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.


  1. What a compelling and inspiring sermon, Andrew -- and I say this as a Roman Catholic scholar of liturgy (who many years ago wrote a dissertation on the liturgical thinking of the early Tractarians; they would be very pleased with this sermon, too :)

  2. Thanks so much Andrew. Your central point - that ritual is without its proper telos apart from the real and enfleshed love of God in Christ - is well made.


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