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Hallo again to all.

Samuel ProvoostIn the late nineteenth century—we'll say 1886—an elderly historian who knew one of our now-departed elderly friends went in search of the impossible. He was keen to meet and speak with anyone who had known Samuel Provoost, first Bishop of New York, and third Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church. He was writing a biography, and he got lucky.

Samuel Provoost (1742-1815) is not one of the flashier, splashier, or more inspiring figures in the history of Anglicanism. He was Presiding Bishop for just under three years. He was, though, the first Episcopal Bishop of New York, and the first chaplain of the US Senate; he was an important early graduate of Columbia College. He comes away from the scant pages of history written about him as self-effacing, learned, a man of his times and circumstances, but more than a little reluctant, and a duller star than his contemporaries and successors William White, Samuel Seabury, John Henry Hobart, Philander Chase, and the like.

Our historian friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend made his way through the deeper reaches of upstate New York during the fading reign of Queen Victoria, turning up surprising caches of historical manuscripts and a wealth of material for his never-published biography.

Following a series of protracted correspondences with the older ecclesiastics of his region, he heard rumour of an elderly woman who had been confirmed by Provoost. He purposed to meet her, to ask her what she remembered of his now-distant episcopate, and to learn anything possible from a first-person informant.

Accordingly, he took coal-fired, steam-powered trains north and west with great urgency, and arrived at the home of the last-surviving confirmand of Bishop Provoost. After social niceties and introductions, a conversation took place of which the only surviving parts are such as follow:

He: 'What, precisely, do you remember about Bishop Provoost? Do you remember the sermon when he confirmed you? Was it during Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer? Was there a celebration of the Holy Communion? Do you remember his dress? Was there anyone else with him? Did he ever write you subsequently, or you him? What about the liturgical proceedings?'

She: [pause, v. long] 'I remember ... that he was very good at making fires. I think it was very warm in the church.'

He: 'Do you remember anything else at all?'

She: [pause] 'I remember ... that the good bishop was very good at making the fire.'

This is one of the richest ecclesiastical anecdotes we've ever been privy to learn, because it contains quite so little and quite so much.

A child-confirmand of the early 1800s remembered at the end of the century of her birth that a 'good bishop' was 'very good at making the fire'. She had no recollection of his doctrinal emphases or his habit; she doesn't mention that he took or didn't take snuff. She doesn't mention whether he was married, or knew Latin, or had a striking bookplate, or had ever been to England. But she remembered, at the very end of her own life, that one of the successors of the apostles was very good indeed at making the room more comfortable.

Though we strain ourselves at doctrinal precision, historical correctness, and good compliance with the apostle's direction that all things should be done 'decently and in order', what we would most like as our legacies, 70 years after our own deaths, is the clear recollection that we have made a room more comfortable.

In the course of our still-brief lives, we've known more than our share of ecclesiastics and churchfolk, and we've come to develop a keen sense of whose skills are where, whose soul is how oriented, or whose spiritual friendship and good company we want most. In our lay portion of the apostolic succession, we do our best to praise the lives, loves, and skills of them who are good at 'making the fire'. May their tribe flourish, and may we all feel their spiritual warmth.

See you next week.

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16 June 2013

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