Hymn texts

This post is not substantive–except that it provides a place to park two hymn texts which I wrote about a decade ago.

The first is a Eucharist text set to the tune Thaxted. Proverbs 8-9, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and Revelation 19 provided inspiration.

The second is a text inspired by the baptistry inscription at St. John Lateran in Rome. Its tune is Nettleton, familiar to singers from association with “Come thou fount of every blessing.”

Both tunes are in the public domain. The texts are yours to use as you see fit. Please extend me the courtesy of an email whenever you use them in public worship. smith at smith975 dot com


A case for the Great Vigil. All of it.

The Great Vigil of Easter is just past, and I presided at this liturgy at Christ Church Cathedral last Saturday night, March 31. There was the lighting of new fire, the many readings from the Old Testament, renewal of baptismal vows, and the first Eucharist of Easter. The Vigil stands arguably as the most important liturgy on Prayer Book 1979, taking more pages and bandwidth than any other in the calendar. It is also among the least utilized, at least in the fullness that the rubrics describe, having never “caught on” in many places. Often in Episcopal Churches the liturgy comes off begrudgingly and minimally, preserving the triumphalism of Easter Day, that vestige from Christendom, as the great celebration of the feast. Yet the Vigil is crucial to robust baptismal practices and theology.


Many clergy and lay planners resist the Vigil because they fear that it will be boring. Let me be blunt: If the Vigil is not boring, then you are not doing it right. That last sentence is admittedly an over-statement, but I hope that I make a point. The liturgy, properly planned and carried-out, overwhelms the people with the enormity of scripture’s witness. It is too much to take in—which is how God has acted in ages past, acts now, and will act into the future.  That is, God’s mighty acts, by their nature and number, are too much to take in.


Shaped by the instantaneous and the double-click impatience, the cultural norm in North America rejects anything that might be boring, and thus the Vigil often does not get its due.  Although the service provides nine readings from the Old Testament, the rubric (BCP, 288) stipulates that there be a minimum of two passages, one of which must be the Exodus story of deliverance at the Red Sea.  Two readings hardly a vigil make, but the saying holds true for some: If the minimum isn’t good enough, then it wouldn’t be the minimum.


The full service of readings, all nine of them, with Psalms, canticles, silence, and collects following each, functions much in the same was as does chant from the ecumenical monastic community at Taizé in France. That style uses a simple, melodic line of chant, repeated again and again, which serves to quiet the mind—to bore us, if you will—thereby leaving us open to something else entirely: the presence of God. Leaders often lose their nerve in using Taizé chant and will stop far too soon in the repetition. Three times and out. Forty-three times is more like it, the overlay of descant lending texture to the chant—but leaders continue to lose their nerve. And the people lose the possibility inherent in the chant sung at length. So it goes with the Vigil; too often we lose our nerve.


“Let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, how he saved his people in ages past; and let us pray that our God will bring each of us to the fullness of redemption.” (BCP, 288) These words introduce the long service of readings at the Vigil and invite us to hear what great things God has done in ages past. Modernity’s project with scripture is not so much to hear it as it is to interpret it, sometimes to within an inch of its life. Modern approaches cannot cope with the sheer volume of scripture heaped onto the people during the Great Vigil, so those of us schooled in all the tools of critical interpretation (and I am one so schooled) might want to throw up our hands and make the Vigil much shorter and more manageable, something compressed enough at least to interpret. To do so, however, is to abandon a different kind power that scripture has. If we cannot interpret it, then perhaps it will interpret us. Like waves washing against the shoreline, the scriptures wash against the hearers. They shape us, and not the other way round. We are do not in control during the Vigil, and perhaps that is another reason for the uneasiness.


This sensibility for the Vigil is not completely different from the classical Anglican use of scripture in the Daily Office. Thomas Cranmer and subsequent divines set down long stretches of readings, in course, for the edification and the shaping of believers. The Office lecitionary covered most of scripture’s expanse during the passage of the year. Diverging from the self-described godly believers (later called puritans), the Prayer Book divines provided no explicit place for a sermon during the Office. People eventually cobbled out a place for preaching, but it was not until BCP 1979 that permission to do so became explicit. (BCP 1979 also allows a homily after any of the vigil readings. I have never heard of any community doing such a thing.) The godly believers invariably insisted on a sermon whenever scripture was read. The divines, on the other hand, trusted scripture to have its way with the hearers, and allowed its reading without commentary or interpretation.


To sit as a gathered community under the authority of an enormous scriptural witness provides a crucial element in the Vigil. As witnessed in the classical shape of the Office, this is not an entirely new thought in Anglicanism. Sitting together, listening and waiting together, are crucial to the Vigil’s shape.  Keeping vigil together bears witness that the salvation which God is unleashing is communal in nature and scope; to call it communal is in fact too small, for God is at work in redeeming an entire universe.


