Cattle Drive, Fort Worth Stockyards, April 2010

Thursday, May 6, 2010

I've been in a nostalgic mood lately...

And so I’ve been thinking about what I truly miss about the sort of Anglicanism that I knew and loved so deeply. It seems obvious that it no longer exists, but that’s not really the point… and I do think that there is a point somewhere that should reveal itself by the end of this post.
     First I suppose I ought to say what sort of Anglican I was since there seem to be a multitude of varieties, especially nowadays. I was an old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic, or perhaps even more pointed, an Anglo-Papalist. I "read, marked, learned and inwardly digested" Rev. Dr. Francis Hall’s ten volume series on Dogmatic Theology (and I still treasure my copy of these volumes). I studied and mastered Ritual Notes, 8th and 11th editions, and later began to learn Fortescue’s Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described and other books that are referenced and footnoted in Ritual Notes. My heart treasured the 1940 Hymnal--which is arguably the best hymnal ever published. The simple Gregorian settings to the propers and ordinary of the Mass still give me great peace. It ought to be clear that I was not the ordinary sort of Episcopalian one finds in the U.S. It is true that as a child the parishes that I attended were certainly more from the mainstream of American Anglicanism, yet it was when I joined St. Timothy’s as a young adult that I was actually “formed” into my current spiritual shape.
     But I've not been particularly nostalgic about being an Episcopalian at all. That holds no attraction to me. It is rather the way the Christian life was lived and experienced in what I think of as my “home parish” that still has a profound and continuing influence on me. This is still my vision of Christian life. I cannot shake it. I will not even attempt to do so because I know that it is absolutely true and godly. So what are these irreducible foundation stones that I carry in my heart. (I know this is personal and perhaps too much so. My friends who know me well already know most of this. My parishioners should probably know more clearly “what makes me tick,” because it does effect them directly)
     First of all, I have to start with what must be called the Catholic vision. As an Anglo-Catholic, the Catholic vision was essential to our life. It focussed us on building authentic communities where we lived. They were often largely mixed groups of people who perhaps would never come together otherwise. My home parish was largely a group of blue-collar Texans. But we also had a few real academics (one whom was fluent in 47 languages, most of which were dead). We had a couple of doctors, maybe one attorney. We had policemen and almost any sort of worker you would care to mention. But we were also from a broad racial and ethnic grouping. We were white, black, hispanic, English, French, Irish, Scot, Slavic… What was critically important to us that when we entered the doors of the church and genuflected to Christ on the altar, we were one. We believed the same Faith. We shared a common liturgical experience. No group was more important than any other. The Catholic vision is that the Christian Faith is for all people, in all places, in all times. Each people will manifest this beautiful treasure in a way that is unique to them, but it will also be so profoundly the same as everywhere else. I long for the deep sense of diversity in (complete theological and sacramental) unity again. I'm not speaking of agreeing to get along. I really do mean complete unity on the essential theological and sacramental core. This is what I would call the Catholic vision, and it one that I learned at St. Timothy’s and that I still hold. It is the Apostolic experience and faith.
     It is natural that worship is another area that would move me to deep nostalgia. (The picture at right was taken at St. Timothy’s when my mentor retired--the late Fr. George M. Acker, S.S.C., he is doing the censing.) It is tragic to say that I'm not sure that I have prayed as deeply, as completely, or as regularly as I did then. I remember saying the offices (the Divine Hours) daily then. They were simple enough to say quietly by myself every day, whereas the Eastern Offices are far too complicated for me to do so. Maybe that’s a personal thing though, I know some who can, I’m just not one of them. I was present at Solemn High Mass every Sunday, every feast of Holy Obligation, and at least once a week in addition. I went to Stations of the Cross and Benediction during Lent, waited in line to make my confession on Saturdays (there really was a waiting line at that time!). There is something so gloriously practicable about the Western liturgical life. It truly can become something that is “daily”. A feast day liturgy in the Eastern rite takes a cast of thousands and it can sometimes mean a priest is busier than a one-armed paper hanger. That' not particularly prayerful for the priest.
