of the first proper Episcopalian liturgies I ever attended (and sang at). I spent two years as a graduate student at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, one of the most Anglo-Catholic seminaries in the Church of England. It is a community of men and women to whom I will be forever grateful. There are many others to thank, among whom I will mention only those who directly and personally encouraged my conversion since last summer: Father B., Mother R., Father J., Father S., CD, KH, RB, JC, and my interlocutors in the EC. You know who you are. I confess, I am grateful as well to those few Roman Catholic friends who, whether out of affection for me or sincere piety, did try to persuade me to stay.

Most of all, I have to thank the people of St. John’s, including my priest, Fr. Carlos de la Torre, a truly tremendous pastor, and Deacon Alex Dyakiw, who has shown me nothing but kindness and who stood as godfather for me. If I ever reach heaven, it will be in no small part due to the example, charity, and prayers of these two good and faithful servants.

There was a moment at the last Easter Vigil that furnished a perfect picture of what I have received at St. John’s. I got to the church early and was so absorbed in my pre-Mass readings that I forgot to pick up a candle. Once the Vigil started at the back of the nave, I realized that I was the only one without a light. Yet my priest, seeing my lack, brought me one. He graciously let me light it—while he was processing with the paschal candle up the aisle. He even paused the procession to give me the flame. This little moment, which no one but me would remember, was a powerful image of grace itself, and how it works in our hearts. That grace, which binds us to the very life of Christ, brings us into the New Jerusalem, builds us into the Eternal Temple, and makes us members incorporate of the Kingdom of God—that almighty grace is “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42). It is because of that grace that I can say, with a confidence born of faith,

One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.

Psalm 27:4 KJV

It by that grace that I have been baptized into the Jordan, by that grace that I have swum the Thames, and by that grace that II hope to drink one day from another, supernal river, flowing from the Throne of God and the Lamb (Rev. 22:1). I beg your prayers that I may always be faithful to the grace that I have received.

A Wholesome Homily at Christmastide

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1661-69 (Source)

I would like to refer my readers to a phenomenal sermon delivered by Mother Brit Frazier of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, PA. Some of you may know Mother Brit from Twitter, others from Earth & Altar, a very good Anglican blog. You can find the video here, starting at 24:00 and continuing for about eleven minutes. I found her meditation on the theme of God as a home for all, as a welcome for the spiritually homeless, to be quite moving.

For those who are curious, the poem from Chesterton that she discusses, “The House of Christmas,” runs as follows:

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honor and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam,
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Although I am not much of a Chesterton fan anymore, I, too, was taken with this poem. I am grateful for having been introduced to it, though the strongest parts of the sermon move well beyond Chesterton. “The heart of Jesus is a secure place. There’s no need to defend it, no need to fear for our safety.” These words of Mother Brit’s bear further meditation. How often do we act as though the heart of Jesus were not secure, or as if His grace could move without His sovereign will – even when it appears to fail?

I chose Rembrandt’s famous Return of the Prodigal Son to illustrate this post because it perfectly captures the feelings of welcome, abundance, and divine homecoming that Mother Brit evokes. For our own return home to God always takes the form of repentance and devotion, even if just for a Providential instant before death.

However, I also thought of the work of another artist. Allan Rohan Crite (1910-2007) was a Black painter and illustrator whose work focused primarily on scenes of African American urban life. He was also an Anglo-Catholic. His religious corpus, which bears a favorable comparison to that of other Anglican artists such as Martin Travers, Enid Chadwick, Ninian Comper, and William Butterfield, combines transcendent solemnity with a keen attention to the realities of everyday life.

His 1948 painting of Our Lady of the Neighborhood is a good representation of what Mother Brit is talking about.

Our Lady of the Neighborhood, Allan Rohan Crite, 1948 (Source)

A Black Madonna carries Jesus through a crowd of dark-skinned children in an urban scene. Although she is crowned with twelve stars, she is entirely at home with these people; they in turn are entirely at home with her and her divine son. The children in this image exhibit an easy intimacy with the Mother and Child, the sort of intimacy that comes from long familiarity. This sense of “being at home with each other,” so like the prelapsarian life, is the very sentiment that the Christian aspires to enjoy with God.