The lynchpin in salvation’s story is God’s glorious resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead. What God accomplishes in Jesus is God’s will for the cosmos, and for us. What God does in Jesus recapitulates what has gone before and anticipates what God is still doing, both now and into the age to come.


Baptism properly belongs in this context, set amid the rehearsal of all these, God’s mighty deeds. The neophyte, bathed, anointed, and communed, embodies in this present moment the saving acts of God. We rightly understand baptism as the most recent of these acts. Easter—Pascha—interprets baptism; and baptism interprets Easter. In the Prayer Book, the rite for baptism follows the rite for the Great Vigil. These two belong together, dual expressions of the Paschal mystery, which the Church also celebrates week by week in bread broken and wine poured out. It is well known that in the early Church, the Vigil was both the normative and the usual occasion for baptism. Baptism at any other time was not unheard of, but it was extraordinary. There is every reason to recapture the practice, and a lavish Vigil and robust baptismal practices and theology belong together.


I have asked the Diocese of Missouri to engage in a season of baptismal renewal, and to that end I have appointed a Force on Baptism to engage the matter, make recommendations, and report back to Diocesan Convention in November 2018.


I write above that if the Vigil is not boring, then you are not doing it right. Timelessness probably is the better word, for timelessness is the quality of boredom transformed. The Vigil provides a window into the timelessness which belongs to God, by whose grace it also becomes our destiny—grace made manifest through the waters of baptism.


Praying for a president by name

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.  This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4 NRSV)


Christian believers who desire also to be citizens live in the tension between Romans 13 and Revelation 13. In that Romans passage, Paul, using stark and unequivocal language, directs his readers to live in subjection to governing authorities, instituted as they are by God and guarantors of the good. Paul’s counsel, taken on its own and with no larger scriptural context, has had drastic consequences for believers, whenever subjection to authority has devolved into rank subjugation, unquestioning, nonnegotiable. Christians have thus at critical times rolled over for all the wrong rulers. Enters then the dreamscape of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, a worthy caveat, or even complete counter-argument, to Paul’s testimony. The governing authority whom Revelation 13 describes is no blessing; it is The Beast. As such its authority stands under God’s judgment, and all that it can claim from the faithful is resistance.


Paul probably wrote the Epistle to the Romans at the moment when Nero was the Roman emperor, and Nero’s bad behavior in office drew no praise from his friends, let alone from his enemies. Paul, however, refuses to identify Nero as the enemy, bad as this emperor was for the Roman city and empire, and for his newfound scapegoats, the Christians. Paul opts instead for honor and respect toward the emperor, not vitriol and disgust. Nero may regard us as the enemy, but we do not return the favor. Or alternatively, to put it in Jesus’ words, enemies are the people for whom we pray. The next generation of Paul’s influence, given expression in the Pastoral Epistles, exhorts believers to offer “supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings” for those in authority, as cited from 1 Timothy at the head of this post.


I have heard about a fad taking root in some parts our Church, a decision not to pray for Donald Trump by name when he becomes president. What an odd, un-Anglican, ahistorical, and impersonal decision. Since 1559, the Prayer Book office prayer “For the King’s Majesty” (or the Queen’s) has always included the monarch’s name. There are tales of old Prayer Books in choir stalls throughout England that have mark-outs and erasures and pencil insertions galore to ensure that the monarch’s name is current. From the time that I started worshiping in the Episcopal Church in the 1970s, I recall hearing the prayer for “James our President” and thinking how good and specific this prayer was, if a little quaint (James, not Jimmy), especially in a community where most people had little use for the president by this name. Have little use for someone seemed not to matter at all. In God’s world, truth be told, it does not matter.


Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts mark history by a sometimes obsessive reference to the ruling powers of the times: Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius, Roman emperors, Quirinius the governor of Syria, various Herods, the Great, Antipas, Philip, and Agrippa (whose wife and sister was Bernice), Lysanias ruler of Abilene (my personal favorite, since I was born in another Abilene), Annas and Caiaphas high priests in Jerusalem. In the gospel and in Acts, Luke keeps time in personages like Pontius Pilate governor of Judea, Felix (whose wife was Drusilla) another governor, Festus his successor, and Gallio the senator, who was also governor of Achaia. Luke roots the Jesus story and its consequences firmly in real history, not in some mythical or idealized past, and the history that he tells has real people with real names. The oppositional and personal forces associated with most of these names is noteworthy. Luke does not name them because they were friends to this movement, this “Way” (the word in Acts) made manifest in Jesus and powered by the Spirit. He names them partly because everyone would have known about them, their power as well as their infamy. But he also names these people closely associated with empire to make sure that no one confuses the political reality that Jesus preaches and inhabits, the Kingdom of God, for the grotesque imperial rule so familiar to everyone in that world and time.


Not to name the powers and authorities by name is to come unstuck from history and from the real and broken world. The refusal to name them is to seek refuge in the gnostic realm, where the cognoscenti know about unspeakable names, including those not worthy to be spoken in God’s presence. Whoever speaks the wrong names is counted among the unschooled. So say the gnostic elites.


