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Hallo again to all.

An old story about a student at the University of Cambridge goes like this: During an examination, the student demanded that the proctor follow ancient university regulations and bring him cakes and ale. The proctor complied, but then slapped the student with a £5 fine for not wearing a sword. Although likely not true, it's an amusing and light-hearted demonstration of the consequences of cultural evolution in ancient organisations.

Change is part of civilisation. And long-lived organisations don't always keep up with changes in the surrounding culture. This report from the Revd Bosco Peters in Christchurch, New Zealand, about the incredible red tape impeding the correction of a spelling error in the prayer book psalter is one example. We shared the indignation of a Canadian priest who was approached by a visitor identifying himself as a 'lecturer in liturgics' at a theological college in another country, letting her know that her liturgical actions were 'confused' because sometimes she did things in an Anglo-catholic manner and sometimes she did not. The first home of the Church of the Advent, Boston, Massachusetts(We think that she would have been within her rights to whack him with a thurible.)

Other examples might make us smile now, but they were deadly serious during their time. Return with us to a very warm November day in 1845 in the city of Boston:

Place: Boston, Church of the Advent (The first home of the parish was a room over a shop; see image to the right.)

Time: Just after a service of confirmation

Players: Manton Eastburn, Bishop of Massachusetts; William Croswell, Rector; Mr Pollard, Curate

Liturgical notes: During the service, the bishop and the priest were at opposite sides of the 'holy table'; the bishop being at the north end. The curate was on the same side of the chancel as the rector. The curate read the lesson and during the prayers, he 'knelt down with his face towards the corner of the holy table'.

The rector narrates: After the congregation had begun to retire, I went over to the side of the chancel where the bishop was standing and wiping the perspiration from his face, and made some allusion to the heat. I said that the room had been often over-crowded and that we were suffering for want of a church.

To this he replied by an impatient waving of his hand towards the windows, as if they should have been further let down. After the aisles were further cleared, I told the bishop that we could then get to the robing room at the opposite end, if he wished. He said that he did not like to expose himself to a change of air until he was cooler, or something to that effect.

Bishop Manton Eastburn
Bishop Manton Eastburn

Presently he said, with an abruptness and severity of manner that startled me, "Mr Pollard, what did you say 'Saint' Titus for? Why can't you say 'Titus', as everybody else does?" Mr Pollard said he did not know, but others said as he did.

Bishop: "No, sir, never. The apostles are called saints, and no others. We don't say Saint Mary. And why do you kneel in that way, half a mile off from the table? I have spoken to you often enough about these mummeries, at Nantucket. These things give pious people great offence".

Curate: 'How would you have me kneel, sir?'

Bishop: 'Turn to your chair and kneel there'.

Curate: 'I do but conform to the usage of the place'.

Bishop: 'No, you don't; Mr Croswell did not kneel in that way'.

Rector: 'Bishop, Mr Pollard kneels according to our ordinary usage. When a third clergyman is present and prefers to take one end of the altar, for symmetry's sake, I generally take the other'.

The bishop expressed great surprise, as if he had heard this for the first time. (A clergyman of Boston has since told me that he had explained by word and attitude to the bishop, the very night before, in reply to his very particular inquiries, our precise manner of conducting the service, and place and mode of kneeling.)

Bishop: 'Mr Croswell, I am very much surprised at this. I should not have expected it of you. What is the use and meaning of it? Why kneel down half a mile off, and not come up at once to the table? I can understand why a Romish priest should do so. The host is there. But what have we on the table to worship?'

Rector: 'It is my conviction that our method ministers to reverence'.

Bishop: 'I think as much of reverence as anyone, but I abhor superstition!'

Rector: 'Bishop, Mrs Barbauld tells us, that there is a class of person who have a superstitious dread of superstition."

Without noticing my reply, the bishop went on in a rapid and disconnected way to allude to the danger of conformity to Romish usages, of the consequences of these innovations from England, of Mr Newman's apostasy. I assured him that I had no more sympathies with Romanism than himself. He spoke of the English country churches, and King's Chapel in this city, as in contrast to ours. I observed that our little hall was hardly to be compared to his own church or any others; but I thought that on comparison with places of worship of the same size, I knew of none that was better arranged or where he himself appear to better advantage in his ministrations.

He interrupted me to say, that at East Boston, where he had officiated the Sunday evening previous, I should be astonished to see how easy it was to give a room, which was merely a long narrow store, a truly ecclesiastical air. They had there pulpit, desk, and a communion table, although they had far less room than we had. I told him that I had been much interested in that enterprise, had officiated there twice, and administered the communion for the first time, but could not conceal my surprise that he should suggest it as a model: that there were three structures in the chancel on the same level, looking to a stranger like three little red altars.

The bishop then called attention to our large cross, candlesticks, shelf, etc. as indicative of our affinities with Rome.

Bishop: 'If an Irishman were to come in here and see that cross, he would kneel down to it at once, in the aisle. He would think that he was in a Roman Catholic chapel. It looks like one'.

Rector: 'Without the "Roman," your remark is true. It certainly does look like a Catholic Chapel'.†

Not long after this incident, the bishop refused to return to the Church of the Advent to perform any episcopal functions and a long and bitter dispute began between the parish and the diocese. It continued for some years and eventually lead to the development of a canon in the Episcopal Church that mandates a diocesan bishop visit a parish in his diocese once every three years at the minimum. This long-gone battle in Boston, which cost spirits and lives, now seems to us an absurd matter of furniture and posture.

Since the earliest days, the church has had faithful servants who could not reconcile contemporary society with their views of what the church should be. Sometimes such people separate themselves into closed societies, such as the Quakers or the Amish, holding to a standard of purity unattainable, they judge, in the world. Sometimes people break away and form what they see as truer and more authentic forms of the communion or denomination they leave; in England, the 'Free Church of England' was formed in 1844 in response to what was seen as excessive Anglo-Catholicism. For the rest of us, more closely linked to the cultures we live in, the practices of the church must acknowledge cultural evolution or the entire church will become like the Stylites — pillar saints — putting itself on a pillar and shutting out the world below.

See you next week. Right here on the ground.

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Last updated: 13 August 2006

†From The Church of the Advent: First Years by John T. Maltsberger

(Click for the 1 August update on Cynthia's cancer.)

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