Yet how hard it is to attain! And not just because our sins and temptations, which are distraction enough. Our whole religious apparatus is set up to warn us of these traps on the journey. But even our piety and our virtues can get in the way, ossifying into idols that demand more and more of our tribute, sapping more and more of our time and energy. Good things, when used in a disordered way, become snares. The incense we burn before those false gods clouds our love of God. Perhaps that is why a somewhat fanciful image like this one becomes so attractive. It shows us another way – life as an easy, peaceful, almost effortless communion with God. It shows us a tiny, imaginative glimpse of the communion of saints. This communion, surely, is what Mother Brit has in mind when she says that “Our true home is an eternal and abiding safety.” For these children manifestly feel safe next to the God-Man and His all-pure Mother. They are, for lack of a better term, friends.

Mother Brit also touches upon this grand theme of friendship with Christ. She says:

Our home in Christ is always a place of companionship and love. He is our Savior and Redeemer, yes, but He is, indeed, our Friend. This friendship of Jesus is no ordinary fellowship. He lives alongside of us: a confidant, a guide. His hand is in our hands, His heart is opened and always opening to us, soothing our uncertainties and making our pathways into places of peace. His company is always unconditional companionship and love. In our fellowship with Him, we are given a beloved family.

Mother Brit Frazier, Sermon for the First Sunday in Christmastide, 2021

Friendship with Christ – a mystery. But our mystery, our blessed mystery, the magnificent mystery at the heart of Christian life. How strange it is that Being Itself, the Uncreated Light, the Omnipotent and Omniscient One, should call humans, who are essentially nothing, His friends? Yes, it is a tremendous mystery.

Crite conjures something of this mystery in his illustrations for Three Spirituals from Earth to Heaven (1948), which give a distinctly Anglo-Catholic spin to the texts of old Negro spirituals. For instance, in his drawings for “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” Crite depicts a Black man being taken up by Jesus into the heavenly choirs.

Illustration for “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” in Allan Rohan Crite, Three Spirituals from Earth to Heaven, 1948 (Source)

Perhaps it would be more apt to say that Jesus is carrying him. He’s not walking at all, but peacefully letting the Savior draw him into the realms of glory. A procession of coped figures streams by in the background, unnoticed by the poor and troubled man; yet this is no earthly liturgy, as the following illustrations make clear.

Illustration for “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” in Allan Rohan Crite, Three Spirituals from Earth to Heaven, 1948 (Source)

Christ Himself dons a cope of glory as well as a shining crown; He gently takes the troubled soul by the hand and shows him the scene he has hitherto missed. We sense his stunned joy. We can almost hear the otherworldly harmony of the singers. And look at the expression on Jesus’s face – not a stern look, but rather the concerned and kindly gaze of a friend who is attentive to the reaction of a dear companion whom He has just surprised.

And what is the greatest surprise of all? That even a poor and outcast and troubled soul has a place in this glorious choir. Crite finishes by depicting the poor man’s reception into glory, with Christ vesting him in a beautiful robe. God does not look at us like the World does, for He sees the heart. As Mother Brit says in her homily, “even those whom the World have rejected are given places of beauty and intimacy and peace and security at the throne of grace.” Allan Rohan Crite knew that Truth, and it shone through so much of his art.

Christmas is about all these things – Christ as our true home, Christ as our true friend. Especially in this holy time of year, let us pray for the grace always to trust that His friendship will lead us home to His heart.

On Sexuality, Christianity, and Language

The knight Richard Puller von Hohenburg and his servant, burned before the walls of Zürich for sodomy, 1482. (Source)

The recent controversy in ACNA about the language of homosexuality has been deeply unedifying. It has been aggravated in the last few days by an open, co-signed letter that, while doing the bare minimum, nevertheless was far more affirming than the original pastoral statement to which it replied. In a move I can only describe as scandalous, the principal author’s bishop then stepped in and ordered him to take it down.