I happen to think that by his own statements, Donald Trump represents some of the same perils represented by empire, as told by Luke the evangelist and by others in the Christian scriptures. He thus deserves our ongoing scrutiny. What I think, however, or what anybody else thinks, is beside the point, when it comes to the matter at hand. Support of or opposition to Donald Trump is not pertinent to my argument for praying for him by name. To the extent that he represents “empire” in our time, then all the more reason to storm heaven’s throne on his behalf, and, more to the point, on our behalf, the nation’s and the world’s. Prayer is not the same as endorsement. Prayer is a plea for change, for transformation, and either it gets into the weeds, or it gets nowhere. Prayer is about specific persons and their communities, or else it is just vague pietism. For example, whenever I am ill and in need of healing, or in trouble and in need of refuge and change, I am likely to ask you to pray for me. And if I ask you to pray for me, I reasonably expect that you will pray for me by name, not for some generic person in need, or for the proverbial minor league player to be named later. Prayer gets personal.


So beginning a week from today, the day of his inauguration, and on every day thenceforth and at the Eucharist on Sundays, I will pray for Donald our President. I will do so because these are the times and this is the world in which we live—and this is the president with whose authority we will live. Ours is a real and broken world and nation, not some other and ideal place, and ours will be a president with a name. God acts in history and not in the ephemera. God changes people who have names.

Voter Suppression

William Temple, the 98th Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1942 wrote a short book, hardly longer than an essay, entitled Christianity and the Social Order. In it he argues that the Church in a democracy should maintain its customary self-restraint and not engage in electoral politics, that is, the matter of this person running against those other people for public office. Ordinary people of all sorts tend to resent the Church for endorsing candidates, and the action may also sully the Church’s reputation. Rigorous self-restraint is the better way. The Archbishop got it right.

He goes on to argue, however, that the Church has the freedom to speak out on issues and policies. And there’s more. Temple argues that, under the Gospel of Jesus, the Church must exercise that freedom. Quietism is not an option. This brief, cogent book, completely unlike Temple’s other works (mostly long and inaccessible), helped shape an Anglican consensus about engagement in the political realm.

I am writing this post to address a matter of public policy shaping, or rather, misshaping, the right to vote. I begin by noting that voter turnout in the USA is, well, embarrassing. This nation ranks 31st among 34 developed nations in the percentage of the voting population who exercise the franchise, according to Pew Research. Perhaps voter encouragement might be the better course than voter suppression, for what ails this country.  Australian law even requires citizens to vote, giving that nation a near universal voter turnout. People without a reasonable excuse and who do not vote are liable for a AUD 20 fine. I cannot recommend such a law for the USA, because someone, somewhere, would use the law in a malicious way, arrests for broken taillights all over again. However, the law is popular in Australia, having built a strong ethos of voting for which the citizens are proud. Almost everyone votes. Bottle deposit-and-return laws in Iowa and Michigan, two places where I have lived, are well supported for much the same reason. They provide an incentive for people to do what they know should be done anyway.

The history of voting laws and patterns is uneven. We do well to remember that the founders intended no democracy, and they imagined a strictly limited electorate, because they feared government by the mob. They reckoned that free white males over twenty-one, and property holders at that, had the only stake in government that mattered. The ethos in place during the formative years of the republic thus had casting a ballot as the exception and not the rule. Voter suppression was there at the nation’s creation. Not until the Jacksonian era did the requirement about property ownership begin to die out, and bit by bit the franchise expanded.

Extending suffrage to men (yes, still men in those days) of African descent by means of the Fifteenth Amendment led to a short-lived efflorescence in one important voting pattern. Ex-slaves and other blacks turned out to vote in record numbers, around ninety percent throughout the South. Oppressed people knew instinctively that the ballot provided the best means for leveraging change, and so they voted. When federal troops stopped enforcing open access to voting places in 1877, state and local authorities—white authorities—moved in to limit the access which blacks had ever so briefly enjoyed.

The first means engaged in suppressing the vote after 1877 came with threats and physical intimidation: Don’t try to vote, or else. This singular means worked well, and for a long time. And Jim Crow ruled. Around the turn of the twentieth century two other means emerged to suppress the vote, literacy tests and the poll tax. First, the literacy tests. There are examples of these exams posted around the web, and they strike me as substantively more difficult than written tests for a driver’s license. They are essentially civics exams interlarded with trick questions and brain teasers. White applicants by law were exempt from these exams, until the Supreme Court invalidated these exceptions in 1915. The effect of exemptions continued afterward, because registrars retained the authority waive the requirement for the test. Guess who benefitted from these waivers?

