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Communion tokenHallo again to all.

It is impossible—or at least inadvisable—to think about Anglicanism in South Africa, Australia, or western Canada without thinking in the same breath of Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts. She was not one of the indefatigable schoolteacher-nurse-missionaries of the nineteenth-century. Nor was she married to one of the heroic clerical missionaries who did so much between about 1700 and 1950 to shape a communion whose bonds of affection were fortified by Evensong, tea, lawn sleeves, gaiters, the Church Times, and God Save the Queen (or, occasionally, the King) sung in Mota, Swahili, Maori, or even English. Nor was she a novelist like Charlotte Yonge, writing in popular fiction of alternative universes shot-through with Church Principles.

Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts was a baroness, born by divine accident into a banking family whose name became synonymous in the nineteenth century with extreme wealth. Gilbert and Sullivan's utopian vision in The Gondoliers paired the Coutts name with the supposed ignominy of bootblacking as a way of calling to contemporary minds an impossible incongruity of high and low:

They all shall equal be!
The Earl, the Marquis, and the Duke
The Groom, the Butler and the Cook
The Artistocrat who banks with Coutts,
The Aristocrat who cleans the boots
The Noble Lord who rules the State
The Noble Lord who scrubs the grate!

With the three million pounds sterling she inherited as a 23-year-old, our Burdett-Coutts changed the world she lived in. She founded covered outdoor markets in London; sponsored soup kitchens and adequate housing for the burgeoning population of urban poor in nineteenth-century England; was among the founding members of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; purchased church bells for St Paul's Cathedral, London; bought lifeboats for merchant seamen; founded schools; built outdoor drinking fountains for dogs; fought human trafficking by offering educational and medical care for prostitutes; opened sewing schools for women put out of work by textile factories; and served as president of the British Beekeepers Association for nearly three decades. It is hard to find an area of philanthropy in which she did not make an effort to improve the lives of those around her by sharing some of the substance of her own.

Most importantly for our purposes, the baroness endowed on permanent footing the dioceses of Cape Town, Adelaide, and British Columbia. When legal or ecclesiastical problems connected with church life in the colonies were too consuming for others to take action, we find her agitating personally for church and state to move immediately in establishing adequate religious structures for the expanding British Empire. These dioceses—and the provinces to which they would in turn give birth—remain vital religious institutions whose origins are in the captivating eyes and irrepressible soul of a devout lay Anglican.*

One has the sense that the baroness was often acting in the hope that her actions would encourage others to act likewise. But it never did become a fad to endow colonial bishoprics. And as much as we wonder what the Anglican Communion would look like today if the sort of gentle Burdett-Coutts spirit that still pervades Cape Town, Adelaide and British Columbia were more widespread, tonight we rest in thanks and wonder rather than questions or regret.

The wonder of the baroness's life is not that she was wealthy, or that she lavished fortune and interest on the weak and promising who crossed her path. The wonder is that she was 'made of gold' on the inside, taking to heart the sort of wisdom in adages like Bloom where you're planted and Brighten the corner where you are. With wonderful consistency, she found places where love was not yet, and gave her might to ensure that it always would be.

Oh, and Gilbert and Sullivan were wrong. We had a chance to see the handiwork of a bootblack on Tuesday morning this week, just before boarding a plane. He was in the process of transforming dirty shoes into gleaming, beautiful, bright, new, fragrant things that bore little resemblance to the tired shells they were before. Like Angela Georgina, he did this with his careful, focussed attention, the best thing any of us can share. He brightened the corner where we were, and we're quite sure that the baroness would count herself in fine company with this aristocrat who cleans the boots. May his tribe, and hers, increase.

See you next week, whether you bank with Coutts or clean the boots. Totes.

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Last updated: 2 May 2010

* For all her devotion, she lived a bit outside the social norms of her day. At 67, she married her 29-year-old secretary to the shock of polite society; she had shared her life before this for 52 years with Hannah Meredith.

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