I am for the most part uninterested in the internal politics of ACNA. I have friends in that communion, and after all, it is neither my circus nor my monkeys. I am, however, keenly interested in the issue at stake: what kinds of language sexual-minority Christians use, why, and what this says about their broader place within Christianity. Especially as some of these same issues have come up repeatedly in the Catholic context as well. That relevance to my own situation moves me to write, when I might otherwise keep silence.

When the original statement came out last month (no pun intended), a gay Christian friend of mine wrote, “I am starting to think that this tired conversation about sexual identity language is actually *designed* to keep the Church from caring for sexual minorities by addressing its pervasive homophobia.” Much of what follows therefore comes from what I wrote in reply, with a few edits and additions here and there.

It seems to me that this debate about language – the alleged moral valences of words like “homosexual” or “gay,” and whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to self-identify with these words – serves a multipronged function:

(1) It distracts from urgent issues, like sexual minorities being disproportionately subject to homelessness, political oppression, intimidation, healthcare discrimination, targeted murder, and suicide.

(2) It subsequently distracts from the historical and ongoing complicity of heterosexual Christians in these phenomena, and absolves them of any effort to help fix it.

(3) It puts the entire onus of subjectivity-formation on the gay Christian individual and thus places them in a defensive posture which prevents them from making further demands. It does this in three ways:

(4) It deprives them of a language in which to articulate their own subjectivity and needs.

(5) It isolates them by preventing them from using the language by which they can form bonds of solidarity with other sexual minorities.

(6) It further isolates them by cutting them off from the history of other sexual minorities, whatever terms they may have used (sodomites, inverts, homosexuals, fairies, queers, gays, LGBT, etc.).

(7) All of which is to say, the debate mainly functions to control sexual minority Christians by making their own experience more and more illegible to them.

(8) It works very well because it exhausts a lot of emotional energy from LGBTQ+ Christians. This is intrinsic to the debate’s function as a mechanism of control.

(9) It is doubly effective when, as in the ACNA document, it reverts to the most clinical and pathologized language imaginable. “Christians afflicted with” or “who struggle with same-sex attraction” is not only unwieldy, it’s obviously stigmatizing. SSA might as well be leprosy.

(10 This is not to say that gay Christians who feel that the language of “same-sex attraction” or SSA best expresses their experience shouldn’t use it. We should all use the language that best fits our own embodied story. But when straight Christians use it this way, they are robbing them of the freedom to make that decision for themselves.

(11) In the Roman Catholic Church, there is the added rigmarole around vocations. No man with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” can be ordained…but what does this mean? If you have sex with men (or at least want to) but don’t call yourself gay, do you have these tendencies? What are we to make of the considerable number of gay priests that are already ordained? It hides hypocrisy.

(12) I am reminded, for instance, of what Roy Cohn says in Angels in America.

(13) The most insidious thing about the ACNA statement, though, isn’t even the matter of terminology. It’s the deeper point from which the terminological discussion grew: a claim that homosexuals can become straight again.

(14) If this were coming from an old-school queer theorist or even second-wave feminist who insisted on the radical flexibility of gender and sexuality, I wouldn’t have too much of an issue. But the obvious problem here is the latent moral imperative that moves from is to ought (also the erasure of bisexuals, but that’s a bit of a tangent).

(15) Going from “some people can move between kinds of attraction” to “you must become attracted to the opposite sex,” as this document does implicitly, is an awful lapse into conversion-therapy thinking. And we know how harmful this is, especially to queer youth.

(16) But this pathologization is itself, once again, a mechanism of control. Religions are social bodies that require adherents in order to survive. And like it or not, gays have historically been a major part of the Christian fold – including in Anglicanism!

(17) The reasoning advanced by ACNA is thus, quite precisely, an ideology. It is a logic that helps the oppressed buy into their own oppression. They are hardly unique in this; many in our own Church of Rome offer the same false narrative for the same ends.