The only states to levy poll taxes were in the South, and the tax suppressed the vote with a heavy hand. Voter turnout in South Carolina was 11% in the 1930s. Tennessee had the highest voting rate in the South during the same era, 33%. Arcane rules prevailed in various states, like having to pay the tax at the courthouse, or only at a certain time, or the requirement of paying the tax in successive years in order to vote. The amount of the tax in Texas varied from $1.00 to $1.50, not so much in today’s money. My parents prided themselves on having always paid the poll tax, even during the Great Depression, when they occasionally worked as farm laborers for $1.00 per day. The tax was a lot for them.

The truth is that the exercise of voting rights is fairly easy to suppress, and each impediment to the franchise makes it more likely that the voter will simply skip the election. I found myself not voting the recent statewide primary, I am ashamed to admit, because absentee voting is such a hassle in Missouri—requesting the paper ballot, marking it, signing it in the presence of a notary, mailing or faxing it back. Secure online voting makes more sense, but that would be too easy.

The greater the poverty of the electorate, the easier it is to suppress the vote. Simply showing up at the polls proves a hardship for laborers or those working two or three jobs, and with a family to tend to. It’s easier to take a pass before or after a long day at work. Early voting and online voting ease the difficulties. When I lived in Des Moines, I never voted on election day, after early-voting provisions became law. Sometime during the month before the election, I would see the polling place in the public library during a routine visit, and I would step right up and cast my vote. General elections in Saint Louis invariably have long lines, with a wait time of a half-hour or more, itself an impediment to voting. There was never a line for early voting in Des Moines.

The most recent gambit in voter suppression is the requirement for a government-issue photo identification card. Such a law passed the Missouri legislature last spring, but the governor vetoed it, noting that it would deprive the people of this state of the fundamental right to vote. True enough. The legislature, however, appears poised to override the veto during the special session beginning September 14. For the law to go into effect, the general electorate must also approve a constitutional amendment on election day, November 8: “Shall the Constitution of Missouri be amended to state that voters may be required by law, which may be subject to exception, to verify one’s identity, citizenship, and residence by presenting identification that may include valid government-issued photo identification?”

The proposal seems fair enough to many, since everyone has a photo ID, or so they say. In fact, there are more without IDs than you might think. 64% of US residents do not have a passport, the second most common form of acceptable ID. 18% do not have a driver’s license, the most common form of all. This latter number account for the sector most vulnerable to voter suppression. As a group, they are older, poorer, and more likely to be other than European in descent.

Voter fraud, the crime which these new laws claim to prevent, is about as common as unicorns. Since 2005, there have been seventeen convictions under voting laws in Missouri. There were 2.93 million ballots cast in 2012 alone. There is no crime wave here. Moreover, none of these convictions was for voter impersonation, the crime which a voter ID law would avert. Every conviction was for registration fraud, which does not now, and would not with the new law, require photo identification. Oh my.

My hope is that the people of Missouri will defeat this proposed amendment, and understand the false assumptions touted by the amendment’s supporters. There is no crime wave, and yes, there are people without photo IDs. It is far too easy to suppress the vote. This right will topple over with the slightest shove. That’s what this effort is about. A shove.

The Family Tree and Slavery

Informally for about twenty years, and more purposefully in the past six, I have researched my genealogy. Most of my ancestors are as common as the yard dogs living in the American South, and like the dogs, pretty much nondescript in pedigree. Most come from the Celtic fringe, with Scots-Irish predominating. No surprise there for someone like me.

Three moments in my research have given me an adrenalin rush—once with the delight of connecting the dots, once with finding a surprise in the family tree, and once, early last week, with a feeling of shock.

Anyone with the surname Smith will soon discover this much in genealogical research: There are so many Smiths, and so little time. That fact actually holds true in most of life, which is why I often use all the names I’ve got. Finding my Smith great-grandfather proved the point. I knew from family lore that my grandfather was born in Lawrence County, Alabama, and that he moved to Texas with the rest of the household, toward the end of the nineteenth century. I knew that the family settled first in Bell County, in Central Texas, very close to what became Fort Hood. They moved again to south Taylor County, in West Texas, and they stayed put. It was there that I was born, and there grew up.

So I had my grandfather’s full name, and I knew that the family had to show up in the three counties, Lawrence, Bell, and Taylor, within a range of about twenty years. That’s all I had to confront a mountain of Smith surnames. I sifted through the data for hours on end. And finally, there the family was, the Smiths who came from Alabama to Texas, living in the three counties that mattered and at the right time. I remember where I was when I made the discovery that I had begun to think was beyond me. And the sweetness of the moment. I found my great-grandfather’s name and learned his story. Six years later, it’s worth noting, I still have not found his father, my second great-grandfather. So many Smiths and so little time.

The second moment came when I discovered, in my maternal lineage, that my fifth great-grandmother was a member of the Creek nation. I had become so accustomed to sorting through my British, mostly Celtic, ancestry that finding someone not of that heritage startled me with pleasure. I have not gone the romantic route with this Native American forebear, not uncommon for people like me in the dominant culture. But there she is, and I am glad to be descended from her.

