By Mark Michael

Generally, we don’t review self-published books in our pages. Lacking professional editors, such volumes often suffer from internal repetitiveness, poor or outdated argumentation, and grammatical incoherence. Self-published books also tend toward idiosyncrasy, bathed in the peculiar passions of their authors.

Dozens of self-publishing Episcopal authors write to me every year, sometimes with a dauntless persistence that would be the envy of any commission-paid literary agent. I’m mostly firm on the policy, but I have a bit of a soft spot for the good storyteller and the dogged church historian. This Spring Book issue, I’m pleased to showcase a few recent discoveries — alongside a preview of our own (arguably) self-published series, Living Church Books, about which stay tuned.

Mary Foster Hutchinson, author of How the Faith Came to Texas, told me her project was sparked years ago when she came upon two precocious acolytes arguing over whether Episcopalianism started with Henry VIII’s divorce. Hutchinson, a nonagenarian stalwart at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, comes down firmly in the camp that favors a much earlier, apostolic lineage.

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Her tale wends from the prehistoric rise of the Celts to the intrepid James Alexander Gregg, the fifth man asked to serve as missionary bishop to Texas and the first one brave enough to hazard it, in 1859. As church historians go, Hutchinson is more in the line of Geoffrey of Monmouth than Justo González or Diarmaid MacCulloch. All the old churchly and Texan legends have a moment in the spotlight: Joseph of Arimathea and the Grail; the Welsh princess Gladys, who could just possibly be mentioned in 2 Timothy; Columba dispelling the Loch Ness Monster and Boniface chopping down the Oak of Geismar; Queen Elizabeth the peacemaker and Samuel Seabury the persistent; the piper at the Alamo and Richard Salmon, chaplain to Sam Houston and Stephen Austin.

Hutchinson writes with confidence, touching nearly every figure in Western history that a sixth-grader might know, and evincing a steady trust in the gospel and gratitude for our “goodly heritage.” Sure, it could use some nuance, but wise teachers know that we can only faithfully critique those things we have first learned to love.

A narrower, but similarly bullish, story is Phyllis Kester’s Historic Church Serves Big City, an account of the wide-ranging ministry of St. Andrew’s Church in Denver, which will celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2024. St. Andrew’s is one of the region’s historic Anglo-Catholic outposts, located on a perpetually scrappy side of downtown.

Kester’s tale is mostly biographical, profiling the ministries of four of the church’s long-serving rectors. Neil Stanley introduced Anglo-Catholic ceremonial and a daily Mass on his 1919 arrival, at a time when the Ku Klux Klan dominated city government. He held firm when disgruntled parishioners associated the new measures with what one called “the political machine, known as the Roman Catholic Church.” Under the eventual leadership of the Sisters of St. Anne, the parish launched remarkable ministries among consumptives, polio victims, and children being relocated West on the Denver Orphan Train.

A later rector, John Marr Stark, transformed the clergy house into a Crisis Center for countercultural youth in 1969. He housed over a thousand young people a month, hosted innovative “Love Masses,” and helped many reconcile with their families. He later founded the Order of the Holy Family, a mostly male community whose members included TLC’s frequent contributor Father Charles Hoffacker, then Brother Seraphim. He appears in full tonsure and the order’s denim habit in one of the book’s photos. The brothers prayed six offices a day and painted the church walls in neo-medieval murals, while caring sacrificially for a continuing stream of young transients, some of whom found Christ and sobriety.

Disagreements gradually emerged, and the intense work of ministry left the aging buildings in shambles. After 15 years, the community largely disbanded as Stark decamped for Santa Fe, remarking: “Either we’re underfunded or overprogrammed, and I suspect it’s both.” Later leaders maintained the St. Andrew’s tradition of sacramental worship and ministry (at a more sustainable pace) to marginalized persons, especially those suffering with AIDS.

Our Aunt: Low Church Observations on American Anglo-Catholicism offers a series of passion-infused vignettes on congregational life in the 1930s and 1940s from an unusual angle. Their author, Alexander Griswold Cummings, was an influential church politico with “an extreme antipathy to Anglo-Catholicism,” in the words of editor (and TLC stalwart) Richard Mammana. From his rectory in Poughkeepsie, New York, Cummings published The Chronicle, a monthly journal with an international readership, one regular feature in which was the column “Our Aunt.”

The columns purport to relate the peregrinations of a Manhattan penthouse-dwelling grandee and her nephew to various Anglo-Catholic churches and convents, mostly around the city and its outer reaches. Festal ceremonies are related in elaborate detail, purportedly to shock readers of The Chronicle, though one could probably restage the pontifical high Mass celebrated by “The Bishop of Coney Island” or “the Nashotah twist” (a method of altar censing) using the columns alone.