(18) I would like to end this thread on a hopeful note, though I have very little hope to speak of. The best I can say is that LGBT Christians need to make their own communities. We need to use the terms that best express our own subjectivity. This is quite apart from the issue of sexual ethics, which does not hinge on what we call ourselves.

(19) Straight Christians, including Catholics, should accept that we are going to use the terms that we choose. It is not up to them. Their time would be better spent helping on the very urgent issues I outlined earlier. And maybe trying to understand what it’s like for (Christian) sexual minorities in the Church and in society at large.

(20) Finally – the best thing to help on the issues of terminology is for sexual-minority Christians, where it is safe to do so, to come out. Even clergy. Articulating your own experience is truly liberating, even as it opens up a new vulnerability. But freedom is worth it. Honesty is worth it. Visibility is worth it. Life is worth it.

An Interview on Anglican Occultism

Hermes Trismegistus (Source)

Recently I had the great honor of being interviewed on the podcast Poststructuralist Tent Revival (PTR) about my research into Anglo-Catholic hermeticism and occultism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thanks especially to Jacob Given for a great conversation. Please consider subscribing to PTR‘s Patreon! They do some really great stuff.

And for those who want to learn a little more about the broader phenomena I discuss here, you might want to check my brief article in The Church Times, Dec. 2018, on the same subject. While it doesn’t go as deeply as my actual academic work did, it gives an overview of the landscape.

“Reversed Thunder, Christ-Side-Piercing Spear”

The holy side-wound of Christ, from a Book of Hours (Source)

Today is the Anglican commemoration of George Herbert, the great English cleric and metaphysical poet of the 17th century. He died on March 1st, 1633. In honor of this bard of the spirit, I offer to my readers one of my favorite Herbert poems. Every time I return to it, I find new edification.

“Prayer (1)”

George Herbert

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Anglo-Catholics and the Occult: My Church Times Debut

The Abbey in the Oakwood, by Caspar David Friedrich.


The Church Times have just published an article in which I summarize some of my research on the connection of Anglo-Catholics and the occult world. I’d like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Sarah Apetrei, and co-supervisor, the Rev. Canon Robin Ward, for their support throughout all of this. I’d also like to thank Fr. James Lawson for the early help he provided as well as Dr. Michael Yelton and those various other figures who have discussed the matter with me over the past year, often in words of encouragement. Hopefully the full paper will be published someday. For now, read here

The Charism of Eccentricity

A-Priestridden-Village-BM

The 18th century was a Golden Age of clerical satire – and clerical eccentricity – in England. (Source)

What a day of loons it has been. After discovering the narrative of that wandering bishop which I brought to my readers’ attention earlier this afternoon, I have since come across two wonderful articles about the venerable tradition of eccentricity in the Church of England. The first is over at the Church Times. The Rev. Fergus Butler-Gallie, a curate in Liverpool, has written a book entitled A Field Guide to the English Clergy (One World Press, 2018). In his article at the CT, Butler-Gallie provides a taste of what is assuredly a very fun book indeed. Take just one of the bizarre figures he profiles:

William Buckland, a Victorian Dean of Westminster, became obsessed with eating as many animals as possible, from porpoise and panther to mole fricassee and mice on toast, even managing to gobble up the mummified heart of King Louis XIV while being shown round the Archbishop of York’s stately home.

He was no fool, though. The first person ever to excavate an entire dinosaur skeleton (although he was more interested in other prehistoric remains, writing on a desk made out of dinosaur faeces), he once disproved a supposed miracle in France by being able to prove (by taste, of course) that a supposed saint’s blood was, in fact, bat urine.

Or consider this parson:

The Revd Thomas Patten was a real-life Dr Syn, helping to run a smuggling operation on the north-Kent coast. Patten would preach interminably boring sermons until a parishioner held up a lemon, a sign that someone had agreed to buy his drinks for the evening at the tavern opposite, at which point he managed to terminate the service with astonishing alacrity (a ruse, I’m sure, no clergy reading this would even consider replicating).