The third moment, not a happy one, came last week, when I found my fourth great-grandfather in my paternal lineage. He lived around a long life, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century into the middle of the nineteenth, all of it in South Carolina. I found good documentation about him, including four federal census reports, beginning with the very first one in 1790. I find the reports fascinating, especially the digital images of the census-book pages, almost invariably lined out in perfectly legible Spencerian cursive. The shock came in the 1810 census, which enumerated a household of fourteen people, including three slaves.

There is a slave owner in my family tree. I had never found one before, so I presumed that there wasn’t one—a common fallacy, the notion that the absence of evidence means the evidence of absence. Most of my ancestors came from the Celtic fringe, to set up living on another fringe in the American South. I have taken a sort of pride in their marginalization, whether it was self-imposed or otherwise.

Often it was otherwise. Some few of my forebears arrived in North America under indenture, which was never the benevolent sort of colonial work-study scheme that I learned about in high school, a way of working off the cost of travel to these shores. Indenture was not benevolent. Typically it was imposed as a punishment for crimes of all sorts, and debt was a primary crime behind the sentence. Indenture was exile, and it was servitude. Indenture, once imposed, was involuntary, and it was brutal. Indentures could be bought and sold, or rented out. To live under indenture was on a par with chattel slavery. There is one difference between the two terrible systems, and a crucial one: Indenture was for a time certain, usually between seven and fourteen years, although it could be much longer. Chattel slavery never ended. It was a lifetime.

It is difficult to comprehend the brutality and hopelessness that slavery, this lifetime of bondage, brought with it, especially in the plantation economies of the American South. It is this economy that worked the overwhelming majority of slaves, and it used them up. A single plantation would put hundreds of slaves in the fields, an evil economy of scale. Such a life was usually short, and it was always pitiless. Not many slaves, in aggregate, were in smaller holdings, say, three in a household, like the case of my forebear. Life was still brutal and hopeless for them, although they were mostly not used up like plantation slaves.

I take no comfort in this slight economic distinction, and it does nothing to mitigate my family’s complicity in an evil system. I remember one scholar of early Church history writing that slavery was the electricity of the Mediterranean world. That is to say, slaves did all the heavy lifting and routine jobs that made life bearable, even pleasant, for those who had them. There was no switch to flip, but at least there were slaves.  I imagine that the slaves in my family’s household were hard-used, if not used up. They would have made life bearable, even pleasant, for those who owned them. This part of my family tree, by the way, seems to have been of a more elite sort, educated, with an English surname and just one generation removed from the English midlands.

You will notice that I have left out my fourth great-grandmother in the telling of this story, and there is a reason for that omission. Slavery is a construct of patriarchy. I cannot bring myself to drag her into the narrative.

My life is far more entangled with the institution of slavery than even my family tree would suggest. The financial benefits that had accrued because of slavery are many, but at this point in history, they are mostly invisible. It is thus important to draw them out and to see them. Both the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Missouri, for example, gained wealth from the beneficence of slave holders, and the accrued benefits remain. St. Louis, where I live, grew mighty with economic strength in the nineteenth century, because of slavery. Here’s just one vignette. The Army Corps of Engineers supervised the deepening of the Mississippi River channel at the Port of St. Louis in 1837. Regulating the river channel made the river trade possible, on a large scale, which in turn made St. Louis a wealthy city. A young lieutenant named Robert E. Lee commanded the work, and he invariably gets the historical credit for it. But the laborers were entirely slaves. No soldier with the engineers would engage in hard labor if slaves were available. In St. Louis, slaves were certainly available.

The caustic racism that exists in this country may be nothing but the extension of slavery by other means—especially in the purpose of keeping black people down. For this reason, the history of slavery, including its specifics, need to be known and told. For 150 years, people of European descent have used voter suppression, separate-but-equal, mass incarceration, and intimidation for the sole purpose of keeping black people down, a reiteration of conditions under slavery. These strategies work, and their roots lie in the long history of slavery on this continent. The Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony, those sweet people of American myth, held slaves, for goodness sake!

My first trip to Lui Diocese in South Sudan was in April 2005, and one memory from that trip remains distinct. Some of the other missioners and I were sitting with the senior clergy of the Diocese, after dark, in the guest compound just outside Fraser Cathedral. It was the evening before we left to come back to the USA, and sitting together is a sort of set-piece the night before visitors depart. The clergy were very curious about these eleven white people who had come from half a world away. They wanted to know about life in Missouri, and about the Church. So I opened my up geek-brain and told them many things about Missouri and the Diocese. Then suddenly it occurred to me that I had to speak a hard truth about where I live, even if I did not want to. I took a deep breath and said: It embarrasses me very much to say this among you, but racism continues as a hard fact in Missouri and the whole of the USA. Then the clergy looked at me with a blank silence; apparently they did not understand what I had said. Racism, as it turned out, was not a construct that made sense to them. I still wanted them to know. How to talk about in terms that they might know? So I tried this: In the USA, racism is the bad leftover from the slavery that used to exist. They all nodded in comprehension.

