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Decently Writ XXVI: For Christmas-tide

January 3, 2021
William Holman Hunt, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1860)

The story of the child Jesus in the Temple (St. Luke 2:41 ff) is the second-option Gospel reading for the Second Sunday After Christmas both in the 1979 American Prayer-Book Lectionary and in the (unfortunate) Revised Common Lectionary. Its historic place in Anglican Prayer-Book lectionary cycles was invariably as the Gospel reading for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, and also the reading at Morning Prayer on the 27th Day of March.

Nahum Tate, English Poet Laureate from 1692 until his death in 1715 (and author of the beloved Christmas hymn “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”), penned The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation, which must surely be not only one of the most remarkable examples of Restoration-era Anglican devotional poetry, but also one of the most moving monologues placed in the mouth of the Virgin Mary in all of literature.

The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation,
when our Saviour, at twelve years of age, had withdrawn himself

Tell me, some Pitying Angel quickly say, 
Where does my Soul’s sweet Darling Stay? 
In Tyger’s, or more cruel Herod’s way? 
Ah! rather let his little Footsteps press 
Unregarded through the Wilderness, 
Where milder Savages resort, 
The desert’s safer than a Tyrant’s Court. 
Why, fairest Object of my Love, 
Why dost thou from my longing Eyes remove? 
Was it a Waking Dream, that did fortell thy Wondrous Birth? 
No Vision from above? 
Where’s Gabriel now, that visited my cell?
I call, I call: Gabriel! 
He comes not; flatt’ring Hopes, farewell.
Me Judah’s Daughters once caress’d. 
Call’d me of Mothers, the most bless’d. 
Now – fatal Change – of Mothers most distress’d. 
How shall my Soul its Motions guide? 
How shall I stem the various tide, 
Whilst Faith and Doubt my Lab’ring Soul divide? 
For whilst of thy dear Sight beguil’d, 
I trust the God, but oh! I fear the Child.

Equally remarkable is the musical setting of these words by Henry Purcell, which appeared in the Second Edition of his Harmonia Sacra in 1693. Taking as its starting point the sub-genre of the Restoration-era Theatre’s “Mad Song,” Purcell’s treatment is a masterpiece in miniature. And, as one expects from the pen of the British Orpheus, the music accentuates and underscores the deep anguish of the Virgin Mary, poignant already in Tate’s poetry, opening a window to the heart at prayer as only Purcell’s music can.

Here it is exquisitely sung by soprano Agnes Coakley Cox, accompanied by Nathaniel Cox on theorbo.

Preaching bands explained, II

March 30, 2020

NEARLY ten years after our original post, the Revd Dane Boston, rector of Christ Church in Cooperstown, N.Y., has given us his own reflections on the vestments, architecture, liturgy of the church.

Tell the story

December 25, 2018

On Christmas Day, York Minster does it right.



Evensong explained

May 24, 2018

An excellent historical and liturgical account of the “winning formula” that is Prayer Book Evening Prayer precedes a BBC broadcast of Evensong from York Minster. Making 1996 seem like a very long time ago indeed.

Decently habited, CCVII

February 16, 2018

The Rt Revd Dorsey McConnell blesses a chorister at St Andrew’s Church, Pittsburgh.


Ex Maria Virgine

December 25, 2017

On Christmas morning, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, does it right.


Decently habited, CCVI

December 21, 2017

The Norwich Cathedral Choir.


How it’s done, XXII

September 22, 2017


Church of St Mary Magdalene, Newark-on-Trent.

The use of a row of six candlesticks on the altar, or on a shelf or gradine behind it, is pure Romanism, and a defiance of the Ornaments Rubric, as of all other authority in the Church of England.1

In view of the still prevalent confusion on the subject of lights, it seems worth while to repeat that the universal pre-Reformation custom is at one with the post-Reformation English custom in using two lights on the altar, and no more.2

1. Percy Dearmer, The Parson’s Handbook, containing Practical Directions both for Parsons and other as to the Management of the Parish Church and its Services according to the English use, as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, With an Introductory Essay on Conformity to the Church of England (London: Henry Frowde, 1909), 96.
2. Ibid., 246.

The malady of the irrelevant

May 25, 2017

Episcopal-Church-signTHIS WEEK, I attended a meeting during which the rector of a parish and his staff reviewed the past program year. On the table were those things done well, and those things where improvement seemed warranted: a good exercise for any parish workforce.

I was surprised – perhaps naïvely – to find so much time devoted to what seemed largely symbolic and impractical concerns. One participant noted that only one of the church’s two main entrances has a handicapped ramp, leaving unsaid the fact that this ramp fronts the main parking area. What followed was a great deal of discussion of the various ways in which participants imagine that the parish marginalizes the unseen. No evidence was cited, mind you, and no concrete instances of unintentional discrimination were named. The analysis was an entirely speculative endeavor.