If the rest of the book is as fascinating at these anecdotes suggest, it will be a classic in no time – right up there with Loose Canon and The Mitred Earl. Apparently it’s been getting rave reviews. (I’ll add that if any of you are looking for a Christmas gift for your favorite Catholic blogger, it’s going for under £10 at Amazon).

Today I also came across an article about one of Butler-Gallie’s subjects, the Rev. R.S. Hawker, also known as the “Mermaid of Morwenstow.” Alas, as I am not a subscriber to The Spectator, I cannot read it. Those who can are encouraged to do so.

One of my favorite clerical eccentrics whom I doubt that Butler-Gallie covers is the Rev. William Alexander Ayton, vicar of Chacombe in Oxfordshire.  You can read more about him in my article, “On the Wings of the Dawn – the Lure of the Occult.”

Though of course there are few stories of clerical eccentricity as amusing as the infamous dinner related by Brian Fothergill in his life of Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry. Fothergill tells us that

On one occasion when a particularly rich living had fallen vacant he invited the fattest of his clergy and entertained them with a splendid dinner. As they rose heavily from the table he proposed that they should run a race and that the winner should have the living as his prize. Greed contending with consternation the fat clerics were sent panting and purple-faced on their way, but the Bishop had so planned it that the course took them across a stretch of boggy ground where they were all left floundering and gasping in the mud, quite incapable of continuing. None reached the winning-point. The living was bestowed elsewhere and the Bishop, though hardly his exhausted and humiliated guests, found the evening highly diverting. (The Mitred Earl, 27).

Ballyscullion

Hervey also built what must have been one of the greatest gems of British Palladian architecture, Ballyscullion House. Alas, it is no longer extant, but has been reduced to a respectable if far less elaborate mansion. (Source) For a 3D model, see here.

If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that Anglicanism as lived in history is not a dry religion.

Allow me to indulge in a bit of crude cultural observation. It occurs to me that the national church of the English would inevitably partake of that quintessential English quality – eccentricity. Americans don’t produce real eccentrics. We breed individualists and, less commonly, outright weirdos. But the great British loon is mostly unknown to us. Eccentricity requires a certain localism, even an urban one, that has been mostly lost in the sprawling homelands of the American empire. Suburbs don’t produce eccentrics.

And more to the point, why should strangeness be so unwelcome in the Church? Why should the Church be bland and conformist and comfortable? Why must we labor on through the nauseatingly boring bureaucratic lingo and platitudinous sound-bites that so often seem to make up the bulk of our ecclesisatical discourse? Where is the sizzling fire cast to earth? Where is the light and heat of the Holy Ghost? In reviewing the proceedings of the recent Youth Synod, I was dismayed to find so little that genuinely spoke of the sacred. It so often seems that our Bishops are more interested in crafting a Church of the self-righteous liberal bourgeoisie than they are in the Church that Jesus left to His Apostles.

Eccentricity may not be a strategy, but it’s at least has the potential to become a reminder that the supernatural reality is completely other. As that Doctor of the Church, David Lynch, once said, “I look at the world and I see absurdity all around me. People do strange things constantly, to the point that, for the most part, we manage not to see it.” Well, God does far stranger things far more often than we do. Eccentrics – especially the Fools for Christ – can speak to that.

Butler-Gallie gets at this well in his article when he writes,

Church of England with more rigour and vigour might have its appeal, but the evangelising potential of the strange increasingly appears to be a casualty of the drive to be more, not less, like the world around us. An embracing of our strangeness, failings, and folly might free us to eschew conversion via tales of our usefulness — be that in pastoral wizardry, wounded healing, or nifty management speak — and, instead, “impress people with Christ himself”, as suggested by Ignatius of Antioch (who, though not an Anglican, did share his fate with the 1930s Rector of Stiffkey, both being eaten by a lion).

…Perhaps less strangeness is a good thing. It is certainly an easier, safer thing from the bureaucratic and behavioural point of view. I’m more inclined, however, to agree with J. S. Mill — hardly a friend of the Church of England — who suggested that “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained. That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.” Or, to put it another way, a Church that represses its strangeness is one that is not more at ease with itself and the world, but less.