Racism they did not know, but slavery was almost a living memory among the Moru people. The last slaver came to Lui in 1920, the same year that Dr. Kenneth Fraser, missionary and physician, came to Moruland. Dr. Fraser taught that freedom from slavery is part of the good news of Jesus, good news to people who had lived with the institution. Slavery withered at the preaching of the Gospel, as Dr. Fraser told it. (Well, it is a little more complicated than that.) This much is sure. The buying and selling of slaves once took place in the shade of a single distinctive tree in Lui town, a middle-eastern sycamore, fig-bearing and enormous, a tree with a name, the Loru Tree. Dr. Fraser chose to teach the gospel in Loru’s shade, explaining to the people that the place that used to mean bondage and misery is now the place of the Gospel’s freedom. Dr. Fraser is buried in the shade of that same tree. And Fraser Cathedral stands there also. The seal of the Diocese incorporates Loru in its device. Release of the slaves means something vital in that part of South Sudan. It is Good News.

So there is a slaver in my family tree, a shock to my system. I imagine that I am neither more nor less complicit in slavery with this knowledge. Everything appears so entangled with the system already. This much I know: this new knowledge has accentuated my awareness of all the entanglements. And I think that this awareness is a good thing.

On the Prayer Book and the killing of many trees

A liturgical vogue in the Episcopal Church for the past two decades or so has been the weekly printing of very full service bulletins for congregational use. Much more detailed than the service outlines found in bulletins from an earlier time, these leaflets, pamphlets really, may contain all or nearly all the liturgical texts, plus the readings and hymns. They are easy to use, and that’s the point. No worshiper has to open a Prayer Book or Hymnal. Sunday worship then becomes user-friendly, and particularly visitor-friendly. This style of bulletin also allows the use of liturgical texts outside the Prayer Book and hymns not in Hymnal 1982, the usual copyright laws pertaining. (See below)

Principles of congregational development often include encouragement of these fuller sorts of service leaflets. They help make a church within the liturgical traditions, like ours, less strange, less baffling for the first-time visitor. They also help every-Sunday worshipers know their way around. They ease the handling of many books and things. I have a vivid recollection of juggling two hymnals, a Prayer Book, a service leaflet, and a palm on the Sunday of the Passion, aka Palm Sunday. Ah, the good old days.

These are good reasons for publishing a pamphlet-like bulletin every Sunday. The bulletin used in my last parish tilted this direction—lots of text but usually no hymns. But there are good reasons to retain, or return to, a minimalist bulletin to direct the use of Hymnal and Prayer Book. Let me detail some of these.

The minimalist approach is greener. I often cringe when I see piles of thick, single-use leaflets discarded after the Sunday Eucharist, and I wonder about the killing of many trees. Moreover, the mass production of clean, white paper on which these bulletins are printed requires toxic resources, another problem. Prayer Books, on the other hand, never die. Church Hymnal Corporation, now Church Publishing Corporation, used the Smyth binding method to produce every bound edition of our current Prayer Book. This includes the beta-test edition, er, Proposed Book of Common Prayer 1976. I often find these old books in the pews of the parishes that I visit, a little worn but not worn out.

Worship planners may or may not weigh the environmental costs in deciding for the whole-service type of bulletin. Episcopalians tend to opt for green choices, and we might do well to bring that predilection to our arranging for the liturgy.

The Prayer Book is for priest and people. It is an error to think that the Prayer Book is a book for the priest—or even primarily for the priest. The technological revolution of the moveable-type printing press made the English reformation possible, exponentially expanding the distribution of both Bible and Prayer Book. These books powered the reformation in England. The Prayer Books also consolidated into one volume the variety of liturgical books necessary in the medieval era. The people could, and did, follow along with books which had been in the hands the priest only, the Missal and the Manual, the Breviary and Pie. Hand-written books limited the supply, so before the printing press, books were expensive beyond imagination. Chaucer’s Clerk, in Canterbury Tales, carried twenty books with him, a sizeable library for a poor cleric, and too precious to leave at home while he was on pilgrimage. Chaucer himself may have owned as many as sixty volumes, an enormous private library in the day. Books mechanically printed became vastly cheaper and widely available to people of all sorts. The availability in turn increased the incentive for literacy, and the ability to read intertwined with the new piety. So the priest read from the Prayer Book, as did the people. Their doing so implicitly holds the priest accountable: “It doesn’t say that in my book!”