This may be, in some cases, all very well and good. But the speculative, and largely self-flagellating, discussion of the absent ramp almost entirely obscured the real area where improvement is needed. This parish, other than the Sunday liturgies, boasts almost no congregational life, and even less lay leadership. There are no foyer groups, no table fellowship, no inquirers’ classes. If a newcomer doesn’t want to be an acolyte, or if his children wish to attend Sunday school, that newcomer will find his interest in this parish unfulfilled, and many actual, flesh-and-blood newcomers have arrived and quickly departed for precisely these reasons. Enrichment of parish life – separate from the liturgy – seemed to offer the chance to work for substantive growth and is a topic on which hearty discussion ought to have been focused.

Two phenomena were on display in this staff meeting.

First was the rector and staff’s resistance to facing programmatic weaknesses head-on. Real improvement is hard, and it frequently involves breaking some eggs. Episcopalians are often more comfortable spending their way toward a solution than asking for human action. If ushers are unfriendly and annoying, rare is the rector who will speak to and, if necessary, dismiss them; much better instead to install new and more “welcoming” signage. It is easier to talk about buildings and grounds than about human behavior.

More insidious, however, was the bizarre combination of glee and dolefulness with which the conversation of the handicapped ramps unfolded. Many of the staff were unyielding in their belief that merely by existing, this parish was somehow, in some way, profoundly alienating to unseen seekers. The longer the conversation went on, the less it had to do with the needs of disabled visitors; what the staff were really engaged in was the ostensibly canonical ritual of corporate self-reproach and self-censure. The litany of Christendom’s sins was rehearsed, the correct responses were made, and the inevitable conclusion reached: We are oppressing those who never darken our door.

What an extraordinary conceit.

The Episcopal Church in the present day seems to want to do two things: (1) insist that it has given up its hegemonic past and now welcomes all people, and (2) function as if it must incorporate all people in a hegemonic way. These two impulses do not hang together easily, and they produce in what should be our fine old church an astonishing schizophrenia. We not only welcome all, we insist that all must be present, as if the Episcopal Church is the only game in town.

Some years ago, I knew a parish that rented its church and parish hall to a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregation on Sundays and several weekdays. This congregation and its members were cordial, respectful, and demonstrated not one iota of interest in joining the Episcopal Church. Many of our Episcopal schizophrenics would interject here: BUT OF COURSE. YOU WERE UNWELCOMING! The parish was no such thing, and the suggestion that of course everyone would want to become an Episcopalian were it not for our congenital inhospitality is a classic demonstration of the hegemonic instinct. There is a wide economy of churches, which the better ecumenists among us know, and these Pentecostals were quite content to nourish their own tradition on American soil. A few months later, when the local First Presbyterian Church closed its doors, the Pentecostals bought it up, and the next weekend, they were open for business, the parking lot packed to overflowing. Sadly, the Episcopal rector never reached out to find opportunities for shared ministry.

And yet in this parish as well the customary ritual of self-flagellation was oft undertaken, and with relish. Nevermind that an opportunity for real Christian ministry and engagement across lines of difference was literally two blocks away. Episcopalians seem desperately wedded to the notion that that they cannot help excluding others. In fact, they seem comforted by it.

All of which brings us back to conceit, and to the title of this post.

As Elesha Coffman argues, neither the Episcopal Church nor the Protestant mainline has ever been the norm in American Christianity. Even at its largest, the Episcopal Church never comprised more than a tiny fraction of the American population, and the fact that its members were disproportionately influential in public life actually indicates relatively little about the church itself. The prestige of its members conferred prestige on the church, not the other way around, at least not since the Revolution.

The church’s insistence that it is excluding outsiders is a sad and twisted fond hope, not a reality of any consequence. The best clubs have stable memberships and long waiting lists; the worst have signs on the road, announcing “Memberships Available.” I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to determine the company to which the modern Episcopal Church belongs.

If we say, We must be dying because we’re actively turning people away, even as we announce “Memberships Available,” then we get to feel perversely good about ourselves. Episcopalians’ persistent belief in our own exclusivity is a way of preserving a sense of our own prestige, not a way of undermining it. Prestige is comforting, maybe not in dark nights of the soul, but in parish and diocesan gatherings, and God knows at General Convention. Our conceit that we are exclusive and therefore desirable underpins the smug self-satisfaction that our Protestant peers lampoon and the unchurched are too indifferent to notice.

Absent that prestige, on which the Episcopal Church has too long been sustained, we would have to face the fearsome task of actual evangelism, of actual welcome, of preaching Christ, and him crucified. We would have to address the vacuum behind our Sunday morning liturgies, and many parishes lack even the elementary language with which to discuss this and the knowledge with which to effect it.

Episcopalians’ belief that we are exclusionary is vainglorious, and it is a straw man in the self-diagnosis that is always needed in any organization. Our excessive self-flagellation and bemoaning an exclusivity that we no longer possess clouds the church’s witness, and it is time to give up our protective conceit, which is the malady of the irrelevant.

Decently habited, CCV

May 4, 2017

The Revd Alan Carr, rector of St Giles-in-the-Fields, London.


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