I can only applaud this point. Ross Douthat said much the same in my own communion when, in response to the Met Gala last Spring, he suggested we “Make Catholicism Weird Again.” Or what Fr. Ignatius Harrison CO was getting at when he gave that wonderful sermon on St. Philip Neri’s downright oddity. And though Flannery O’Connor may never have actually said it, I can’t help but agree that “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you odd.” Indeed, my readers will know that I have hammered on about this point ad nauseum. Butler-Gallie’s writing encourages me to keep at it until we in the Christian West more widely recognize the charism of eccentricity.

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Prelates dancing to the Devil’s music. (Source)

A Poem by Montague Summers

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Madonna delle Grazie, Naples (Source)

Some of my readers will no doubt remember that very strange fellow I once wrote about, the Rev. Montague Summers. I have had to look at quite a lot of his orchidaceous writings recently for my research, including his poetry. Here is one such poem he wrote in Antinous and Other Poems (1907). It was written while he was still an Anglican, though it anticipates the lusciously Baroque spirituality that would mark his later writings.

Madonna Delle Grazie

Montague Summers

In the fane of grey-robed Clare
Let me bow my knee in prayer,
Gazing at thy holy face
Gentle Mary, Queen of Grace.
Thou who knowest what I seek,
Ere I unlock my lips to speak,
For I am thine in every part
And thou knowest what my heart,
Yearning in my fervid breast,
Ere it be aloud confessed,
Longeth for exceedingly,
Mamma cara, pity me!

By the dearth of childlorn years,
By thy mother Anna’s tears,
By the cry of Joachim,
When the radiant seraphim,
Girdled with eternal light,
Blazed upon the patriarch’s sight
With the joyous heraldry
Of thy sinless infancy.

By the bridal of the Dove,
By thy God’s ecstatic love,
By the home of Nazareth,
When the supernatural breath
Of God enfolded thee, and cried:
“Open to me, love, my bride,
Come to where the south winds blow,
Whence the mystic spices flow,
Calamus and cinnamon,
Living streams from Lebanon.
Fresh flowers upon the earth appear
The time of singing birds is near,
The turtle-dove calls on his mate,
The fruit is fragrant at our gate.
Thy lips are as sweet-smelling myrrh,
When the odorous breezes stir
Amid the garden of the kings;
As incense burns at thanksgivings.
Thy lips are as a scarlet thread,
Like Carmèl is they comely head,
Thou art all mine, until the day
Break, and the shadows flee away!”

Mother, by thy agony
‘Neath the rood of Calvary,
When the over-piteous dole
Pierced through thy very soul
With a sevenfold bitter sword
According to the prophet’s word.
By the sweat and spiny caul,
By the acrid drink of gall,
By the aloes and the tomb,
By thy more than martyrdom,
Dolorosa, give to me
The thing I lowly crave of thee.

By thy glory far above,
Mother, Queen of heavenly love,
By thy crown and royal state,
By thy Heart Immaculate,
Consort of the Deity,
Withouten whose sweet assent He
May nothing deign to do or move
Bound by ever hungered love,
God obedient to thee!

Mother, greatly condescending,
To thy humblest suitor bending,
From thy star-y-pathen throne,
Since it never hath been known
Whoso to this picture hied,
Whoso prayed thee was denied,
Mamma bella, give to me,
The boon I supplicate of thee!

In Santa Chiara, Napoli.

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“Madonna and Child,” Carlo Crivelli, c. 1480 (Source)

Anglicans, Sex Abuse, and the Seal of the Confessional: The Controversy and Why it Matters for Catholics

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An exemplary confessional from Toulouse, France. As with most things in life, the more Solomonic columns, the merrier. (Source)

Controversy is hardly a rarity in the Church of England. Yet not every controversy among Anglicans has possible implications for Roman Catholics. The most recent kerfuffle does.

On Tuesday, May 29th, the Rev. Canon Robin Ward SSC, Principal of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, posted the following status on Facebook.

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Source: Facebook.