The technological revolution of the last thirty years has effected, and continues to effect, another shift in availability of texts and in in piety. The shift to digital for distribution of media is the new printing press. The outcome of the shift, especially as it affects the life of faith, remains unclear since the shift is ongoing. One positive effect of this revolution in technology lies in making texts more available than ever. I have 2720 volumes available in my theological research software alone. Chaucer would be envious. They are available on my laptop, my smart phone, and my tablet. I use the software to pray the office, to study the Sunday scriptures, to read contemporary and historical texts of the Christian tradition. Then there are hundreds of thousands of texts now available on the internet.  The downside of this electronic availability is that it is increasingly impossible to get lost in a book. Email notification will interrupt, or a beep from social media will ring out. I can ignore notifications, of course, but they will already have intruded. The formation of an attention span, crucial to the spirituality that I know, becomes elusive. And here I have only addressed the issues of texts; the matter of images and videos expands both possibilities and distractions, and who knows exactly how they are shaping people’s faith today.

Back to the Prayer Book as a book for priest and people. The production of the fuller style service bulletin typically emerges from the massaging of various electronic media—texts, images of hymns dropped in where they belong, logos, photos, and artwork. The production is easy, and the finished product can be lovely to see and to hold. Much responsibility, however, lies in the one who compiles these bulletins. The compiler can find it simple to deviate from the Prayer Book, and no one is likely to say: “It doesn’t say that in my book!” Accountability thus becomes more complicated.

The whole Prayer Book in its whole is an irreducible resource for what Episcopalians believe.  Now is the time to trot out the best know Latin cliché in our tradition: lex orandi lex credendi. That is, the law of prayer is the law of faith. Prayer shapes believing, and vice versa. The dynamic between the two, praying and believing, proves more complicated than appears on first glance, the fantasies of would-be Prayer Book revisers to the contrary. The manner of praying shapes the on-going tradition but remains accountable to the tradition. Leveraging wholesale doctrinal shifts by changing Prayer Book language is disingenuous, perhaps even cynical.  Lex orandi lex credendi makes for a two-way dynamic, which furthermore looks to sensus fidelium for its fullest measure—not just to the most recent meeting of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

I am no Prayer Book fundamentalist. Just because it is in the Prayer Book does not make it true. I hold, for example, that the Prayer Books in the heritage of 1552 and 1662, with the truncated Eucharistic prayer emblematic of the English Church, are in error—or at least inadequate. The prayer in this tradition ends with the institution narrative, and includes no true epiclesis, no mention of sacrifice. To the fuller blessing of the Episcopal Church, the Scottish Episcopalians, from whom we received our manner of praying at the Eucharist, restored the prayer to its catholic and orthodox fullness. But that is a story for another time.

Even with this caveat, it remains true that Anglican theology is always set to the music of church bells, as I once heard Michael Ramsey say. If you want to know about us and what we believe, then come worship with us. The texts which we use when we pray still matter, even when no claims of inerrancy attach to them. So, for example, how Episcopalians pray when ordaining a bishop sums up what Episcopalians believe about bishops. For my own edification, I reread the Examination (BCP, 517-18) with some regularity. Here is what our Church expects from its bishops. I reread prayerfully the Consecration (520-21) on the anniversary of my ordination, on Ash Wednesday, and on Easter Day.

The Prayer Book includes this rite for no practical reason. The Episcopal Church has used the rite for the Diocese of Missouri a mere ten times in 175 years! It is there mostly to illuminate the faithful, under the heading lex orandi lex credendi. The Prayer Book includes rites in which some people, if not most, will never participate. Having the book in digital form, although handy beyond measure, also allows the fragmentation of all the rites. If a believer sees Confirmation, for example, as a discrete rite only, in that special bulletin for the occasion he, or she may not realize how it sits in an orderly progression among the other Pastoral Offices, a flow that takes the believer through death. Or the setting of Holy Baptism immediately following the Great Vigil of Easter allows each of the rites to inform the other, simply by placement. One would not notice this fact if the liturgy comes entirely from a printed bulletin.

The Prayer Book in the pew is a resource for bored teenagers and many other people. If a sermon is not working for somebody, then there is always the Athanasian Creed. Or the Golden Numbers to work out the date of Easter. Or the Great Vigil of Easter. Or Burial of the Dead Rite I.  Curiosity about the Prayer Book might not be the first choice of the bored, but it has rescued and ultimately fascinated many of us over the centuries.


* * * * *

An excursus on copyrights. Remember that the Prayer Book 1979 has no copyright, nor has any Prayer Book in the heritage of the Episcopal Church. The Prayer Book by design has been an open-source publication, for the enlivening of worship in this church and beyond, not the raking-in of royalties. In our church the certificate of the Prayer Book Custodian stands in place of a copyright and serves as guarantor that the publication conforms with the standard. Curiously, perhaps anachronistically, there is a certified copy of the Standard Book of Common Prayer in my keeping. By canon every ecclesiastical authority has such a copy. If anyone wants to check a purported edition of the Prayer Book against the standard within this diocese, I could probably arrange it. But only after a determination of why it is that you have so much time on your hands.

