À la recherche de l’ECUSA perdue

Once more, dim wavering figures from the past,
You come, who once rose to my troubled eyes.
Shall I attempt this time to hold you fast?
Does my heart tend where the illusion lies?
You crowd up. Good, then. Rule my will at last,
As from the mists around me you arise.
I feel youth’s impulse grip my heart again
At the enchantment wafting from your train.
You bring along the scenes from happy days,
And many well-loved shadows rise to view;
And, as in olden, half-forgotten lays,
First love and early friendships rise anew;
The labyrinthine tangles of life’s ways
Are with fresh lamentation threaded through,
With kind folk brought to mind who of fair light
Were robbed by fate, and vanished from my sight.

From Goethe, Faust, “Dedication” (trans. Charles Passage)


I did most of my growing up in the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York. In my experience, most people (if they’re not New Yorkers) think, when they hear the words “upstate New York,” of White Plains and Westchester, or perhaps sad cities like Troy or Buffalo, or dreary small towns like those depicted in Nobody’s Fool. But as all true apple-knockers know, in the fall Route 17 from Binghamton to Bear Mountain is one of the most beautiful drives in America, and my own particular part of the state, the Finger Lakes region, is truly God’s country. In my college days, I once took a foreign friend—an Italian Russian Orthodox priest (it’s a long story)—to my home to see the lake in my back yard, and he exclaimed “It is just like Switzerland!”

The diocese once had a conference and retreat center on one of those lakes, Thornfield on Lake Cazenovia. It was a beautiful place, or so my rose-tinted memories have it. Certainly it was at one time one of the most important places on earth for me. During high school, I attended youth conferences at Thornfield that were an emotional high and that left such a deep impression on me that every now and then, when I least expect it, a stab of memory will fill my heart. Every summer for a week and every winter for a weekend, I got to spend time with other kids from around the diocese, kids who didn’t know that back home I was a jerk. Thus freed from the baggage of our respective high school contexts and brought together from Watertown to Binghamton, we talked, prayed and engaged in various “sensitivity training” exercises that were au courant at the time. Perhaps it was of God; or perhaps it came from a combination of the era (late 60’s, early 70’s) and the power of a communal release from the unbearable isolation of adolescence—but we loved each other; and for a slightly nerdy and socially awkward boy whose mind was usually lost in a mixture of Marvel comics, Robert E. Howard and Tolkien, those youth conferences were a time when, during the long agonies of high school, I was, for a little while, deeply and unreservedly happy. And, whatever one makes of some of the activities of those conferences—“sensitivity training” has gotten mixed reviews over the ensuing decades—that happiness was made possible by my church, the significance of which was not lost on me.

That was well over thirty years ago. Since then, Thornfield declined, falling into such a state of disrepair that the diocese could not afford to restore it. I felt a pang when I heard that the buildings had been torn down, and that the diocese was seeking to sell the property.

  • I am a total Columbia product, from BA to PhD, a process that took . . . well, that took a lot longer than it should have. When I arrived at Columbia in 1972 as a freshman (which was a bit like coming to town after the circus had just left), although raised in a clergy family and probably more familiar with matters theological and liturgical than the average high school graduate, I did not have a particularly specific Anglican identity, or at least not one of which I was concious. But I spent my freshman year living in a residence hall run by Opus Dei (yes, that Opus Dei—the place was closed shortly afterwards, thanks in part to my own troublemaking, but that’s another long story). There I met some of my more enduring college friends, including Michael Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae and other graduates of Jesuit academies (“Give us a boy till he’s seven and he’s our for life”). Living with unashamedly Tridentine Catholics while attending classes with so many Jews and reading through Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum, I naturally found myself exploring issues of faith and looking to my own church for guidance.

    Thus over the years I either attended or belonged to several of the Episcopal churches that seem to litter Manhattan. Just down the street from Columbia, of course, was the Cathedral of St John the Divine, and in fairness I must say that the cathedral community treated me kindly, particularly at the critical moment when I was thrown out of my Opus Dei residence. But after a couple of years I could no longer stand the cathedral regime of that day, and so began my Episcopal pilgrimage, generally heading ever further south. I paid for part of my junior year by singing in the choir of St Bartholomew’s on Park Avenue, and might have continued had the musical taste of the choir director not been so dreadful. I belonged for a time to St Thomas on Fifth and fifty-third, and I still have the German New Testament that Fr. John Andrew gave me when he learned I was studying die deutsche Sprache. St Michael’s, All Saints, Saint Mary’s, Transfiguration (“The Little Church Around the Corner”), et multae ceterae ecclesiae were all visited or explored.