Anglo-Catholics have an amusing tendency to apply the Roman Code of Canon Law to their own ecclesial life, if only to frustrate the machinations of Evangelical bishops. It’s one of the oldest AC tricks in the book. A venerable tradition of principled disobedience, if you will.

But that is not what Fr. Ward is doing here. He is referring to the Anglican Code of Canon Law, which does indeed affirm the seal of the confessional as a sacramental norm (See Canon 113). Since Fr. Ward’s post, there has been an enormous to-do in the press. It seems that, although these guidelines came out in 2015, no one has noticed until last week. Forward in Faith, the pressure group advocating for traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England, released a concise yet substantive denunciation of the Canterbury guidelines. Indeed, this is not the first time they have addressed the issue. The predictably tedious Church Times report on the matter has come out. Religious sites like Christian Today have written about the controversy. This attention was, perhaps, to be expected. But even secular newspapers are starting to notice. Both The Times and The Telegraph have picked up the story.

Some context may be useful for those who don’t hold their ear to the ground of internal Anglican politics. The Bishop of Dover, who actually governs the See of Canterbury in place of the Archbishop, issued these guidelines. He is not generally known for accepting Catholic doctrine on this or any sacramental point.

No doubt some of my Catholic readers will interject at this point, “Of course he wouldn’t. He’s a Protestant!” Fair enough. But Anglo-Catholics in the United Kingdom do tend to accept lots of Roman doctrine. There are even pockets where Anglo-Papalism – that heady brew of Baroque ceremonial, English sacral vernacular, devotional maximalism, attachment to a male-only priesthood, and slavish Ultramontane sympathies – still exists. And most of those Anglo-Catholics accept the Roman teaching that the wilful withholding of sins by a penitent in confession is itself a mortal sin, thus invalidating any absolution. I will leave aside the dubious question of sacramental validity for now. The point is that Anglo-Catholics really do believe all this, and they treat confession in much the same way that devout Roman Catholics do. Anglo-Catholics with the cure of souls live by that rule. It is only logical that the head of an Anglo-Catholic seminary would thus take serious umbrage with a move in the Primate’s own diocese that was manifestly a) uncanonical, and b) mortally sinful.

But here is another reason for concern, even for us Romans. The diocese responded to Fr. Ward with the risible if disturbing claim that “[The mandated disclaimer] is intended to advise the penitent not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest.” This is an extremely telling phrase; it constitutes the tacit admission that a diocese in the Church of England is surrendering the legal viability of the seal of the confessional, period. Mandatory reporting is the order of the day, and the sacrament must be deformed to fit it. I hope Catholics prick up their ears.

This guideline was promulgated against the backdrop of the Clerical Sex Abuse scandal. The C of E has been grappling with the same deep evils that have plagued the Roman Catholic Church in recent history. While the bishops have taken some good and appropriate steps in safeguarding, nevertheless, mistakes have also been made. Take the case of Bishop George Bell, accused of abuse posthumously and subsequently subjected to a multi-year botched inquiry and, arguably, public character assassination. Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury has dug in his heels on the guilt of George Bell in spite of the evidence that the Church’s investigatory body was irresponsible and hasty in its conclusions.

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Bishop George Bell…abuser or victim? Hard to say after the C of E’s deeply flawed investigation. (Source)

Do I know whether the confession guidelines for the Archbishop’s own diocese have been crafted with an eye to that particular scandal? No. It’s impossible to say. But we can safely say that the Bishop of Dover’s dissolution of the seal of the confessional is a similar misstep in the Church’s ongoing attempt to come to terms with the legacy of child abuse.

Of course, the same problem has existed, in a much more flagrant and public way, in the Roman Catholic Church. And it is this connection that should make the Bishop of Dover’s move so troubling to Catholics. His guidelines didn’t materialize out of the air. Similar suggestions have been made to National Inquiries about clerical sex abuse in Britain. Even more serious developments in Australia have seen wider discussions about legally abolishing the seal of confession.

