Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Saint for Our Times

In the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church, today is the commemoration of James DeKoven, Priest (1831-1879). Father DeKoven was a leader among the second generation of the Oxford Movement in the U.S.--they were known as Ritualists. They advocated both for the recovery of a robust Catholic sacramental theology in Anglicanism, and for various liturgical and devotional practices associated with that theology (things that would strike most Episcopalians today as rather commonplace). DeKoven was elected to the episcopate by two different dioceses in consecutive years, but he was never consecrated because he failed to receive the required canonical consents. His Anglo-Catholic views were considered too controversial. Now he has his own day on the calendar--for the time being, at least: The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Church Music (SCLM) is in the process of revising Lesser Feasts and Fasts, not something that particularly bodes well for dead white males.

The irony of this commemoration occurring only a week or so after the election to the episcopate of another priest whose views are considered controversial by the mainstream of the Episcopal Church being nullified by the Presiding Bishop cannot be lost on the attentive observer. Like James DeKoven, the expectation of most is that Mark Lawrence will also be elected a bishop twice, in successive years, though by the same diocese. Whether he will will receive the necessary consents is still very much an open question--one that can only have been made murkier by this week's stunning behavior by the House of Bishops.

The General Convention of 1874 considered a canon that was aimed squarely at the Ritualists. It expressly forbade the display of a crucifix in places of public worship, the use of incense, the practice of elevating the bread and wine in the course of their consecration during the celebration of the Eucharist, and any other postures or gestures that would signify a belief in the objective corporeal presence of Christ in the consecrated elements. Dr DeKoven, a clerical deputy from the Diocese of Wisconsin was granted permission by the house to make this extended speech in opposition to the proposed canon. It was at the same time passionate, humble, and erudite, and it had to have consumed the better part of an hour, if not longer. It was a different era! In the end, the canon was passed, but in a much weaker form, one that DeKoven himself expressed an ability to vote for, save for his opinion that it was unconstitutional on technical grounds (that canons should not be used to interpret or trump rubrics).

The underlying basis of DeKoven's exhortation to the House of Deputies was a sense of the fundamental identity of the Episcopal Church as transcending the institutional mechanisms by which it incarnates itself and does business. He challenged the church, represented in convention, to simply be itself, to live up to its identity as part of the Holy Catholic Church scattered across space and time. He correctly and wisely--though with irenicism of a sort to which we should all aspire--called the convention to account for overstepping its own bounds, for arrogating to itself the liberty of defining cardinal doctrines of the faith through majority votes following political parliamentary processes. Nearly 130 years ago, there were already General Convention supremacists lurking about, and James DeKoven won his place in history by exposing their shaky foundation.

Let's just hope the SCLM doesn't read my blog!


ErikC said...

Fr. Dan,

It is interesting how history repeats itself, is it not? I, too, will look with interest and see if Fr. Lawrence will be elected and confirmed by the HOD(hopefully, this time). My hope that a good man like Fr. Lawrence will be the next bishop of South Carolina.

Anonymous said...

Saint James DeKoven pray for us!