The Prayer Book aside, most other liturgical materials, including the trial liturgies of the previous generation and the current rites in the Enriching Our Worship Series (EOW), have a copyright. Often the publications release the copyright for use in congregational liturgies. EOW explicitly states this permission, alongside the notice of copyright. Many hymns lie in the public domain for use without the publisher’s permission, but most remain under copyright. It is ethically and legally worth checking.

Annunciation and Good Friday

Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day

– John Donne

Just as happened in England in 1608, this year Good Friday falls on March 25, the date kept in the sanctorale as the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary. England in 1608 still kept the Julian Calendar, not the new-fangled Gregorian one. A sign of counter-dependence on all things papal, England had long resisted the calendar mandated by Pope Gregory VIII in 1582. England was not in its own time zone; it had its own calendar zone, and kept it that way until 1751. England’s colonies everywhere, including North America, kept to the same scheme, and when the “New Style” calendar went into effect in September 1751, by fiat September 14 followed immediately on September 2. Widespread grumbling about the twelve “lost days” ensued.

I have given in to this calendar wonky-ness for two reasons. First, it is the sort of thing that I am likely to do. But second, any study of the calendar, secular or ecclesiastical, is likely to turn complicated. If you need to say more than “today is Tuesday,” the argument will turn wonky. Anyone who has read Thomas Talley’s great book on The Origins of the Liturgical Year will recognize the complexities of measuring time. So Good Friday and Annunciation did fall together in 1608 in England. Because of the rules of transferring feasts falling in Holy Week or Easter Week, this year the Episcopal Church will join most other Western Churches in keeping Annunciation on April 4—just one more technicality of the calendar.

John Donne’s poem is exquisite in its own right, and I will spare you the nuisance of having to attend to my own parsing of it. A matter external to the poem, however, bears some attention. The collect for the Annunciation is an ancient one, used on the feast day and still repeated daily through most of the year by those who keep the devotion of the Angelus:

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Note the prayer’s quick movement from the angel’s message to the Paschal Mystery, passion and resurrection. The collect preserves an echo from the Church’s deepest memory, that incarnation is not a moment apart from passion and resurrection. Anglican understandings of atonement have run in this direction from the time of the reformation. Arthur Lyttelton’s essay on “The Atonement,” in Lux Mundi (1889) makes explicit what had been inherent in the tradition, that atonement is a holistic act of God in Jesus Christ, not isolated on the cross but encompassing the whole of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension—and beginning with the Annunciation.

The difference between the lunar year (12 lunar months, equaling about 354 days) and the solar year (about 365 days) accounts for many of calendar’s puzzles. The Christian calendar is Venn diagram of the lunar and solar years. The most ancient and solemn of the Church’s feasts, called Pascha in antiquity and still so named in Orthodoxy and Easter in English-speaking cultures, is a lunar calculation (Sunday after first full moon) with a solar qualifier (after the vernal equinox). Thus the date for Pascha, Easter, fluctuates, as festivals based on lunar calendars will do. Dates for Ash Wednesday, Ascension Day, and the Day of Pentecost all depend of the date of Easter.

There is strong indication, however, that some locales in Christian antiquity used a solar-calendar reckoning for Pascha. (Talley, cited above, argues this likelihood in detail.) The solar date so chosen was, you guessed it, on or about March 25. If so, then the Annunciation the more ancient feast than Christmas, whose date would have been calculated nine months prior to March 25. Christmas hence is rooted in the Pascal mystery.

Donne’s poem is a grand intuition of this historical likelihood, just as the Annunciation collect provides a Paschal relic in its wording. In any event, the angel’s whispering to the Virgin, and her assent, signaled God’s redemption of the world in the coming of the Word, who is God before all ages. Along with the cross and resurrection and all the rest, it is an atoning moment in what God is doing for the whole universe. It is a happy coincidence whenever Good Friday falls on March 25.


A new foray

Here begins my next adventure in blogging. My old site, 299 New Jerusalem, was at http://smith975.blogspot.com/. It’s still there. I posted from 2008-9, and it was mostly a travelogue. Determined to reengage, I decided to have another go at online posting but to abandon the effort to describe church meetings and trips. I intend now to write on occasional topics that interest me. That’s all. Most of the topics will still be about the church, but you should know that lots of other things interest me—dogs, bread, fermented vegetables, to name a few. I am giving myself permission to write more bluntly but (I hope) never rudely. Be forewarned.

I also determined to use WordPress and to splurge on a new domain name. Why? Because the name that I wanted was available, much to my surprise. There are, after all, so many Smiths and so little time. I expected that the domain would have been snatched up long ago by some other among the millions of Smiths in the world. The number 975 reminds me that I have been bishoping for a while now, and the consecration numbers for new bishops have long required four digits. We are around 1100 as I write. The sell-by date for any excuse at being new at this ministry has long since expired. This blog is one effort to see if I have anything to show for these years.