Friday, October 28, 2016

The Seats are Free: Anglican Catholicism and the Future

[Sermon at the Installation of the Rev'd Stephen Holton as 13th Rector of Christ Church, New Haven, Eve of Ss. Simon and Jude, October 27 2016]

When Christ Church, New Haven was established, its accoutrements were controversial: not incense, not candles, not vestments, but chairs. Unusually and even controversially for the time, there were to be free seats. At Trinity Church on the Green, out of which this parish was founded, as in most others of the time, families of means were expected to rent pews, providing their own personal space for worship but also generating revenue for the parish. Here however it was established from the start that offerings would be the means of support, and that all seats were free.

When the first Christ Church was dedicated for divine service in 1854, the preacher Thomas Pitkin said:

"Its wide open-door will invite all passers-by to enter in. There will be no ownership of seats. All are made welcome of whatever name or creed who are willing to unite with us in our worship. High and low, rich and poor, old and young, may here fervently join in the prayers and praises of the Church.”

The seats were free. This worthy vision has in some respects been overtaken by a different social phenomenon, that of secularization. Pews are hardly a marketable commodity any more anyway, except perhaps as curiosities in antique stores and subsequently as a whimsical adornment for a porch; the seats are free now, because many are empty.

Although this describes life in many congregations, our brother Stephen is entering with faith and hope on ministry in this one, under the curious patronage of Ss Simon and Jude, the revolutionary hothead and the patron of lost causes. What should our prayer be for him and for the people of Christ Church, where the openness of seats, however understood, faces towards such a fullness of liturgical and artistic beauty in the Catholic tradition?

This Church was founded with two other characteristics in mind beyond the seating - the Edwards sisters, who were its first benefactors, were adherents of the emerging Tractarian movement that had begun in the Church of England in the two preceding decades, and which was at that point not so much interested in ceremonial as in the importance of spiritual discipline and particularly of regular reception of the Holy Communion. At that time it was typical for Episcopal parishes to have morning prayer and the Litany but Communion only monthly. The Edwards sisters apparently moved around the New Haven Churches which had different communion Sundays of the month, seeking more regular participation. So Christ Church began with a different pattern of worship, centered on the Eucharist.

Second, the need for a parish on the west side of New Haven reflected a sense of mission, and in the early sermons and other documents from this place it is clear that evangelism of the neighborhood was an unapologetic and central aspect of why this place came to be here. Already then this Church faced a side of this city where many struggle for fulness of life, and even as "that side of town" has moved somewhat, Christ Church still faces it. So this place was not built to pander to liturgical taste, but to witness to the Gospel through its sacramental worship, and to draw others to faith through it, including by offering a different but equally real divine service of the poor and marginalized in practical service, hospitality, and advocacy.

Over time however Christ Church and parishes like it became distinctive in the eyes of most as much or more for their liturgical specifics as for anything else. The ritual of solemn high mass as it developed here has been a powerful witness to Christian faith in its historic Catholic form for generations now and will, one imagines - and prays - continue to be so for further generations. This must be part of why Christ Church is here and why Stephen is here now to minister among us. However this moment in time, a new ministry and the possibility of a renewed sense of parish witness, as well as those elements of history, give rise to a question or two about what is really essential to Anglican Catholicism and what is really needed here.

The Catholic wing of the Episcopal Church is in some respects the victim of its own success. With a prayer book introduced in 1979 that contained much of that sacramental theology which had been so controversial a century earlier, it may have seemed that those struggles now had a clear winner. Nothing is ever so simple.

If the rituals and accoutrements which those who worshipped and served here once fought to defend have become very widely used now, the reasons for using them have not always shifted accordingly. Vestments were once controversial because they suggested belief in eucharistic sacrifice; now they’re ubiquitous, just because they're pretty. There are many places that have a dignified Gospel procession, but fewer that believe there is a Gospel the world actually needs. We virtually all observe the rubric about the Eucharist as the principal Sunday service, but not everyone thinks that anything actually happens in the Eucharist.

This place and your ministry Stephen exist to witness to a far more audacious possibility than the mere fact that dignified liturgy and fine music have some perennial appeal, true as that may be. These all exist here to witness to the possibility, sometimes as confronting to religious people as to the secular, that something actually happens in the Eucharist, and that this is because something actually happened in the Incarnation. 

Hence it is not so much that ritual and reverence are to be performed because interesting or entertaining or even edifying, but that this particular ritual and reverence might be pleasing to God, because offered as much with a sense of its inadequacy as of its beauty in the service of the real presence of the Son of God. If this is true, everything changes: beauty must serve truth and reveal it; ritual points not to itself but to the mystery at its heart; and community gathers not for itself but for, and in, and as, the body of the one who died and rose to win that people for himself. More than that, we cannot claim to worship him on the altar or be his body if we will not acknowledge creation hallowed in and by him, and meet him in the street and the soup kitchen as well.