     Music was also important to me. The hymns that we sang were solid old-fashioned hymns with the organ shaking the windows. The entire parish would take up their beloved 1940 Hymnal and belt out the hymns. One didn’t just show up at Mass and take a seat. One sang and responded! Oh my how I miss that. The entire congregation would sing the hymns that were assigned as well as the ordinary hymns that were sung week by week (like the Asperges me, the Kyrie, the Creed, etc.). We all largely had it memorized, so a sure sign that you were a visitor was if you picked up the service book. The choir would sing motets and anthems, often in Latin, at various points in the Mass. Our music was not the sort of dodgy, folksy, sentimental, contemporary drivel that one commonly hears nowadays. It was beautiful (often classical), theologically solid stuff. In music we were different from Roman Catholics because we didn't go in for folk masses, and the entire parish sang the music (except for the changing propers which the chanters sang). Worship was offered by us all. I heard it said that Anglicans were an odd mix, at least musically, of Methodists and Catholics. I'm not sure that’s entirely true. There is a unique “Anglican” sound. While reading about music in pre-Reformation England, I found that the English people were a very musical bunch. The parishioners did indeed sing out, and they expected the chant to be sung by the parish clerk and priest. This has been laudably inherited among all Anglicans I think. The Anglo-catholic used the hymnal but also used historic Gregorian chant too. I can't begin to tell you what a rich combination this was: hymns from the common period; Gregorian chant; Classical motets and anthems…
     Another element for me was beautiful language. If you couldn't tell, I love good English. I love elegant, hieratical prose. It is beyond dispute that the most beautiful English prayers ever composed in the English world come from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). The BCP along with the King James Version of the Bible (or the Authorized Version, if you please) represent the height of liturgical language in English. If one adds the works of Shakespeare to the other two, one would have to acknowledge that these three form the basis of modern English. The graciousness and felicity of the English tongue is fecund in the pen of Cranmer those who translated the Scriptures. Contemporary liturgical language stops my heart cold. Some may not find contemporary language so halting, but surely none would disagree that one of the greatest blessings that Anglicans gave the world was “Prayer Book” English.
     There was also a tremendous love for pomp and ceremony. We were the inheritors of an English culture after all. At St. Timothy’s the greatest procession was on Palm Sunday (that should sound familiar to most of the Arabic Orthodox who find that to be the most wonderful day to show up if they don’t do so at any other time). But it was not a little affair. It started down the street from the church, it had a donkey under a canopy (representing Christ’s presence among us), a Roman soldier on horseback at the head of the procession, Roman soldiers on the roof of the church with pikes and shields, forty to fifty children bearing branches and several hundred faithful. The street had to be closed as the billowing incense of two thuribles (censers) were swung in the lovely “Queen Anne” pattern used for high days. Inside the church was a section of brass playing us down the aisle in our figure-eight procession indoors to the hymn, “All glory, laud and honour, to thee Redeemer King…” Pageant was enjoyed by all not as spectacle (and it was that--after all the local television stations usually came to film the procession each year for the evening news). It was thrilled to because it was our overflowing love for God. We did these things because it was the only way to approximate our joy and belief. The processions were joined by everyone. They weren't simply occasions for pictures as we “oooed and ahhhed” at the children. The children were part of the procession and so were all of the adults. I miss that too.
     But I would be remiss if I didn't point out another thing that is so essential to that life that I loved (and still love). It is silence, quiet. We didn't talk in the church, no, not a word. We didn't speak until we were outside the doors of the church. The church itself was a holy space filled with prayer and the palpable presence of God. We came to be in his presence. Socializing was kept for the church hall down the walk. To quietly enter the church during the week and go to the Mary shrine to pray, light a candle, then genuflect to Christ is so simple a thing that it seems too obvious to write down. But this simple little action personifies in a profound way part of the life we had. It was in fact, it's central core. It is an awareness of the presence of God and our homely approach to him. This makes for a deeply intimate life. But it can never come about without quiet first being developed by the entire community.
     What treasures! What riches: a Catholic vision of life of diversity in theological and sacramental unity; serious and dedicated worship; a “daily and practicable” quality of worship; a rich varied musical heritage wherein everyone participates with whole voice; elevated language that hints at the mystery and beauty of God; ceremonial that can unite the entire parish in pageantry and solemnity; and a quiet, recollected life. This is a tapestry that I'm not sure can ever be bettered… at least for me. It still directs my vision and actions. It still stirs my soul and heart. There are many who are currently asking and trying to figure out what the Anglican patrimony is because of the recent Anglicanorum coetibus promulgated by the Pope. For my part, anything that would diminish any of these elements would seem to miss the mark.


  1. That's my Liturgics Prof, Ralph McMichael, assisting at the altar with Fr Acker ... is that also, in surplice, Fr Rooney?

  2. That is Fr. McMichael at the altar with Fr. Acker. He was the interim when Fr. Acker retired. I could tell some stories... but won't. In surplice is Fr. Timothy Church, who is now a Roman Catholic priest in Plano, Texas. Serving a subdeacon is Canon Charles Hough, III another son of the parish. Good to see you Father.