    But my last parish in New York, for which I have the fondest memories, was Grace Church, a beautiful Renwick Gothic revival church all the way down in Soho on Broadway and tenth and just a few blocks from the greatest used-book store on earth, the Strand (“Eight Miles of Books”). A remarkable revival had begun at Grace under Fitzsimons Allison and Paul Zahl, and a large congregation that included many young professionals and theater people gathered there both on Sundays and for the weeknight meeting of prayer groups. I have been critical of some of the ideas of Fitz Allison and Paul Zahl on one or two blogs, but their success at Grace Church cannot be denied (Paul was particularly helpful to me at a time when my personal life was a bit of a mess), and if I have come to differ with them, I must admit that my conclusions were often the result of their stimulation of my mind. Moreover, the prayer groups they organized were wonderful, and my own became for a time the focal point of my spiritual life. So to Fred and Patricia, Fran, Bruce, Deirdre, Darlene, Miwah, Shirley and all the rest of Prayer Group Seven, you still hold a special place in my heart, though we be separated by years and distance.

    An e-mail correspondent has told me that the revival at Grace Church has since been extinguished, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of the bishop. I have no first-hand knowledge of this, and I pray he is mistaken, but it would not surprise me. The lights keep going out everywhere, it seems.

  • It is a strange thing to find myself now in a parish that still uses the 1928 Prayer Book. Certainly that was not the reason I joined it, and I was not looking for that when I did.

    I grew up in the age of liturgical revision in the Episcopal Church, from pamphlets to the Green Book to the Zebra Book to the Blue Book to the 1979 Prayer Book. I remember the late Bishop Terwilliger, while faulting the new book on points of style, nevertheless declaring it a “catholic triumph,” presumably for such things as its inclusion of a rite of confession, the Holy Week services, and its eucharistic emphasis. How strange now that it is mostly evangelicals who are dedicated to its use! At least, such is my impression. Perhaps it is the ’79 book’s greater flexibility, one that allows parishes to insert or adapt pretty much as they please.

    But while the ’79 book has much to commend it—Massey Shepherd would, I suppose, be proud—it has indeed, as Peter Toon insists, created a ball of confusion and left a coherent Anglican liturgical identity dead on the roadside. Why else all the insistence by so many dissident Anglicans on the 1662 BCP as the liturgical formulary of Anglicanism? (And why 1662? Why not 1928? No, not the American 1928, but the English 1928, the book passed by the C of E but that failed by only one vote in Parliament?) I won’t repeat the many and various criticisms made of the ’79 book, except to point out the repeated insistence by revisionist Episcopalians that “inclusion” of LGBT folk is necessitated by the “baptismal covenant,” an invention of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. That ought to be a clue of something to someone.

    However, quite apart from any unhappiness with the ’79 Prayer Book, I find that coming now to a steady Sunday diet of the 1928 BCP is strangely satisfying in a way that is hard for me to identify. It certainly isn’t nostalgia, nor am I aware of any liturgical neo-conservatism nascent within me. Perhaps the 1928 book fosters a greater sense of continuity with the past than the 1979. Of course, it was the claim of the ’79 revisers that the new book was based more carefully on patristic sources. But even if that were true (and there are those who would argue otherwise), the specifically ancient tid-bits (e.g., the trisagion or Eucharistic Prayer D) feel distinctly artificial, as does the lectionary, whereas the 1928 Prayer Book, though more directly descended from a book born of the greatest liturgical turmoil in the history of Christianity, somehow seems more organic in its connection to pre-Reformation England. In any case, it is easier for me now to understand the intense devotion some still have to it, a devotion that cannot be explained away by some bloody-minded, knee-jerk conservatism (though there is plenty of that to go around).

  • There has been a lot of internet traffic (I won’t say quarreling) among traditionalist Episcopalians about the future of Anglicanism in North America, particularly since the meeting of the Anglican Communion Network at the end of July, the evolution of its alliance with the Common Cause partners, and the resignation of Ephraim Radner from the ACN. For awhile, posts and counter-posts from Matt Kennedy, Ephraim Radner, Philp Turner, Robert Munday, Stephen Noll, FitzSimons Allison, et alii seemed everywhere. (If you want links, just type any of those names into the keyword search boxes of TitusOneNine or StandFirm.) Further troubling of the waters has stemmed from the recent consecrations of more American bishops by African churches—I’ve lost track of how many. When I sat down to write this post, I thought it was that to which I would respond. Briefly, I find the distinction between “communion conservatives” and “federal conservatives” unhelpful and misleading, particularly when this distinction is somehow linked with that between “catholic” and “evangelical” Anglicans. Such linkage makes no sense, at least to me.

    But instead, by psychological mechanics which I do not understand, the memories and impressions given above are what emerged from my keyboard. If the reader finds it all suffocatingly subjective, never fear. I shall turn (or return) to other matters soon, particularly once the meeting of the House of Bishops is over and we head to the post-September 30 fate of Anglicanism. For now . . .

    I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times.I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search.

    Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more?

    Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fail for evermore?

    Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies? Selah.

    And I said, This is my infirmity: but I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High.

    I will remember the works of the LORD: surely I will remember thy wonders of old.

    Psalm 77: 5-11

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    2 Responses to “À la recherche de l’ECUSA perdue”

    1. Jacqueline King Says:

      I had a “Thornfield” memory recently and googled it as a result. I found you from that search. I attended one week in 1971 as a 13 year old girl from Adams, New York.
      May I ask who you are?


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      À la recherche de l’ECUSA perdue | Rather Not Blog

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