The seats are free Stephen, and yes they are so in different senses of the word. If there is no-one present on the altar, let the seats remain free and let us just go about our business. If however there is one seated in glory yet who comes to us here, let us fill these seats to attend him and let us join with others who will discover, as long ago, that in these seats "all are made welcome of whatever name or creed who are willing to unite with us in our worship. High and low, rich and poor, old and young" - and let us add, gay and straight, black and white - "may here fervently join in the prayers and praises of the Church." To the Lord of that Church present here among us, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all might and majesty, dominion and praise, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Beloved Physicians: St Luke, Thomas Dent Mütter, and Jesus

Thomas Dent Mütter
We acquired the patronage of St Luke here at Berkeley Divinity School by a somewhat strange means. The Gospel of Luke has various associations that could inspire theological education: the Gospel’s emphasis on God’s action in history, and on the poor and marginalized, not least. Saint Luke is even, according to some accounts patron of students - but no that wasn’t it. He is also patron of artists, and butchers - and, of course, of physicians.

The first St Luke’s Chapel, at the former Berkeley campus in Middletown, Conn., was the gift of Mary Alsop Mütter in memory of her late husband, the physician Thomas Dent Mütter. Mütter - subject of the 2014 New York Times bestseller Dr Mütter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz - is buried in Middletown, but his name is probably better remembered in Philadelphia, where the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians is named for a man who was one of the leading figures in medicine in the nineteenth century.

Mütter died in 1859, at the age of 48; shortly after, his grieving widow, whose family were from Middletown, gave the Chapel to the fledgling seminary, its dedication to St Luke a reflection of her departed husband’s achievement and of his faith. As Berkeley’s founding Dean (and later Bishop of Connecticut and Presiding Bishop) John Williams put it in his sermon at the dedication of the Chapel in 1861, “He (Mütter) was a 'beloved physician,' ministering not to the body only, but to the spirit also. And so, from the 'beloved physician' of the Scriptures, this chapel takes its name: and ...because, here, they are to be trained, whose duty it will be, to minister 'the wholesome medicines of the doctrines,' by which 'the diseases of our souls may be healed'" - quoting Thomas Cranmer's Collect for St Luke as it appeared in the then Prayer Book of 1789.

Mütter was a pioneer of plastic surgery; not cosmetic surgery, but the restoration of mobility and functionality to people who whether congenitally or as often by horrific accidents such as industrial burns were not only disfigured but impeded from mobility and other basic functions. He not only developed and practiced new techniques of surgery but advocated for the equally novel and controversial practices of anesthesia and antiseptics. Some of Mütter’s contemporaries and colleagues were opposed to anesthetic in particular because they believed “pain [was] a desirable, salutary, and conservative manifestation of life force.” (Dr Mütter's Marvels, 193). As a practitioner of surgery that improved quality of life and as advocate of humane and wholesome practices, Mütter was thus a “beloved physician” worthy of commemoration.

The idea of the Gospel as medicine, and of ministry as healing, is as old as the Gospel itself. While sickness and injury have cross-cultural force, Mütter’s challenges help us understand how much more powerful and confronting it might have been, and might yet be, to describe the Gospel as therapeia as Luke does - as healing. Healing is not necessarily painless - in fact it is rarely so.

Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 study Soul Searching described the religion of American youth as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” In that worldview, there is a God somewhere (that’s why it’s described as somehow “deist"), who wants us to be nice (that’s the “moralistic" part) and who can help we have need, and who in their words “provide[s] therapeutic benefits to [the] adherent.”

It's too easy however to use this kind of analysis as part of some narrative of decline from a supposed pristine past, when everyone believed the way they were supposed to - "let's make the Gospel great again,” I hear you say. It was 80 years ago however when our late colleague here at Yale Richard Niebuhr performed a similar diagnosis when he famously spoke of belief in “a God without wrath (who) brought [people] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (The Kingdom of God in America, 193). The issue is not about youth - it is about people.

Smith and Denton have, like many of us,  given up the word “therapy” as a hostage to the enemy in trying to describe a problem. To quote them again, God is in the worldview of moralistic therapeutic deism "something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he's always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process” (165). In fact therapeia, the healing for which people come to Jesus, is not merely the work of the butler and the “therapist” in Smith and Denton's modern sense, but is the costly service of transformation.

The work of a theological school is arguably two-fold; it is to train healers, but also to be a place of healing. The great Origen of Alexandria called Jesus the "chief physician" who called as pupils those who were "to be physicians of the soul in his Church" (Exp. on Ps. 37). We are here as committed to the training of those spiritual physicians; not the therapists of popular imagination, nor the reckless barber surgeons of the pre-modern era, but of those who will, with the chief physician as guide, offer their skills to lead communities of healing and wholeness. They can only do that work of healer as knowing themselves healed, or as still being healed. The therapeia of God is true, transformative, continuous, and not without pain, and goes on in this place in the service of the Holy Trinity, and under the patronage of St Luke.

ALMIGHTY God, who called Luke the Physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul: May it please thee, by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Aptowicz, Cristin O’Keefe. Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. New York: Gotham Books, 2014.
Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Kingdom of God in America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
Smith, Christian, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2009.