The impossibly ancient aunt, an inveterate name-dropper (she punted on the Isis with Blessed Pusey and Keble and played cards with Arthur Tooth while he was imprisoned for violating the Ritual Act), is a font of waspish humor, mostly at the expense of the “priestlets” who dread her arrival at their struggling parishes. Her impeccable Tractarian credentials (she spends her spare time stitching gremials for West Indian bishops while humming Coptic canticles) might authenticate her disgust for the Rome-aping Anglo-Catholicism then in vogue. Surely, no one could be better positioned to pronounce, as she does in every other column, that “the Catholic Movement has ceased to move.”

The critiques of “Our Aunt” are familiar. An earlier generation’s passion for social service has been set aside by clergy “who care more about the cut of copes and the height of the predella than they do about the cure of souls.” A passion for all things Roman betrays Anglicanism’s comprehensive ethos and opens the door to cheap and tacky accoutrements and gullible superstition. Then there’s the bugbear of liturgical conformity and perennially tricky questions of authority and private judgment. When her nephew asks just what Anglo-Catholics mean when they refer to “the Church,” she responds, “Don’t ask embarrassing questions.”

At her grumpiest, our aunt is certain that there is simply no future for the kind of Anglicanism that she says has formed her so deeply. “People want simple religion today,” she reports, “and not many will accept medieval customs.” As evidence, she frequently details how congregations are shrinking, and even manages to visit one tiny mission on its last Sunday before amalgamation. Trinity Church Wall Street, which continued financing Anglo-Catholic chapels in many of New York’s poorest (and least Anglo-Saxon) neighborhoods as the Great Depression raged on, is often warned about just how lousy the returns on its investments are.

The more I read, the more my sympathies warmed for the targets of her invective, and not just because they belong to my tribe (more than one of the crumbling chapels had a stack of The Living Church on the back table). Church attendance was falling across the country in the 1930s and ’40s, especially among the poor, whom these churches were specifically designed to reach. All were “free churches,” relying on congregational giving instead of pew rents for finance, at a time when mass unemployment left many of the faithful without a dime to spare. A few of the churches she reviles had been founded as part of the Episcopal Church’s short-lived “Italian Mission,” an attempt to provide spiritual support for the 2 million peasants from Sicily and Calabria who flooded the U.S. in the first decade of the 20th century. Mission priests set up statues and donned fiddlebacks not just to be “as Roman as ravioli” on principle but because such practices evoked the spiritual world their charges had left behind.

Less than half of the churches and religious houses chronicled in Our Aunt survive. Using Google Maps, I found that a few of the buildings remain — one as a community center, another as a Spanish Pentecostal church, in still-marginal neighborhoods where the Episcopal Church has had no presence of any kind for generations.

Maybe this vindicates our aunt’s confident judgments about a promising movement wrecked by sloth, extremism, and obscurantism. But the Anglo-Catholicism that seemed so sweepingly successful a few generations earlier may also have been, like Father Stark’s St. Andrew’s of the 1970s, “overprogrammed and underfunded.” Many of the “priestlets” savaged by our aunt were surely trying their best, at a time (like today) when very little seemed to work as it had before. They grappled with self-doubt, asking, “Is it me, or everything else that’s falling apart?”

Reading Our Aunt also forced me to reassess some of the stories I tell myself about the decline of the Episcopal Church I love and serve. On my worst days, I might savor creating such satire, with a different kind of churchmanship in my sights. I have my own (surely well-considered) opinions about ugly mid-century church fittings, virtue signaling from the pulpit, and Enriching Our Worship. I could document how long it takes certain churches to pass the peace.

Numbers, though, are not always barometers of authenticity. Faithful mission sometimes comes at the expense of seemingly successful pastoral work. And if risks are the way of the Spirit, that’s no guarantee that they will always succeed, as Ephraim Radner’s latest tome persuasively argues. In times of chaos, we need one another more than ever.

If Christianity Today’s recent survey is true, the “getting back to normal” stage of the pandemic is over. The American church is smaller — 33 percent smaller among the mainline; 14 percent smaller if you count online attendees. COVID-19’s impact is set to surpass that of the Great Depression, the sexual revolution, and youth soccer. This will mark an existential crisis for many of our churches, especially those that serve more marginal populations.

About a year ago, TLC began including the names of churches that have closed in our People & Places column. In some cases, these mark secularizations of buildings, as congregations merged with others or moved to shared spaces. We discussed the change in editorial meetings, and worried that some would read the names as “downers,” or signposts on the road to irrelevance.

But for those who use People & Places as a prayer list, it is fitting to remember these congregations before God: to thank him for the passion he placed in the hearts of their founders, and ask that those who knew them as home will find new places to grow in grace and service. In God’s good providence, long-shuttered chapels, nascent plants, and perduring outposts all bear witness to the one who, mysteriously, bids us scatter seed that surely sprouts and grows, we know not how (see Mark 4:27).

About The Author

Fr. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland. A native of rural Western Maryland, he is a graduate of Duke University and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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