But to return to the United Kingdom – let’s not forget that the Church of England is a motley crew of clerics who think their coreligionists are, at best, mistaken, and at worst, heretics. Evangelicals, Liberals, and Anglo-Catholics of every stripe take deeply divergent views of the sacraments. If the Bishop of Dover’s guidelines are allowed to stand under the current Code of Canon Law, what’s to stop other bishops from adopting them in their own sees? Evangelicals generally don’t have the same hang-ups about confession as Catholics, and liberals may see the change as a progressive step. If enough bishops do adopt the guidelines, they can start to change the culture of the church. Once ordinary Anglicans become used to this exception in the confessional seal (among those who practice confession at all, which is probably a fairly low number anyway), what kind of pressure will the clergy start to exert on the Roman Catholics of England? What if Parliament takes up the cause, following the precedent of the Australians? What if mandatory reporting is extended by law to all clergy without exception? What then?

A slippery slope, you say? Maybe. But there are liberal Anglicans who have already attacked traditionalist Anglo-Catholics – the most Roman people in the Church – on precisely these terms. The Rev. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, argued (in Holy Week!) that sex abuse is tied to traditionalism among Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals. Without a hint of irony, he writes,

There are common denominators between these two ecclesial cultures. They deny women equality. They are squeamish about sexuality. They sacralise ambiguity. They put their leaders on unimpeachable pedestals. The worst abuses flourish in the cultures that are self-righteous.
(emphasis mine – RY)

Other liberal Anglicans have suggested that “angry, conservative religion…in the Church of Rome” will have to undergo various changes to accommodate modernity. One could reach for examples. I will merely say that there is no shortage of criticism directed towards the Church of Rome by Anglicans who don’t identify as either traditionalist or Anglo-Catholic. And let us not forget the long and terrible history of English anti-Catholicism, a staple of British culture from the Reformation on. It has cropped up even in our own times.

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“The tongue of St. John Nepomuk surrounded by five episodes of his life.” Behold, the saintly tongue that would not break the seal. (Source)

What happens in the Church of England matters in no small part because it is the Established Church. It is thus something of a thermostat (or at least a thermometer) of public religious opinion in Great Britain. The prospect of the Anglicans ceding the seal of confession to the investigatory apparatus of the state, and thus normalizing the violation of the seal, is a dangerous prelude for the Catholics of this country.

And of course, there’s the very practical point that mandatory reporting even for confessions will not produce more results. Abusers will simply stop confessing those sins, even as the abused will no longer be able to confide in their priests. Who does it hurt? The most vulnerable. Who does it help? No one.

Catholics believe that the seal of the confessional is absolute. It is the guarantee that when a penitent sincerely asks forgiveness for his sins, he can be sure that he is receiving absolution from someone who will never reveal his past. It is Christ who hears and forgives, not the priest in himself. And Christ is the “Lamb of God, who takes away all sins.” The seal of the confessional expresses this mystical reality. The saints have always known that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, neither what is present nor what is to come, no force whatever, neither the height above us nor the depth beneath us, nor any other created thing” could justify, force, or provoke the violation of the seal of the confessional (Rom 8:38-39). Some were martyred for keeping holy silence.

I hope and pray that we will never see martyrs of the confessional in our time. But if worst comes to worst, will our priests be willing to shed their blood for the trust they have been given?

St. John Nepomucene

St. John Nepomuk, martyred for refusing to break the seal of the confessional. May he intercede for us wherever the seal is challenged. (Source)

Perhaps this controversy, like so many, will turn out to be nothing more than a tempest in the teapot. I would happily look back on this piece in many years’ time and say that my fears were all ill-founded and misbegotten. Let me be accused of hysteria! I would rather be worried over nothing than prove a Cassandra. But as things develop, it may not be a bad idea to pray for the intercession of St. John Nepomuk.

 

 

“A Vacuum He May Not Abhor”

RS Thomas Obituary

R.S. Thomas in a typical pose. One does wonder if he ever smiled. (Source)

R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), the Welsh nationalist, Anglican minister, and consummate poet belief and doubt has recently become a favorite. Here is a poem of his that, I think, is worth pondering in Lent.

The Absence

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?